What Makes Jeopardy! a Good Game?

In Shaun P. Young (ed.), Jeopardy! and Philosophy: What is Knowledge in the Form of a Question? Open Court. pp. 27-39 (2013)
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Competitive quiz shows, and Jeopardy! in particular, occupy a unique place among TV game shows. The most successful Jeopardy! contestants—Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, Frank Sparenberg, and so on—have appeared on late night talk shows, been given book contracts, and been interviewed by major newspapers. This sort of treatment is substantially different than, say, the treatment that the winners of The Price is Right or Deal or No Deal are afforded. The distinctive status of quiz shows is evidenced in other ways as well; for instance, consider the widespread public outrage that accompanied the discovery of fixed quiz shows in the 1950s of the fact that, when IBM wanted to find a task to test the latest developments of artificial intelligence, they chose the game of Jeopardy. In this essay, I’ll take a look at Jeopardy! as an exemplar of a certain sort of game, and will suggest that part of what gives Jeopardy! its distinctive status is that it is a qualitatively good game—that is, it is a game that that fulfills just those functions a game is supposed to fulfill. I’ll begin by showing how Jeopardy! meets Bernard Suits’ (1967, 1988, 2005) definition of games, according to which games are characterized as activities that have certain sorts of rules and in which participants are required to have the right attitude toward these rules. Among other things, I’ll talk about the role played by some of Jeopardy’s distinctive rules (“remember to phrase your answer in the form of a question”) and about the possible differences a monetary reward makes to game players’ attitudes. I’ll then go on to talk about what distinguishes Jeopardy! from other, superficially similar sorts of games. I’ll concentrate on three factors in particular: (1) the fact that the skills required by Jeopardy! have value outside of the game, (2) the fact that observers in Jeopardy! can “play along” with the contestants on TV, and (3) the fact that success in the game is determined, to a very great extent, by the skills of the participant and not by other facts (such as luck). To close, I’ll talk more generally about the distinction between good games and not-so-good games, and will discuss why it is that good games are worth taking seriously. In this section, I’ll discuss some recent work on the value of games and sports, and will make some suggestions about how these accounts might be tailored to account for the specific virtues of a game like Jeopardy.
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