Spoilers - what's acceptable, and what definitely isn't ok?

Warning: this article contains spoilers. I'm well aware of the irony of that. You've got to have a sense of humour about these things, especially if you're passionate about TV shows like Game of Thrones, as I am. Earlier this week, the second episode of season 6 aired - in the US on Sunday, UK on Monday - and Jon Snow was brought back to life after more than a year of speculation over whether or not he'd stay dead. It's a big moment in the show, and a big deal for fans, who love both Kit Harington and his bluff Northern character. And the only thing more predictable than his return was the legion of people spamming the news all over social media, seconds after it happened.

We now live in an age where spoilers are very hard to avoid. Being plugged into a constantly refreshing stream of pop culture news, which is what Facebook and Twitter has become, brings both advantages and drawbacks. Spoilers fall into the latter category. But it's impossible to condemn spoilers outright, because there are no hard and fast rules about what they are and how long they last. Technically, a spoiler can last forever. There are some people out there who haven't seen the ending of The Sixth Sense, and would be shocked to hear that particular twist. But does that mean we can't talk about it? That we can't celebrate its impact on us and the medium of cinema as a whole? Of course not. We can't expect to live our lives free from spoilers, and just have to accept that, no matter how shitty it is.

Boiling it down to the overly-simplified answer of 'stay off social media, then' doesn't cut it. As a culture we've become so utterly immersed in social media that it's become habit and, as anyone with a passing understanding of behavioural psychology will tell you, it's almost impossible to break an ingrained habit (or pause it) without significant personal motivation. Plus, it's unreasonable to ask someone to stay off social media because there's a chance they'll hear some jerk broadcasting a spoiler.

So, what's a reasonable statute of limitations for spoilers? When does it become acceptable to talk about them? I guess, for me, that depends on the medium you're discussing. If you're talking about a video game like Uncharted 4, then discussing the major plot points on the same week of release feels like a crappy thing to do. Most reasonable people don't have time to finish a 15-hour game in under a week. After that, while it feels crass to openly discuss it on Twitter, it's tough to condemn those who do too harshly. I guess it falls to your own personal ethics on spoilers - some prefer not to ever drop spoilers in their interactions with others, and that's by far the most noble approach.

However, there's a real difference between your friends tweeting about the 'Would you kindly' moment in BioShock, and a large media outlet doing the same thing. While the majority of personal social media accounts (celebrities notwithstanding) have no social obligations to avoid spoilers, those owned by large media outlets most certainly do. These accounts - along with celebs - are large-scale broadcasters, rather than conversers, and it's here where the issue of acceptable spoilers gets very, very tricky. You follow these people because you're interested in what they have to say.

I won't lie - we've been guilty of spoiling things on GamesRadar+. While we always try to be as fair to you as possible, we're human and sometimes either make mistakes or bad calls. One example I recall from the last season of Game of Thrones is that we used an image from the final episode that hinted at Cersei's walk of shame, as a thumbnail. If you visited the site, you saw it. If you follow us on social media, you saw it. That was unacceptable. However, the bind we find ourselves in is that we can't avoid covering stuff like this at all. For a large media outlet to not write about, say, the fate of Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is madness. Fact is: we need and want to discuss the stuff people are talking about. We have opinions on Jon Snow's fate, on the outcome of Captain America Civil War, on Uncharted 4's story, and if we're not part of the conversation we cease to be relevant. This means we need to include spoilers.

But... there is a limit. For me, the key is being able to give readers fair warning based on the strength of the spoiler. That's a subjective call, so someone is always going to get upset. Is it ok to talk openly about the ending of Metal Gear Solid 5 now? Well, the game was out in September 2015, so most enthusiasts will have finished it, so for me it's a yes. What about the ending of Dark Souls 3? Broadcasting a fact about the ending isn't ok, but you can certainly hint at stuff in a knowing way and invite people to click on a deeper, spoiler-packed, piece. If you've finished the game you clearly know what we're talking about, but if not, you're none the wiser. Why is that ok? Because you've had time to play and finish the game and, unless you use your own free-will by clicking on the article and reading it, no-one is shoving facts about the ending in places you can't reasonably avoid them.

So, was it ok for Entertainment Weekly to spoil the resurrection of Jon Snow on Monday via Twitter (a Tweet still pinned to the top of their account at time of writing), several hours before the UK and European audience had been given a chance to watch the episode on Sky? No. Was it ok for them to send a press release out showing the cover of the latest issue - not on sale for a week - which features Kit Harrington and a bold coverline simply saying 'He's Alive'? No. The difference here is that a large chunk of your audience simply hasn't been given a reasonable opportunity to experience the show for themselves, and you've directly targeted them with a whopping spoiler. It's a dick move of epic proportions, and one that shows little respect for your audience because you've made the decision for them; you've removed their opportunity to avoid it.

When is it acceptable to spoil something, then? If you're looking for a pithy summary, I'd say: when the majority of your audience has been given a reasonable opportunity to experience the event. That's the rule we operate on at GamesRadar+. It's why we either held back on covering Jon Snow's comeback until after the UK airing, or buried it deep behind layers of spoiler warnings, and never mentioned it directly on social media. While TV shows are perhaps the fastest moving of all the media we cover, it's still not ok to give away the twist before the bulk of your audience has seen the show. Movies and games are a little different - they're less immediate, and people experience them at different paces - so you'd expect to wait longer before dropping the spoilers openly.

Spoilers are a fact of life, and an unavoidable aspect of modern culture. We can't expect to be outraged every time a key plot-point is ruined, because that's the death of critical discussion and human conversation... but at the same juncture, we are absolutely entitled to get a bit furious when someone immediately pins that spoiler to the top of their Twitter feed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy has been writing about games since 1999, when he nagged the Editors of his University newspaper so much they let him start a brand-new video games section. After that he worked in print mags for over 10 years before switching to the murky world of online editing, when he became Executive Editor on GamesRadar. Now he uses his ill-gotten power and influence to write endless, beard-stroking think-pieces on Destiny and Game of Thrones. Spoil the latest episode of the show, and he will cut you.
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