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9:50am on Tuesday, 18th September, 2007:

Socialist Quiz


Back when I was at school, in those days when no national curriculum prescribed every single minute of every single day by government diktat, we would occasionally have things like school quizzes. For the last one of these during my time (I'd just turned 18), it was a house-based competition for teams of one boy and one girl in the sixth form.

[Translation for non-British readers: houses are in-school teams that you get allocated to when you join the school and are kept with all the way through it, to give artificial groups that can be used for competitive events such as sports and quizzes. The sixth form — a term still in use despite its being out of date even in my day — is made up of pupils who are either bright enough to aim for age-18 exams (for whom the sixth form is two years long) or not bright enough to have passed sufficient numbers of their age-16 exams (for whom it is one year long).]

So, the quiz.

Well, the teacher who ran it, Dr Dorney, had a PhD in chemistry but actually taught maths and (amazing!) computer science. He was Head of the Sixth Form, and one of those people who cared passionately about the downtrodden. As was suspiciously common among socialists of that era, there was always the nagging impression that some of this was to do with show and credentials. I mean, anyone who goes on to be headmaster at a school in Grimethorpe has got to be trying to make some kind of personal statement, right? He was a genuinely nice guy, though, and well-liked by all the sixth-formers including me.

So the quiz began. Dr Dorney had all the questions written down on cards. When it was your team's turn, you were asked a question. If you got it right, you got a point. If you got it wrong, oh well, no point for you (and no chance for the other teams to get a point as we didn't have buzzers). So, very simple. Except, it wasn't quite like that. You see, this wasn't an ordinary quiz: this was a socialist quiz.

I noticed after a few rounds that one of the teams was getting exceedingly easy questions. This was the team with the weakest members — they'd been selected on the basis that they were the two heads of house, which meant they were good at sports but not necessarily (or, in their case, remotely) good academically. So while I and my partner were being asked questions such as "what do the letters in the acronym MASER stand for?", they were getting "What is the capital city of England?". It wasn't just me that noticed, either: people on the other two teams were giving us and each other odd looks, too.

It was then I spotted what Dr Dorney was doing. When it was the turn of the weaker team (representing St Mary's), he was reading the question to himself, and if he thought it was too hard he put it to the back of the pile and went on to the next one. Uh? He did this for several rounds as I and my partner watched in atonishment.

Then, he did something worse. By this time, our team was in the lead. He looked at the question we were going to be asked, deemed it too easy, and put it to the back of the pile.

I couldn't believe it. "Did you just put our question to the back of the pile?" I asked.

He was really up front about it. Yes, he had done. What was the point of asking me a question that he knew I'd know the answer to?

"But St Mary's have been getting really easy questions! You went through the pile looking for ones you knew they could answer!"

He replied that no, he hadn't. He'd just not asked the ones he knew they couldn't answer.

But ... but ... it was a quiz! The whole point of a quiz is to find out who has the best general knowledge! It's not to find out whose general knowledge the quizmaster has most underestimated!

The fact that the St Mary's team was so poor that they still got questions wrong was no justification for his actions. The mention that he just happened to be in St Mary's himself, he took as an assault on his integrity. "Are you accusing me of cheating?" he asked.

Yes I was, and I said so. I didn't know what his motivation was, but he certainly was not playing by the rules. I was absolutely livid!

Anyway, the quiz continued. Now you might have supposed that having been exposed as a cheat, he would have stopped doing what he was doing, but not a bit of it! In order to demonstrate that there was nothing untoward in his actions, he continued to do them. At one point, he ignored a question, asked me the next one, and I told him he should skip that one too because I knew the answer. It was a total farce, and yet he insisted he was doing nothing wrong. He was just "levelling the playing field".

What? It was a quiz. It wasn't a quiz with 11-year-olds versus 18-year-olds, we were peers — we should have been asked the questions as they came. If he felt some of us needed handicapping, he could have given the weaker team a head start in points. Ah, but then we'd have known what he was doing. He was trying to conceal it, at least until I challenged him. Then, he tried to brazen it out. "So if we answer a series of questions wrong, will you start asking us easy ones so we can catch up?" I asked. No, he wouldn't: we should have got those questions right?

What? What?

I have to say, at this point I was the angriest I have ever been in my entire life.

He skipped another question. Before he could ask the one after it, I insisted he went with the one he skipped. He refused. I said I wanted that one, not the new one. He said he wouldn't ask it, because I knew the answer. I said there was no point in my being there if he knew how I'd answer every time — he could just give me the marks or not, without my having to say anything. If he didn't ask the question he'd skipped, I was quitting.

He asked the question, but said I wasn't allowed to answer it, only my partner. She was bright, too (hi Mel!) and got it right.

Dr Dorney finished the round and brought the competition to a premature end. I think we came second to the team on our left, with the other two in joint third.

The discussion among sixth-formers that followed grew close to rebellion. Everyone in the audience had been entirely on our side and were both stunned and appalled by what Dr Dorney had been doing; he was universally condemned as a cheat, and opinion of him dropped from very positive to alarmingly negative. He may have been trying to save the poor, down-trodden St Mary's from an embarrassing defeat, but they were expecting to be thrashed anyway against six star pupils from other houses. They were more embarrassed by his patronising attitude than they would have been by losing, and considered that they would have been just as riled as I was had he obliged them to play football with 20kg of weights on their back to make it "fairer" to the rest of us who weren't as good as they.

I was still red-faced with rage 10 minutes later when lessons started. Guess what I had? That's right — maths. Maths, taught by Dr Dorney.

There, he patiently explained his philosophy and told me I was a sore loser.

There, I tore into him with an unrestrained, no-hold-barred demolition of his philosophy as applied to games that shocked him to the core. I can still see his face now.

The thing was, at the centre of his argument was a contradiction. On the one hand, he felt he was allowed to bend the rules because it was "only a game"; yet on the other, he felt the need to bend the rules because it wasn't "only a game". If it really was "only a game", there would have been no problem with St Mary's expected dismal performance; because he felt the need to intervene, that meant he did think there was a problem, so dismissing it as "only a game" was untenable. I was hitting him with logic, which is the deadliest weapon of all against a mathematician. He was visibly shaken not by my explosion of emotion, not by the ferocity of its delivery, but by its content. He suddenly realised he had been in the wrong.

That's what happens when you apply general social and economic theories to games. Games are different.

He didn't apologise, but he knew he'd lost. I did apologise for any misunderstanding that may have arisen as to his motives for cheating (ie. helping his own house), but I didn't apologise for calling him a cheat — nor did he ask me to.

The other (three) pupils arrived, the maths lesson continued as normal, and we never spoke of it again.

It isn't because of this incident that I'm against people doing things in games that they know are against the rules but that they don't think matter. However, it does illustrate the anger I feel at them for doing it.

When you're playing one, no game is "only a game".

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).