Sitcom stars appearing at the top of the tree

Posted on April 23, 2001

What do Theo Huxtable, Adolf Hitler and Magnum P.I. have in common?

1. They are names of my plants.
2. They have all recently purchased an iMac.
3. The computer knew I was trying to be each of them during an Internet game.

Are you serious? How many plants do you think I have?

A friend sent me a link to Guess the Dictator and/or Television Sit-Com Character. Sure, there are plenty of Shockwave, Flash, Java and JavaScript games on the Internet, but this is by far the most intriguing game I've found, so much so that I decided to devote an entire column to it.

The deal is, you select a particular dictator or sitcom character, and by answering a series of yes/no questions, the computer determines who you are. There are a bunch of questions, but eventually the computer comes out on top more often than not. As of right now, the computer has been right 2,255,699 times (65.5 percent) and wrong 1,190,514 times (34.5 percent). There are 144,819 characters in the database, although many are duplicates because if the computer is wrong, it prompts you for another question to distinguish your character from the one it guessed. For some reason, I was trying to be MacGyver, and instead, it said I was Fonzie from Happy Days. So I typed in the question "Do you like to fix things with bizarre items, like bubble gum and a paper clip?"

Gene, maker of the game in 1995 at smalltime enterprises, derived the idea from a game called Guess the Animal, which he learned during a C programming class. He then made the entries a little more fun and designed the Web interface for it. The game forms what is called a knowledge tree, where each branch has two choices -- yes or no. Once you get to the top of the tree, a yes answer will reveal the identity of the person you are trying to be, while a no answer will most likely take you to another branch to keep guessing. The coolest thing about the knowledge tree is it keeps growing with more user interaction because the computer has the ability to learn new answers and modify old ones. This means the more people who play, the more likely the computer will guess answers correctly.

According to an article on Antic Magazine, the first text-based game of this kind was called Eliza, a computer therapist developed in the '60s that interacted with patients by rephrasing what they had said. The difference between Eliza and Guess the Animal or Guess the Dictator and/or Television Sit-Com Character is that Eliza could not store more information in a database.

I had a bunch of my friends try out the game to see what characters they could find. Some also answered questions to see what sitcom character they were most like. There definitely were mixed results:

ANDY: I pretended to be Cliff Claven from "Cheers," Hannibal from the "A-Team," and Daisy Duke from the "Dukes of Hazzard." I ended up being Speed Racer. Oh yeah, I was also Caroline from "Caroline in the City."

STEVE: It failed to peg me as Jack Tripper of "Three's Company" fame. It guessed me to be Mork from Ork (which is a bogus guess if you ask me -- Mork couldn't cook. Besides, Mork worked in Mindy's father's music store (on occasion). The thing conked out on me when I pretended to be Laura Engles Wilder of historical and "Little House on the Prairie" fame. Upon reloading the site, it failed to peg me as Vickie, that lovable little monotone fembot girl from "Small Wonder," an '80s sitcom that, no doubt, is languishing in syndication hell. I'll give it "Little House," but when it screws up Jack Tripper and Vickie, we've got problems.

LAEL: First it said that I was Natalie Green from "Facts of Life" ... just because I was Jewish. Then I tried Phoebe (got it), Alf (got it), Arnold (got it).

LINDA: I was Danny Tanner from "Full House" ...

MATT: I tried it out. Andy told me that he was Cliff from "Cheers" and it guessed him correctly, so I decided to try and be Norm from "Cheers."

One friend tried to be Blanche Devereaux from "The Golden Girls," but came up as Roseanne instead. The computer had no problem determining I was Sophia Petrillo though. I did have a problem with being Jessie Spano of "Saved By the Bell," as the computer thought I was Lisa Turtle. At least it got the show right. According to the computer, I'm Ralph Malph of "Happy Days," my brother is Oliver from the "Brady Bunch" and my sister is Eve from "Dawson's Creek."

At least we were all able to help in the growth of this knowledge tree. If only I could find a plant that big, I would name it Theo or Jack Tripper, depending how many roommates it had and whether its father was a physician.