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In Defense of Spoiler Warnings

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Thursday, Aug 25, 2011
I think Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld's contention that "Story Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories" is premature. If anything, the study illustrates the difficulties of trying to empirically measure enjoyment and the dangers of imprecise definitions of pleasure.

Discussions about video games are routinely constrained by “spoilers.”  People go to great lengths to tiptoe around major (usually plot-related) components of games for fear they will negatively impact those yet to play them.  A couple weeks ago, a study conducted by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld of UC San Diego was published that suggested this focus on avoiding spoilers may be unnecessary and “giving away surprises makes readers like stories better” (“Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories”, Psychological Science, 12 August 2011, p. 2).


In the spirit of the research, I guess I should say this up front: while the study is entertaining and provocative, I think its contention that “Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories” is premature.  If anything, the study illustrates the difficulties of trying to empirically measure enjoyment and the dangers of imprecise definitions of pleasure.  Video games, perhaps more so than any other medium, are defined by the exploration, discovery, and the learning process.  Because of this, spoilers often detract from what makes video games special.
  
The Mis-Measure of Pleasure


How can we measure how pleasurable it is to digest a story?  Test subjects in Leavitt and Christenfold’s research reported more enjoyment when the plot twists and surprises of several short stories were revealed in advance, but what does this actually tell us?  Test subjects rated how much they enjoyed various stories on 1-10 scale, but there is no indication as to how they arrived at the numbers or what guidelines they were using. 


It is interesting that the “mean hedonic ratings” of the spoiled stories were higher than the unspoiled ones.  The term “hedonic” is important here, as it hints at the assumptions underlying the study.  The stories and their spoilers seem to have been evaluated based on their abilities to provide immediate, sensual pleasure rather than long term satisfaction or lasting knowledge.  There is a difference between the immediate pleasure of learning information and the fulfillment gained by piecing it together yourself.  Pleasure is a complex concept, and this study does little to acknowledge this.


I agree with Leavitt and Christenfold’s conclusion that “spoilers may allow readers to organize developments, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve ambiguities that occur in the course of reading” (p. 2), but I don’t think that such challenging traits are inherently bad.  True, it is difficult to parse the symbolism of Chekhov while trying to keep the plot straight, but this struggle ultimately strengthens a reader’s skills.  The absence of a road map forces people to read both actively and critically while still paying attention to literary style.  Relying on spoilers is the path of least resistance, a path that removes one of the most beneficial challenges of interpreting a story. 


It’s rare to find a situation in life devoid of ambiguities.  Very few social, cultural, or political issues lend themselves to tidy narrative arcs with predictable turns and outcomes.  Fictional stories serve as training grounds for the inconsistent, unpredictable, and confusing world we live in.  Being able to follow a story while analyzing the events and techniques that drive it forward is a crucial skill.  This skill requires interpretive muscles that must be exercised and relying too heavily on spoilers only invites atrophy.


Meaningful Surprises


In his elegant treatise against worrying about spoilers, Tom Bissell argues that “what happens during the ending of a game is not that interesting.  What is interesting is the manner in which the ending of a game is framed and the constellation of detail that accumulates around an ending. As a gamer, I am most affected by the how” (Spoilsport: On Gaming’s Unhealthy Obsession With Spoilers”, Crispy Gamer, 21 January 2010).  The problem with Bissell’s argument is that in video games the “what” often informs the “how.”  The actions that players take within a game inform the story being constructed.  Therefore, knowing too much about a game’s plot or mechanics will inevitably change the game’s story.


[Warning: spoilers for Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, and Train follow.  And for shame, Scott, for not including this warning yourself. Tch, tch.—ed.]


Remove the surprise of BioShock’s twist and the shock, frustration, and embarrassment that many people felt when it was revealed that they were pawns in a larger game evaporates.  Without foreknowledge, the player must honestly examine the unexpected conflict between obedience and freedom after Ryan reveals Jack’s true nature as both an audience member and as an active participant.  Knowing about the mind control, the deceit, and essentially the false dichotomy between saving and harvesting the Little Sisters beforehand deprives the player of this revelation and influences the decisions that they make while playing the game.  One can (and should) always go back to a game to study it in depth, but the initial earnestness of unraveling the plot and playing the game without knowing all of the consequences can never be recaptured.


Knowing the way that Red Dead Redemption ends transforms the open range from a place of possibility into a trek towards an inevitable fate.  Although John Marston’s fate is repeatedly hinted at over the course of the game, there are enough thematic and mechanical elements to seduce players into thinking that things might turn out fine.  Knowing that Marston eventually dies in what amounts to little more than a criminal’s death informs each moral choice in the game.  The decisions to be bad or good take on different meanings when one becomes aware of the immutable outcome.


The unexpected twist in Brenda Brathwaite’s board game Train is crucial to the game’s message.  Once it is revealed that players are trying to cram passengers onto a train bound for a concentration camp, the game stops being an optimization problem and morphs into a parable about the banality of evil, dehumanization, and the difficulty of resistance.  Having the twist spoiled would shield players from this unpleasant realization and allow them to skip the difficult conceptual shift into thinking about the game as a metaphor.  Spoiling the game for people might be faster and more pleasurable for them, but it destroys one of the most valuable parts of the experience: unraveling a hidden meaning and then replaying the game to analyze its importance.


[End spoilers.—ed.]


In the study, Leavitt and Christenfeld write: “In complex stories, developments hazy in their implications on first read are readily understood when the narrative is revisited, and nervous stirrings of uncertainty may become warm anticipation of coming events once the story is laid bare” (p. 1).  This is no doubt true, but is it necessarily a negative thing?  Why can’t hazy implications, uncertainty, and the need to revisit a work be considered positive things?  Are we so caught up with immediate “pleasure” (itself a woefully hazy concept) that we can justify ignoring the rewards of learning to understand confusing stories?  If anything, this is a sad commentary on our impatient, anxious, slothful dispositions rather than on the value of certain forms of storytelling.


Similarly, are we so full of hubris as to believe that advanced knowledge of a game’s plot or mechanics fails to impact the way that we play it?  Bissell has raises a good point when he argues that meaningful criticism must not be constrained by spoilers.  Authors should not self censor, but rather trust that people who might not be ready for the knowledge will have the self discipline to wait until they play the game to read the criticism.  Still, he downplays the reality that knowledge of a game can just as easily destroy experiences as it can create them.  Knowing a significant plot twist or the fine details for a mechanical system in advance can radically change the way that one plays a game to the point where certain messages become diluted or even erased. 


Whether or not this is good design or storytelling is beside the point.  The reality is that people will always have a chance to play the game after it is spoiled; they can either play it again or simply read about it before they play.  If Leavitt and Christenfeld’s research is to be believed, their “hedonic” appreciation of the game will increase upon the second playthrough anyway, and they will not have lost out on any pleasure.  Because of this, we gain nothing by destroying people’s opportunity to view a game from a uniquely personal perspective and to confront the challenge of interpreting both thematic and mechanical systems in the face of uncertainty.


Spoilers don’t make stories better, they just make them easier to consume.  This easy consumption might be pleasurable, but there is something to be said for difficulty.  Some people crave the challenges of piecing together an obtuse narrative or a challenging game system.  Respecting spoiler warnings gives them an opportunity to pursue such goals and preserves the story of their journey towards understanding and (ultimately) pleasure.


 

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