Let's Play The Guessing Game

by Jeff Atwood

on February 29, 2012

We've observed a particular pattern of questions emerging on several Stack Exchange sites.

All these questions are effectively guessing games.

I remember myself playing this a bit childish, but in some ways awesome game, where you control a tank, and can pick up and stack turrets (and maybe something else) from enemy tanks you kill. Maybe they also had different platforms (and if it's one with wheels then technically it's not a tank, but hey). It was around 2000 (or maybe even earlier) and the game had 3D graphics.

Trying to remember a book I read in the 80s, reptiles are dominant, have language, have human slaves. Northern human tribes attack the reptile settlements. The reptiles have gourds of partially digested food...they use some type of slug creature to clean hair and fur off mammals.

Please help me finding the single word for representing a person who guides at right time (at the time of need).

I am looking for a children's book that features a mouse. He lives in a red ticket booth and sleeps in a drawer and rides a motorcycle. It is either a chapter book or a collection of short stories about this mouse.

The question owner tries to describe something they can't quite remember, in hopes that the greater community will "buzz in" to hazard an answer based on the limited information provided, like on a game show. The best guess gets upvotes, and potentially an accepted answer checkmark. It's fun, right?

Our engine is great at these kinds of questions, and they tend to do well:

Of course, guessing game questions aren't a new phenomenon; I alluded to them in the Pee-Wee Herman Rule. But after a year of observing these guessing game questions grow and spread to multiple sites with similar effects, I no longer believe that the slight benefit of these questions outweighs the many negatives.

1. Guessing game questions aren't practical

Consider Stack Exchange's first rule of questions not to ask:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

A half-remembered description of something you vaguely recall is not what I'd call a practical, answerable question.

Unless the asker has demonstrated a practical reason they need to find this, documented that they've invested substantial effort in finding it, and given us something concrete that provides us with a reasonable chance of actually guessing the answer -- it's simply Not a Real Question. At best it is a game show trivia contest.

2. Guessing game questions don't help others

Because these questions are based on vague, broad, half-remembered descriptions, it is unlikely anyone else will be able to find them through a web search. I have a difficult time imagining how you'd construct a web search, either on Google or via Stack Exchange's built-in search, to find something that you can't fully articulate. What's even worse is that these questions, by their very nature, will contain a bunch of broad, speculative "maybe it's like..." catch-all terms that are likely to trip up future visitors who end up there by accident.

Consider the example of Netstorm: Islands at War, a game so apparently difficult to remember that our gaming site contains no less than three exact duplicate identify-this-game questions about it:

The goal of Stack Exchange is not to construct un-findable single-serving questions that only help one person, but that's exactly what guessing game questions tend to do.

3. Guessing game questions are unfair

If we allow vague and insubstantial questions, we are explicitly opening the door to "do my work for me" questions (or worst case, Yahoo Answers) -- no need to expend effort, do research, provide examples ... just explain in vague, broad terms what it is you partially remember and we'll do the rest of the hard work necessary to figure it out for you? That's a dangerous precedent to set. It is disproportionate and unfair to the experts on the site.

Also, an expert in the topic should be able to have at least some confidence that the answer he's writing answers the question. Take that away, and you're left with questions that don't know what they want, and answerers throwing guesses at it hoping one will stick. "Is it mentor?" Nope, try again! "Is it Star Fighter XXIV: The Star Fightening!" Sorry, go fish!

4. Guessing game questions aren't educational

I understand that it's sometimes fun to guess what someone is thinking of. I also appreciate that it takes a lot of expertise and deep domain knowledge to take a vague, half-remembered description and nail the exact thing. But I would also argue that these questions aren't educational in any way, because there's no way to learn about the process of discovery. A particular community member, by virtue of their experience in the field, just happens to be able to take the limited information you remembered and fill in enough of the blanks to guess the correct answer.

I urge you to click on the guessing game tags yourself and take a long, hard look at the artifacts these guessing game questions are producing. After a year I am convinced that guessing game questions do not meet our goal of making the Internet better.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

  • and when your site's most popular tag is "book-recommendation", there are perhaps deeper problems to contend with.