When Thomas Hurley blew a Final Jeopardy! clue on a Kids Week episode of the long-running quiz show, some people accused the game of being unfair. An article from the Associated Press even asked if Jeopardy! had “cheated” Thomas out of a win. With all due respect to the young scholar, that’s silly. To the clue in question—“Abraham Lincoln called this document, which took effect in 1863, ‘a fit and necessary war measure’”—Thomas answered “What is the Emanciptation Proclamation?” That answer is incorrect only on an absolutely technical level, and as the people who cried “unfair!” would argue, he clearly meant to say Emancipation Proclamation. But that’s not the point of the game. Jeopardy! isn’t about just knowing the right answer, it’s also about following a set of strict, arbitrary rules.
Take the 2011 Terminator-style showdown between IBM’s artificial intelligence system Watson and Jeopardy! superheroes Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The humans lost that match, and it’s not because they didn’t know as much as the computer. During an Ask Me Anything Q&A on Reddit, Jennings said the computer’s actual advantage was its robotic arm, which could hit the buzzer faster than its human competitors’ dumb meat fingers. Does that negate Watson’s win? Not at all. The computer played the game as it’s meant to be played.
That’s Jeopardy! the TV show. That’s not Jeopardy! the 2012 video game. Although electronic versions of the show have been around almost as long as home video games have existed, it’s this most recent incarnation—developed by Pipeworks Software and available on most modern platforms—that deviates a bit too far from the source. On the surface, this version of Jeopardy! seems as faithful a recreation as anyone could expect. A round of the game plays out almost exactly as it would on the TV show, down to the competitor introductions, Clue Crew appearances, and commercial breaks. And while the biggest differences seem like necessary concessions made for the video game conversion, those deviations from form are enough to unravel the fabric of this adaptation. Pipeworks’ changes inadvertently deprive the video game of Jeopardy!’s stodgy dedication to its rules and awkward decorum, making it into something that looks and sounds a lot like Jeopardy! but doesn’t feel like it.
The divergence from the show begins superficially. On TV, everyone—even the kids—dresses up for their Jeopardy! appearance. In the video game, however, you dress your character anyway you’d like, picking from a selection of unlockable outfits that are mostly far removed from the plain old suit and tie. Hoodies, jeans, tank tops, and hamburger T-shirts are the norm in the video game incarnation of the show. It’s a surface-level complaint, but it’s indicative of a greater disregard for the show’s charming uptightness, an uptightness so tight that host Alex Trebek is sometimes charged with shutting down childish giggling.
Pipeworks has more substantial changes in store when it comes time to respond to a clue. Start with the physical act of buzzing in. On Jeopardy! the show, you can’t hit your buzzer until Trebek finishes reading the clue. The first person to press their button once he’s done gets to answer first. Additionally, Ken Jennings explains that the real buzzers will lock you out for a split-second if you hit them too early. These are straightforward rules that the video game twists too far. It won’t allow you to buzz in until it’s done reading off the clue in its entirety, but there’s no form of lock-out. That means there’s nothing to stop you from hammering that button while digital Trebek is talking to ensure you’ll be the one credited with a buzz at the first possible millisecond. And when one person is jabbing on their controller as fast as they can, it’s safe to assume that anyone else who knows the answer will start mashing too. Here, Jeopardy! becomes more like Mario Party than the tense, strait-laced game that it’s meant to be. That’s an especially egregious change considering Jeopardy! is one of the few current American game shows that doesn’t involve jumping up and down or yelling out the retail price of common household items.
Once you’ve buzzed in by proving yourself the master masher, you still have to answer. Given the abysmal track record of vocal-recognition technology in video games, it’s commendable that the developers of the Jeopardy! game decided against having players shout their answers. Instead you type out your answer with a keyboard that appears onscreen. But here’s the catch: The game will automatically suggest answers from its databank once you’ve typed in the first few letters, saving you from having to race the clock. If you type out E-M-A-N, Jeopardy! will offer up “Emancipation Proclamation.” Thomas Hurley would be saved!
But the game overcorrects. If someone knows that the answer is some president named Millard, they could type “M-I-L-L,” and one of the suggestions that Jeopardy! will give is “Millard Fillmore.” You only have to vaguely know the answer to stumble into it. This is where the game falls apart in a way the real Jeopardy! and its panel of unseen judges would never allow. Jeopardy! the video game regards those judges as persnickety fusspots, and they are. But their exacting nature and dedication to the rules are an essential part of Jeopardy!, and the game treats that fussiness as inconsequential.
In the end, it’s the setting and atmosphere surrounding these different versions of Jeopardy! that make the biggest difference. You and your friends holding controllers on a couch is far removed from a group of people standing at podiums in suits. The former is about having fun. The latter is about looking like a professional smart person in front of TV cameras. The TV contestants never get into fistfights over who buzzed in first or whether your idiot buddy guessed his way into the right answer, but that’s because the people on TV are playing real, gloriously stodgy Jeopardy!.
In fact the video game is closer to Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketches than it is to the real thing. It’s recognizably the same game, but it’s different enough to feel like something separate. Hurley would have won in this version of the game. And if Jennings and Rutter been afforded the same lax buzzer rules, maybe their duel with Watson would have ended differently. That would be fine if this were Generic Quiz Show!: The Game, but this is a national institution, and if you can win Jeopardy! without playing by its rigid, arbitrary rules, have you really won Jeopardy!?