The large scale issues with these common links have not been addressed in any meaningful way, so I’m going to summarize my objections in as simple a way as possible in an effort to get a response. For once I’m tired of carrying on a prolonged argument and don’t want to keep this going for a week, so I’m going to explain both the pragmatic and theoretical problems and let writers decide for themselves how they want to write, but I’m tired of defenders of these questions trying to distort the question by cheerypicking small bits of an argument and avoiding the actual substance.
1) Leads to many more buzzer races. At VCU Open this past Saturday 6 out of the 7 common links were buzzer races in the rooms I played in as opposed to 10 out of 49 for normal questions. That is a startling percentage. Now I don’t have as much data about this issue because thankfully these questions have been virtually dead for the last year or two, but the two common links I have in my notes from ICT (ghosts and mothers) were both buzzer races in my room. Now there are several reasons why I think these questions lead to more buzzer races (which I elucidate below) but right now I want to stress that objectively common links are a much less precise way to differentiate knowledge between top teams. When top literature teams play advantages in real knowledge are often flattened by these questions, so they often are reduced to a three or four line tossups riddled with buzzer races. They simply objectively don’t play as well as normal tossups. Generally speaking I find these questions reward playing the game more than real knowledge. I am completely serious when I offer to write a mini-packet between Evan and Chris (if they are willing) because it would provide objective evidence for one side on this debate.
2) Confusion and Ambiguity. I think one of the reasons that common links often tend to devolve into buzzer races is that people with real knowledge often have to delay their buzzes because the first clues are ambiguous, confusing, or request you to name a minor detail. I’m not saying every common link question is confusing, but they tend to confuse players at a much higher rate than normal questions. Objectively, Jasper and Kurtis were confused by the May Day question even though they had read the work and Ike was uncertain what was being asked for on the Troy question even though he had read “Aeneas at Washington” and knew the question was talking about that poem. A good example of how common link ambiguity can be seen in the leadin to the San Francisco tossup. It was ambiguous to someone who has read the Maugham story because the girl actually isn’t sent to either city and it is uncertain whether she will be sent to SF or Sydney at the story’s conclusion. At that point the question was ambiguous so I had to wait a couple clues until I had confirmation that it was an American city and then ended up buzzer racing with Jonathan because he knew the next clue.
3) The Delay Effect. The phenomenon I discussed in the SF tossup is what I call the “delay effect” of common link questions in which knowledgeable players often cannot buzz immediately but must wait for other clues to confirm their suspicions. Another example of ambiguity and the delay effect can be seen if we look at this clue from the music teacher tossup, “A character named for his role as one of these is the mentor of Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game.” A knowledgeable player must wait to answer this question which makes him vulnerable to miss a question on something he actually knows and this could be easily fixed to make the clue unambiguous if it were switched so you had to identify the novel from “Music Master.” For whatever reason there were three clues that Jerry knew about parrots, yet he waited to buzz in. Therefore his superior knowledge about Walcott and the fact he read Strindberg more closely than I did was nearly penalized because I nearly beat him to the question on the next clue. If it had been a tossup on Walcott with Pantomine clues Jerry would not have needed to delay but simply buzzed in immediately with the right answer and there would have been no danger of him getting robbed of the tossup. This kind of doubt has proven endemic to common link questions and is much less prevalent in normal questions.
1) Framing the question and needless specificity. Evan is getting confused thinking that I am saying minor details make bad clues. There is a significant difference between being able to recognize a detail and name it to earn points. Most of these clues would be fine in an individual question on an author or work, but I am questioning what we gain by framing the question in this manner. By framing these details in this way people with real knowledge who would of answered otherwise are unable to do so. If the May Day tossup had been on Hawthorne both Kurtis and Jasper would have been able to buzz with confidence, if it had been on Handmaid’s Tale with a Mayday clue I would have been able to buzz, if the Troy question had been on Allen Tate Ike would of buzzed, if the parrot question had been on The Ghost Sonata I (and perhaps Jerry) would have buzzed immediately, if the question had been on Walcoot Jerry would of buzzed without hesitation, if the question had been on Maugham rather than an ambiguous detail from the story I would have buzzed immediately.
Why is it better to have knowledgeable players in doubt? Why not frame a question in a way that will let them buzz immediately and with confidence? Why should we frame a question to ask for a detail from a work rather than work itself knowing that it will cost several people with real knowledge points? Is it an acceptable tradeoff to have two people who have read the story (Kurtis and Jasper) be confused out of points for excitement of a slightly different answer line? I thought the answer to this question was self-evident because I thought any responsible editor would be more concerned with rewarding real knowledge than amusing himself with interesting answer lines, but apparently there is a lot of disagreement about this issue. From my perspective, if I had to chose between writing a normal Hawthorne question that rewards people with real knowledge or an “interesting” May Day tossup that will confuse two people with real knowledge ten out ten times I will pick the Hawthorne question. And I hope responsible editors would as well.
What Are the Benefits:
1) The issue becomes if you are going to a write a question that (1) objectively doesn’t play as well as a normal question, (2) has a good chance at confusing several people with real knowledge, (3) and consistently penalizes people who know a book for not being able to name a detail that they would easily recognize—there should be some convincing reasons. As far as I gather these are the different defenses.
Matt claims these questions allow questions to test different types of knowledge without raising the difficulty of the answer line. While this might be a valid argument for writing HSAPQ common link questions it’s completely meaningless at this level. A tossup on Hawthorne or Handmaid’s Tale would be more accessible than a May Day tossup. A tossup on Maugham would be just as accessible as a tossup on San Francisco. And no one is going to freak out at this level with the occasional question on something like Platero y Yo. So this argument has virtually no convincing power, so lets move onto the next argument.
I had an argument with Matt over AIM last night about this issue and I think we came to the conclusion that we just have very different editing philosophies, but one comment in particular was very revealing between our ideological split. When I was complaining that these questions tend to confuse people who read, flatten the finer distinctions made between levels of knowledge and therefore reward generalists who figure things out, Matt said this:
Matt Weiner wrote:
chris ray is a really, really good player
i mean in terms of his skill at PLAYING questions
he's as good as i am and i consider myself very good at this
he is being rewarded for a skill
you think this is a problem because it upsets the natural order of who has read the most
He is right, I do think this is a problem. I am willing to accept that it is a valid editorial decision to have some questions that are more focused on rewarding the skill of playing quizbowl than real knowledge, but I personally will never subscribe to that view and cannot suggest that younger writers follow this path. I don’t think that whoever has read the most has a natural right to answer all the literature questions, but rather people who have real knowledge of a book should be able to answer the question with confidence. This is related to what Andrew calls “empathetic” writing. I think a great writer should try to make it is as easy as possible for a knowledgeable player to answer a question and not frame it in a way that might reward someone for the “skill” of playing the game rather than people who have real knowledge. In fact, I actively try to write questions that de-emphasize the “skill” of playing the game and will reward even the least savvy player around so ideally there will be little doubt in his mind if he recognizes a clue from a book he has read what I am asking for. Perhaps this is a flaw in my writing philosophy, so this is just what I have come to believe after seeing countless common ink tossups play out.
To me the defenses of artificial common link question boil down to creativity for creativity’s sake. I see them as the equivalent of FUNN and remain even more opposed to them after seeing that questions written by one of the best literature writers in the game played poorly.