Every night, a million people are ushered into a waiting room, where primal, hypnotic music lulls them into a trance.
Then, suddenly the music changes. It is foreboding. A clock begins counting down from two minutes and 18 seconds. When the countdown ends, a gregarious host bursts forth, surrounded by a swirl of bright colors. The game has begun.
The contestants must battle wits. One wrong step means elimination, and the casualties come fast—hundreds of thousands going at once. The game ends as suddenly as it came, finished in 15 minutes, with the survivors being crowned “champions.” They split the day’s spoils, which can be as little as a few cents. When it’s all done, less than one percent of those who started are left standing.
It sounds like something out of a dystopian future. But this isn’t fiction or even the future.
It’s now. It’s free. It’s on your phone.
It’s called HQ Trivia.
* * * * *
I don’t know how HQ Trivia wound up on my phone, or when it did. I don’t remember hearing about it, or thinking about getting it. All I recall is sitting down to my first game, and being hooked immediately.
The game’s addictiveness is in its simplicity. Games are held daily at 9 p.m. and every weekday at 3 p.m. Playing at the same time as a million users around the world, you have 10 seconds to answer a multiple-choice question. Answer incorrectly, and you’re eliminated. You continue until you get a question wrong or win the game. Most shows last for 12 questions, and participants who answer every question correctly split the game’s prize. Prizes have grown since HQ launched last summer, with most pots now being $5,000.
And herein lies the game’s allure. You watch thousands of normal people—people surely no smarter than you or me—win real money for the simple task of answering 12 trivia questions, and wonder, “Why can’t that be me?” So, you tune in every night for the chance to prove your worth. Before you know it, you’re basing your entire schedule around a free mobile game.
People really hate to miss HQ. They are playing HQ at sporting events, concerts and family get-togethers. One man posted a photo on social media of himself in a hospital bed, playing HQ moments after suffering a heart attack. So many people were playing the weekday 3 p.m. games that some offices now stop all business to allow employees to play the game together, hoping to squeeze some team-building and levity from all that wasted productivity.
But, for something beloved by millions, there is shockingly little known about the app or its developer, Intermedia Labs. We don’t know the origin or significance of the HQ name. HQ doesn’t have a website—the app’s web URL redirects to Apple’s App Store. Intermedia Labs’ one-page website has no mention of HQ, instead saying the company “develops time and cost-effective customized applications that help organizations address functional gaps and achieve business goals effectively.”
Neither HQ’s App Store page or Intermedia’s website indicates a physical base for the company, although Google Maps shows Intermedia Labs at a nondescript building on Spring Street in New York.
HQ hasn’t been forthcoming about the source of its funding either, but giving away thousands of dollars daily can’t be its plan for long-term success. HQ’s investors have to be buying into something greater than the app in its current state.
Co-founders Colin Kroll and Rus Yusupov, who worked at Twitter and created video app Vine, have played things close to the vest intentionally. But the secretiveness has caused some alarm because HQ has begun to evolve. In the last few weeks, companies have started partnering with HQ in attempts to use the show as advertising.
It’s a tempting platform. HQ offers the undivided attention of a million people nightly for 15 minutes—and at a price surely not yet as high as traditional advertising. Nike gave away pairs of sneakers to the winners of its sponsored show. Warner Bros. has twice sweetened the pot in attempts to promote its films. The movie Rampage sponsored a show on April 11, for example, that gave away $300,000 in prize money. Each winner received $3,614.
Millions of people lined up for a shot at the cash April 11, answering questions on subjects tangentially related to the film: weight-lifting, video games, primates. Executives drool for this kind of gamified, interactive marketing. It’s not hard to see the potential—and power—HQ has.
But should we trust HQ? And at what price?
Those are questions that don’t have answers yet.
* * * * *
As it stands now, HQ still has the enthusiasm of its dedicated fanbase.
Many of these fans have focused their endearment on host Scott Rogowsky, who has become the face of HQ seemingly by default.
That’s not to say Rogowsky doesn’t deserve the distinction. Dubbed the “Quiz Daddy” by HQ fans, Rogowsky has developed a quick-witted, high-energy, in-your-face-smiling persona that suits the game perfectly.
Throw in HQ’s swirling, colorful backdrops and detached, otherworldly presentation, and I can’t help but think of Caesar Flickerman—the host from The Hunger Games trilogy—whenever I see Rogowsky. (In The Hunger Games, Flickerman serves as the host of the novel’s eponymous contest. His job is to put a smiling face and a positive spin on the Hunger Games so the masses, who are forced to watch on TV, will ignore the fact the Hunger Games are a government-sponsored, winner-take-all deathmatch involving children. HQ’s not killing children for sport as a means of asserting its control—at least not yet—but Rogowsky, like Flickerman, has absorbed all the attention as the peppy public face, leaving the real maneuvering for the unnamed power structure behind the scenes.)
Rogowsky himself has noticed, admitting in a January interview with AdAge that “this is science fiction, what we’re doing.”
* * * * *
Despite all I’ve written, I still play HQ every day.
The potential to win money serves as the bait, but the real motivation comes from sensations HQ provides—a competitive pursuit in a bite-sized package.
But those very human sensations also cloud the instincts you need to win the game. With just 10 seconds to answer each question, HQ tests your intuition more than your knowledge. Oftentimes, my wife and I come up with the correct answer to a question just as we press an incorrect response.
Some of HQ’s more vocal critics say the game creates the sensation of competition and achievement when really it’s training us to trade our very being to corporate overlords in exchange for scraps and pocket change.
This argument goes a few steps too far for my taste, but I admit I understand it.
On April 10, I joined the ranks of HQ Champions. As my screen told me I had won, my wife screamed in excitement. Messages of congratulations streamed in from family.
Entering this scene without context would lead an observer to believe something life-changing had just transpired. But I doubt my winnings—$1.95—will go very far.
“It’s the accomplishment,” people told me. But what I had done didn’t seem like much of an accomplishment. Winning hadn’t even lessened my desire to play HQ the way I had anticipated.
I worried that perhaps I had lost touch with an insane world, like Winston Smith in 1984.
But then, a text arrived from my brother that gave me the proper perspective.
“Nice!” he wrote. “With your winnings, you can buy some bell peppers.”
He’s right. So, you know, maybe HQ isn’t so bad after all.