The distinction between what is and is not trivia is one of the most difficult and subtle parts of becoming a good question writer. Trivia is knowledge based solely on memorization of an arbitrary fact, divorced from the context of why that fact is important. Knowing that Zachary Taylor won the Battle of Buena Vista is academic, because it relates to why Zachary Taylor is important and is integral to understanding the Battle of Buena Vista. Knowing that the Battle of Buena Vista took place before the Battle of Veracruz is academic, because the relative order of battles is important to understanding why the battles occurred and why the Mexican War turned out as it did. Knowing that the Battle of Buena Vista took place in 1847 as opposed to 1848 is trivia, as its absolute date means nothing out of the context of the other battles' dates. Thus, a question asking on Taylor mentioning that he was the victorious general at Buena Vista, a question on Veracruz mentioning that it took place after Buena Vista, or a question on Buena Vista itself is academic. A question that just asks what year Buena Vista took place is trivia, and therefore not academic. A question that asks whether Buena Vista or Veracruz took place first is not trivia, but it is bad for other reasons unrelated to its academic status.
Not only should trivia never be sought as an answer, it should be used judiciously as a clue. In a proper pyramidal tossup on the Battle of Buena Vista, the date of the battle should be given only near the end of the question. Giving exact dates of important events early in questions encourages players to memorize dates rather than learn conceptual historical material, and thus defeats the academic purpose of the game.
For questions on individuals, one should never, ever use a "birthday clue." This involves starting a tossup on a person with a clue such as "born on November 9, 1934." This sort of leadin is horribly boring and encourages the worst sort of list memorization. There is essentially no good time to use a birthday clue, and certainly not at the start of the tossup. Birthday clues are a symptom of lazy and/or very inexperienced writing.
There are many other forms of trivia besides date-related clues and answers. Some classic examples of biographical trivia include listing the institutions at which a famous person was educated, and giving the profession of a famous person's father. These are almost never important to understanding the person's academic relevance, and are an archaic and lazy form of writing. Trivia can also include "blankest blank in blank" type questions: the highest mountain in Botswana, the longest-lived member of the spider family, the most expensive car made by Toyota. Similarly, the "first X to do Y" type question: the first Romanian to basejump off the Eiffel Tower, the first woman to write an episode of Taxi, the first number one single to be released on CD. All those forms of questions are trivia unless their subjects are important for something other than a mad-libs type achievement.
Anything related to recognizing national flags is by definition trivia.
Questions relying on trivia are also known as "almanac questions."
The Modern Library Top 100
One of the worst forms of trivia is clues or answers that rely on knowledge of anybody's ranking of the Best X things in Category Y. A notorious NAQT question once asked players to identify Crayola as the company whose products were ranked as the 18th most memorable smell in a recent news article. Another NAQT question relied on knowledge of the ranking of the most offensive books of the twentieth century by a minor right-wing think tank called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
For a long time, the worst offender in a category of offenders was the Modern Library Top 100 for fiction, and, to a lesser extent, the complementary nonfiction list. When this list came out in spring 1999, it was open season on asking about every work on it in both collegiate and high school quizbowl without respect to difficulty or canonicity, and often using inane "it was ranked #11 on the MLA list" type clues. The worst questions of all were those which relied solely on memorizing the MLA list to get points, such as "given the book's position on the MLA list, name the book" bonuses, which sadly were actual things that existed. As more time has passed since the list was issued, it has become less of a crutch in bad quizbowl than it was in the immediate years after 1999.
Types of questions which are always or nearly always trivia
- "First X to do Y"
- "In what year..."
- "What is the word for..."
- "The highest/biggest/oldest A in B"
- "Who was the electoral opponent of..."
- "What Vice-President...."
- "What is the capital of..."
- "Who said..."
- Things involving performing math on Presidential numbers
- "What do these letters stand for..."