We live in an era of extreme spoiler-phobia. Be it television, movies, novels, or video games, the speedy connectivity of social media has conditioned us to live in fear of ruining one another's fun. We add spoiler warnings to even the most mundane details, even when the subject of the discussion is years old.
I know I've blocked and unfollowed plenty of folks for their inability to refrain from gushing about Breaking Bad or Lost, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Even right this moment, I feel an abundance of pressure to assure you that in this article about spoilers, there will not be any actual spoilers.
But according to a new study by the psychology department at UC San Diego, people actually enjoy spoiled stories more than stories that they hear fresh.
The study, performed by UCSD's Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, was performed three separate times and involved 12 short stories. The stories themselves were written by literary luminaries like Agatha Christie, John Updike, and Anton Chekhov (whose now-famous "Chekhov's Gun" rule for storytelling was, fittingly, a bit of a spoiler-warning catch-all). Each story was categorized as either "ironic-twist," "mystery," or "literary." The stories were then presented to at least 30 test subjects with a paragraph out front that spoiled the plot. Thirty other subjects read the story unspoiled, with the same paragraph inserted later so as not to ruin any surprises.
Afterwards, all subjects were asked which stories they liked most, and the majority preferred the spoiled versions. From 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.
Interesting. Christenfeld, who is a professor of social psychology at UCSD, goes on to postulate that "Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing."
That argument applies equally well to movies, television, or even games—take Christenfeld's statement and replace the word "writing" with the word "play," and you get: "Plots are just excuses for great play. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the play." Sound familiar?
Of course, that isn't what Christenfeld said, but I've seen the "Games are games, not stories" argument voiced plenty of times by plenty of smart, convincing people. That conclusion feels overly simplistic—I believe story is a valid, important part of many games—but I'm not certain I can say that unspoiled twists are a valid, important party of many stories.
When I think about spoilable games like Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption or Knights of the Old Republic, I must acknowledge that as cool as their respective twists were, it was the challenge, the progression, and the journey that stuck with me most. (That said, I still skipped over Crecente's spoilerriffic breakdown of the major events in Modern Warfare 3, though based on the numbers that post scored, many of you didn't.)