Thursday, August 25, 2011

In Defense of Spoiler Warnings

This week's PopMatters post is about spoilers.

I'm sympathetic to Tom Bissell's frustration by gaming's obsession over spoilers. Too much tongue-biting stunts the critical discussion. While there is no consensus over how soon is "too soon," I think it's fair to assume that if you are reading a critical piece on a particular game, you take responsibility for your own exposure to spoilers. Maybe there should be a one year statute of limitations on warnings in general? Whatever the case, the ultimate onus is on the reader.

That being said, I am firmly of the opinion that spoilers matter, and that "going in blind" is an important experience, especially for critics. A recent study out of UC San Diego suggests that people find spoiled stories more "pleasurable" (whatever that means), but it's important to remember that stories are about more than hedonism.

Puzzling through an obscure narrative may not be as immediately pleasing as simply consuming the story, but such experiences are crucial learning experiences. Gaining the skills to make sense of a confusing situation is a skill applicable to life in general; life rarely offers convenient spoilers. From an artistic perspective, we must acknowledge that any preconceived notions impact our reactions to a piece of work. For those that say spoilers stunt the critical conversation, I ask the following: Is not an "unspoiled" perspective a legitimate, even useful perspective?

One of the most valuable things video games give players is the opportunity to make sense of new systems. Like literature and film, Video games tell stories with characters, plots, and cinematography. They also tell stories with mechanics: the player's journey from neophyte to an expert is a story about discover, learning, dedication, and practice. Being told that there is a secret block in level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. is different from discovering it. In the former situation, the player is given the knowledge. In the latter situation, the player obtains the knowledge and has a story to tell afterwards. In my opinion, this is a far richer experience, and is one of the reason I avoid mechanical spoilers more seriously than I do plot-related spoilers.

Again, I'm not calling for critics to practice self-censorship. I am simply pushing back against those who would say that spoiler warnings are meaningless, especially when they claim to speak with empirical authority. Lively, honest discussion about games fosters a healthy critical community, but carelessly discarding the unspoiled experience destroys some of the rarest, most unique stories games provide.


  1. This is just great. Now think about that Red Dead Redemption part a little and then listen to your Halo Reach podcast again ;)

  2. There's a lot that I like about this article, and a few things that I'd like to challenge. Let me know if this is the place to talk about such things.

  3. I think the one year rule is good but I think people bicker to much. I personally did a blog post on the Red Dead a couple months back and got yelled at. It is important to go in bling as you said, but if a person really wanted to play a game they would have already done it.