Context Sensitive

Spoiler Alert!


In 1994, the Winter Olympics were held in Lillehammer, Norway, which meant that events were long over by the time they were broadcast in prime time television here in the States. Avoiding news about the results of various events was virtually impossible, but for the most part, I didn’t get too fussed about it, because my interest in many events was fleeting. I was curious to know if an American had won the Biathalon or what teams made it to the Curling semi-finals, but I didn’t necessarily need to watch it all play out. There was, however, one particular event that I want to experience with absolutely no prior knowledge: the ladies’ figure skating final.

Yes, I’m talking about figure skating. Roll with it, I’ll be talking about Mass Effect 2 in just a minute.

In January 1994, American skater Tonya Harding hired a thug to attack her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, hopefully taking her out of competition. That didn’t happen. Though Kerrigan had to pull out of the U.S. Championships, she recovered in time to represent her country in the Olympic Games. She went on to win the short program, which put her in serious contention for the gold medal. I was already interested because I’m a figure skating fan, but now everyone else was, too. Trailer trash Tonya – who also earned a trip to the Games – versus picture-perfect Nancy was the kind of drama that makes TV stations drool. Nancy Kerrigan was the story of the Games, all anyone talked or seemingly cared about. The day the final was scheduled to air, I went into a complete media blackout: I shielded my eyes when I walked past newspapers, I didn’t listen to the radio, I fled the room when coworkers so much as mentioned the Olympics. It took some doing, but I managed to get through the entire day without discovering the outcome of the ladies’ long program. As I was crossing the parking lot to my car, two women from a nearby office were saying goodnight. Just as my hand touched the door handle, one called to the other, “So did you see that Nancy won silver?”

I didn’t actually punch her square in the face, but I sure thought about it. Spoilers suck.


Now, some people couldn’t care less about spoilers. Over at Crispy Gamer, Tom Bissell says that it’s about time we “outgrew spoilers,” saying that fretting about giving a game’s ending away is “deeply infantilizing.” Other gaming friends tell me that spoilers don’t bother them because they’re more concerned with gameplay than story, or that how they personally react to the plot isn’t nearly as important as how the characters react. These same people would probably tell me that it was silly to be upset that I knew what medal Nancy Kerrigan won before I saw her take the ice. I still got to see an excellent and beautiful display of athletic ability, so what did it really matter that I knew who would finally end up on the podium? The journey, they would say, is surely more important than the destination. This is a perfectly valid point of view, but it’s just not one I happen to share.

The appeal of a sports event, be it a football game or heavyweight bout, doesn’t simply lie in watching a highly-trained athlete, but in the uncertainty. Take that away, and you’re just going through the motions. I feel the same way about videogames, or at least those that make the story an important part of the game experience. (I’m not sure a shmup is spoiled if you tell someone that the third boss is a giant squid that shoots acid instead of ink.) Certain games are meant to be complex experiences, combining emotional impact with gameplay, and that impact is ruined, or at least greatly diminished, by knowing what to expect.

Which brings us back to Mass Effect 2. I am simply aghast by the information that people are slinging around without a thought for those who would like to have a completely fresh experience when they finally get to play the game. Yes, I know that much of what’s being talked about has already appeared somewhere online, but “all the other kids are doing it” didn’t work when your mom caught you smoking and it doesn’t work here, too. If you’ve already sought out every last crumb of information and are serene about playing the game knowing each and every twist and turn that lay before you, I am totally cool with that. You should get to play your game however you like – but those of us who derive enjoyment from being surprised deserve the same opportunity, and we can’t if you’re giving away secrets as soon as you find them.

I don’t expect you to become so paranoid about letting something slip that you’re afraid to open your mouth unless everyone you’re with signs a waiver first. Just use some common sense. Spoiling is all about context; the ladies in the parking lot had no reason to suspect that I gave a damn one way or the other about the Olympics. Similarly, if you’re in the grocery store jawing about Mass Effect 2, there’s no real reason you should assume that someone would be upset to overhear you. But when you come to a gaming site like this one, that context changes dramatically. This is a community comprised of almost nothing but gamers, and it stands to reason that they would have at least a passing interest in one of the biggest titles of the year. At that point, it’s just common courtesy to behave as though they’d rather not stumble across major plot points. Use a spoiler tag. Use vague terms when Twittering. Have private conversations instead of blurting things out in IRC. By all means, have the conversations you want to have, just be mindful of the fact that not everyone wants to see or hear you having them.

Unless, you know, you’re actually trying to be a dick.

Susan Arendt is a total Olympics nerd.

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