Mind Games: Spoil me, Baby

Oct. 21, 2011, 12:59 a.m.
Mind Games: Spoil me, Baby

For better or for worse, my generation is afflicted with extreme spoiler-phobia. You know the feeling: one moment, you’re having an innocent chat with a friend or catching up with Twitter. Then suddenly our spoiler-sense tingles, sending us cringing into an eyes-shut, ears-covered fetal position. For some, it’s a pretty powerful force. I have friends who regularly go into a total media blackout every holiday season just to avoid catching a glimpse they’d rather forget.

Spoilers are hardly a vice, but they have the same tantalizing appeal. As someone who peruses the Web for game info on an almost hourly basis, I often find myself just one click away from getting that little endorphin hit with a leaked cutscene or an interview that went too far. After years of waiting for even a morsel of info on games like Skyward Sword or Skyrim, it’s an internal battle that I struggle to win.

But what if I told you that spoiling a game would actually make it better?

As a psych major, I was both skeptical and intrigued when I read a Science Daily article suggesting exactly that. To be fair, the study in question wasn’t exclusively about games. But even so, it’s  implications seem neatly extendable to the Uncharteds and Mass Effects of the world.

This is probably the boring part for most of you, so I’ll make the explanation brief. The study was conducted at UC-San Diego by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, who presented one of 12 short stories to two separate groups. The stories, mostly classics from the likes of John Updike and Agatha Christie, were categorized as either “ironic-twist,” “mystery” or “literary.”  One set of subjects saw an introductory paragraph that essentially spoiled the plot, while the other group read the same story with the plot-spoiling paragraph inserted at some point later on.

Incredibly, a majority of test subjects preferred the spoiled versions of the stories.

As reported by Science Daily:

“Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.”

“The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.”

Looking at the results, Christenfeld extrapolates that “Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing.”

Bringing that a little closer to gamer lingo, you might say that it doesn’t particularly matter where a story is taking a player, but rather how we get there.

Leavitt’s explanation sings the same tune, as the doctoral student says it’s “cognitively easier” to focus on a deeper understanding of the story once you how it turns out.

For same games—and indeed, for some gamers—I think I can agree. In their most pure, traditional form, video games don’t so much present a player with a story or even allow them to influence it with fully realized feedback, a la Dragon Age: Origins. The stark presentation of games like the original Zelda, Metroid or even the very modern Limbo give players only the most basic rudiments of context and purpose. By necessity, the storytelling becomes an active and internal process unique to each player; in some ways, it’s the opposite of how each reader’s personal version of Middle Earth looks a little different. With each action, the player constructs an evolving framework of how the game world operates and what motivates its characters.

But if you spoil a game like that, the player has a framework handed to them from the outset. They can move through the game with their mind at ease, passively sorting everything they see into the “correct” mental bucket. It’s not for everyone, but I can see the appeal of that.

Looking back a couple years, I think BioWare’s marketing department was well aware of that concept when it was ramping up excitement for Mass Effect 2. (Pardon the ironic spoiler warning here.)  Casey Hudson & Co. made it plenty clear that Commander Shepard would embarking on a “suicide mission” by game’s end, a proclamation that angered many gamers. But regardless, BioWare’s marketing strategy may have actually heightened the tension players felt in the already dramatic and nonlinear space opera.

Not all games are so open-ended, though. When a rollercoaster thrill-ride like Modern Warfare 3 has its plot leaked moths ahead of release, it can legitimately ruin some of the one-off surprises that make the game so entertaining.

Ultimately, gamers need to manage their own exposure to spoilers. But we should remember that games today allow for an incredible diaspora of experiences, and not all of them are necessarily enhanced by going in blind. This study might say a “spoiler warning” is nothing to worry about, but as for me, I think I’ll still find myself fighting the urge to scroll down next time I come across those terrifying, seductive words.

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