Ian Bogost sticks some go-faster stripes on the side of games
Hard game criticism
Taken in the pop cultural sense, a spoiler is information about a work that, if encountered, will reveal key elements of the plot. But there’s another use for the word ‘spoiler’ that’s found in the world of automotive and aviation design. In its automotive sense, a spoiler is a device that alters (or spoils) the movement of air as a vehicle passes through it. Its purpose is to increase the streamline flow of air over a car to reduce drag. Such a mechanism offers several benefits, including improved handling and increased fuel economy.
The two senses of ‘spoiler’ do have something in common: they diminish the value or effect of something. In the case of an automobile, air turbulence is spoiled by the apparatus. In the case of pop culture, the enjoyment of a work is spoiled by divulging key elements of its plot. But the difference between aerodynamic and narrative spoiling underscores an important distinction between games and other forms of media. The best games are susceptible to spoiling in a way more akin to the airflow around a car than the posting of a finale on an Internet message board. In fact, being spoilable-like-a-race-car (let’s call it ‘spoilering’) might be a good acid test for a game’s quality.
Some games share so much in common with traditional narrative media that they spoil more than they spoiler. Games such as BioShock, Batman: Arkham City, Red Dead Redemption or Gears Of War 3 – or any number of other games driven primarily by storytelling – tend to be susceptible to being diminished when facts about their more-or-less common plots and endings are revealed.
But these media can be spoiled mostly because their experiences are so singular. When a key plot point of a show, film or game can be described by an ordinary viewer or player in such a way that eviscerates others’ ability to enjoy the work, perhaps we should blame the individuals who do the spoiling less than the structure of the media ecosystem that makes spoiling possible.
By contrast, an automotive spoiler or wing does not provide answers or resolutions. Instead, it offers tactical benefits that must still be put to use by an adept operator to make a difference. In other words, it offers a secondary benefit that is only valuable when put to use in a primary circumstance. Unless you’re already amid a pack adept at performance driving, adding a spoiler will hardly help you win a race.
Spoilering is a feature common to games with depths of structure and longevity of play that extend beyond a one-time revelation. Consider games such as chess, go, poker or blackjack. Problems, puzzles, techniques and approaches are commonly revealed in these games. But the work of executing those techniques is more like the performance driver than the film watcher: without fluency, knowing the response to white’s 1.d4 opening in chess or whether to double down in blackjack when the dealer shows an ace cannot be adeptly incorporated into a game, but only carried out blind, as tactics absent a strategy.
One way to think about spoilering is as tactics made material. In collectible card game (CCG) communities such as Magic: The Gathering or Netrunner, frequent releases of new sets of cards alter the gameplay, since players mix these new materials with older ones into valid decks. Early versions of these releases are sometimes posted as ‘pack spoilers’ before official catalogues offer a full accounting of their contents. In these cases, revealing an individual card’s appearance and abilities does not spoil a game so much as it spoilers it through instrumentation.
Of course, narrative media has something equivalent to spoilering when it withholds the manner of revelation of plot. While spoiler warnings abound for television shows such as Game Of Thrones or films like The Hunger Games, these series are adapted from popular novels whose readers already know what happens. The pleasure of the viewing comes from seeing how the TV or filmmakers carried out the plot, including deviating from it, as adaptations always do. Less common is the spoilering of narrative media: instrumenting it with new information that provides a strengthened, rather than ruined, experience.
Perhaps that’s because spoilered games offer something impossible in linear narrative: the recognition that no amount of inside information can ever ruin the experience of a game. Instead, it can only deepen it, make it more profound.
Being spoilable-like-a-race-car (let’s call it ‘spoilering’) might be a good acid test for a game’s quality