David Seelow, PhD©
Jeopardy! and Popular Culture
As Jeopardy! makes national news, I wanted to step back and reflect on why this simple quiz show game has succeeded so well for over 5 decades, both on television and in classrooms. Let me start with the headlines in mid-May 2019. First, as of this writing, the current champion James Holzhauer, a professional sport better, has achieved the second longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history with 24 consecutive wins. He trails only the legendary Ken Jennings’ 74 straight wins between June 2 and November 30, 2004, during which Mr. Jennings won $2,522,700. As of May 21, 2019 Holzhauer has won $1, 867,142. One day last week I watched as he won over $100,000 in a single game. He now holds the single day earnings record of $131, 127, set on April 17, 2019. Such success deserves headlines. I think of Jennings streak as something akin to Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak in 1941 (May 15-July 16). Many experts believe DiMaggio’s hitting streak will never be broken, and in over 77 years The Yankee Clipper’s astounding feat still stands. The thrill of watching someone achieve such success appeals to a large audience, but for Jeopardy! that appeal has more impact than that of professionals achieving similar success. The Jeopardy! winners are ordinary folk. Anyone of us can try out for the show, potentially succeed and play on national television. We too, like the engineer Ken Jennings, and sports better James Holzhauer, can become celebrities and household names. That’s an exciting draw for any game. Precious few, if any, of us can ever think realistically about playing for the New York Yankees, let alone hitting in 56 consecutive games.
The participatory nature of Jeopardy! almost seems like that of a Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game in the sense that as people around the globe watch the show the inevitably play along and compete with the on air contestants. The home audience assumes the role of contestants and projects themselves into the game. The TV screen becomes transparent and the game space opens out into the audience’s world. The joy of this, part imaginary and part real play, resides both in the possibility of beating the contestants in the imaginary space of the larger game, but also in just correctly posing the right question. Simultaneous with this double game of watching and playing along, viewers most likely play against those sitting in the room they are watching from. Like fans of different athletic teams watching a game in the living room or at a bar and trash talking each other as one team gains the upper hand, in watching Jeopardy! at home you see who amongst you responds first to the on air answer. I have many fond memories of watching and casually playing along with my very knowledgeable late mother. It was not competition, just the fun of play based upon our mutual love of and appreciation for knowledge.
In February 2011 the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge pitted the supercomputer Watson against former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Naturally, the computer won. No surprise, computers can hold much more information and process it much faster than any human brain, but the point seems to me that Watson needed to publicly show that superiority on Jeopardy! In a curious way, the show seals one’s knowledge as authentic to the public at large. Jeopardy! is a cultural proving ground.
The other reason Jeopardy! has made national headlines concerns the show’s host Alex Trebek who announced March 6, 2019 on the show that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Despite this cruel and deadly form of cancer’s poor prognosis Trebek continues to preside during Mr. Holzhauer’s streak. My mother’s twin brother died from this cancer. which inflicts excruciating pain on the sufferer. Trebek’s dedication to his craft, his positive attitude, determination in the face of overwhelming odds, gives one reason to watch and hope the gracious host beats the odd and wins the greatest of victories. The 78 year old Trebek has hosted the show since it began daily syndication with SONY Pictures in September 1984. That’s another amazing streak. In a time where so many workers frequently change jobs or professional athletes switch teams Trebek’s loyalty elicits a positive feeling from audience members. He captures the essence of a superb game master. A philosophy graduate from the University of Ottawa in Canada, Trebek is articulate, calm, reasonable and self-assured in his delivery of answers. In a time of incivility on roadways, walkways, and in public spaces Trebek remains the image of a gentleman. His brief repartees with contestants toward the beginning of the show demonstrates both his personalness and his total respect for the players and their various roles in life. Like all players of Jeopardy! Trebek has respect for knowledge and in a time of sound bites, tweets, and headlines bereft of knowledge, that respect for learning matters.
Jeopardy in the Classroom or the Mechanics of Learning
I suspect no game is played more widely in classrooms than Jeopardy! Afterall a game that tests one’s knowledge makes perfect sense for educational play, and the game suits students from elementary school to college. Indeed, the educational value of Jeopardy! seems to me both its elegant design and ease of implementation. It cost nothing to build a game. There are many templates and even free online tools like Super Teachers Tools that make creation, delivery, and saving the game quick and easy (you can also locate preexisting games from fellow instructors). Moreover, students can easily design their own games. This is a terrific learning strategy. When students design the game and determine the proper learning categories and types of answers, they are in effect taking the role of teacher and; consequently, will learn the material more deeply than when simply playing the instructor’s version of the game.
The game’s twist of having respondents ask questions to answers and reversing the normal quiz pattern serves a deep learning principle. The show’s creator, the late entertainer Merv Griffin, hit on the principle that asking questions displays deeper knowledge of a subject than providing answers. Columbia University neurobiologist Dr. Stuart Firestein has made this precise claim in his brilliant little book on ignorance (2012) and summarized in his Ted Talk on “The Pursuit Ignorance”.
As for the common criticism that Jeopardy! only tests low level skills of recall and facts (even this complaint rings false as the show has many riddles, puzzles anagrams etc.), I respond that a knowledge base remains critical for deeper skills to build upon. You cannot debate or think about President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, for example, if you don’t even know where the Ukraine is located and many people, including college students, do not know that “fact”. Yes, so called low level knowledge is important, very important.
As for design, Jeopardy! is classic in its simplicity. There is Single and Double Jeopardy! Each as 6 categories of knowledge. That allows the instructor to review or “test” 12 different knowledge domains in a single class period. In my field of literature, for instance, if I were teaching, “Introduction to Literature,” I could devise categories by genre (Epic, Drama, Poetry, Novel, Short Story, Essay) for Jeopardy! and time period for Double Jeopardy! (Classic, Medieval, Renaissance, Neo Classical, Romantic, Modern). Furthermore, the game’s structure provides ideal scaffolding since each question in each category gets progressively more difficult and earns more money if answered correctly (from$ 200-1,000 in Jeopardy! dollars per question).
In moving from Jeopardy! to Double Jeopardy! the point progression per question doubles (from $400 to $2,000). This change in item value allows players trailing after Jeopardy! to catch up and have a fresh start or new beginning without eliminating the leader’s early success. Imagine, a class where after the midterm the value of each assignment doubles? Students on the verge of dropping the class or possibly failing can turn a potentially poor grade into very good grade. This second opportunity or extra life in game terminology has genuine value. I distinctly recall taking over a high school English class many years ago in January and discovering two students, eager to learn, had been mired with a “C” average. I did not discount their prior work, but I stressed the importance of starting again when I started teaching and both these students- informally labelled as “average” students, ended up with solid “A’s” performing as well as the designated “honors” students.
Now back to the mechanics, the time element of such games cannot be underestimated. You know the question, or you don’t, no time to search Wikipedia. In class, you can divide the room into 3 teams and bring different sounding buzzers. Even or especially, college students love the kinesthetic aspect of buzzing first. It brings them a sense of fun lectures tend not to deliver very often.
Like with most games there is an element of chance in Jeopardy! Chance appears in the Daily Double answers. They can be placed anywhere on the game board, so landing on one requires luck, but the reward requires the lucky person to provide the correct question. If he or she succeeds the reward is whatever the wager. I have used modified versions of the Daily Double on quizzes where a question can give double points. This helps student motivation and reenergizes struggling students.
The chance element combines with betting strategy to make the game particularly exciting in the Final Jeopardy! round. In Final Jeopardy! each player who reaches the round can wager their entire winnings to that point in the game. Consequently, a second or third place player can make up significant ground by making a larger wager and providing the correct response. Additionally, the leader may incorrectly respond and a large or medium wager can cause him or her to lose based upon this single response. Players betting rests partly on the category, partly on their position in the game, the earnings of each players, the confidence of the player to answer correctly, the calculations regarding the likelihood of how much the other two players will wager and a general philosophy regarding risk tolerance. As a professional sports better Mr. Holtzhauer has expertise in betting strategy and probability calculations, but most players lack such an advantage. For the average player, the game’s demand for general knowledge, a good memory, quick thinking, strategy, confidence and a touch of luck with many opportunities for a reversal of fortune, makes Jeopardy! a true classic that will remain in classrooms of the future, and justly so.
Firestein, Stuart. “The Pursuit of Ignorance, “ TedTalk at the Ted 2013 Conference, February 2013, https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_firestein_the_pursuit_of_ignorance, retrieved 5/17/2019.
_____________. Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford University Press, 2012.