The game pulls you in by dangling a cash prize, offers manic highs and seething frustrations in quick succession, then dumps you out, usually empty-handed. But the HQ refractory period — six to 18 hours — is just long enough to relax you into a state of optimism about playing again. It’s dystopian “Jeopardy!”: not the trivia game we wanted, but the one we deserve.
HQ is based on an enticing proposition: It turns our phones, those founts of infinite knowledge, into a rare site of human recall. (Because questions are set on a 10-second clock, answers are generally un-Googleable.) But while the game purports to test legitimate knowledge, the questions are so frequently absurd that it comes closer to testing your undivided attention to mindless tapping. If you answer a question correctly, you still get that high of intellectual superiority. The Darwinian aspect — watch hundreds of thousands of people get eliminated as you rise — fosters a gleeful arrogance for as long as you’re on top.
But when you get a question wrong, you’re granted plausible deniability. If you can’t finish the crossword, it feels like a personal failure. But when you lose HQ — which the vast majority of players do the vast majority of the time — it often seems arbitrary and unfair, the fault of the unskilled question writers or the unsophisticated technology. It’s not you. It’s the game. And even if you do win, the big-sounding prizes — $1,000, $2,000, $10,000 — are often reduced to pocket change when split among the sometimes hundreds of other people who also won the game. HQ is a little app that channels big feelings about the fundamental lie of the meritocracy. Every session becomes an opportunity to rail against life’s injustices.
The avatar for all those feelings is Scott Rogowsky, the game’s usual host and its breakout star. Scott — players know him on a first-name basis — has been nicknamed “Quiz Daddy” by his fans. He calls his players “HQties.” On first viewing, Scott can come across as incredibly annoying. The moments in the game between the actual presentation of questions — when Scott is explaining the rules, making jokes, or dropping Phish references — can be excruciating. But after a few plays, Scott ingratiates himself into your psyche in a third-grade crush kind of way. Only after playing a game without Scott — a rotating…