Game of Spoilers: A Spoiler-Free Investigation into the Role of Experience in Fandom

By Emily Jackson

After surviving the long winter, fans of the HBO hit series Game of Thrones celebrated the premiere of season 6 this Sunday, April 24th. The interwebs are abuzz with theories, opinions, debates, and predictions of what to the rest of the season might have in store. Most of the debates are focused on the disputed fate of a beloved character that met the sharp end of a plot twist at the end of season 5. Fans are hopeful that a new season will bring explanations, as well as new content, new surprises, and new thrills. But countless fans unable or unwilling to watch the premiere must now prepare for a new threat: spoilers.

In our media-rich world, not only are there more and more shows, movies, and books worth spoiling, but also infinitely more ways for them to be spoiled. Everyone has their own strategies for avoiding spoilers. Some set up spoiler-blocking plugins on their social media or web browsers, or block out social media altogether. A few will seek out spoilers before they can be ambushed, beating them to the punch, while others (like me) stick to the classic technique of plugging your ears, shutting your eyes, and repeatedly yelling “NOPE” until the threat passes. Whatever method you choose, there is no denying that spoilers have become a significant factor in everyday conversation. This relatively recent development points to an interesting relationship between fans and media.

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All the information about a beloved show, book, or movie is important to fans because it plays a vital part in their connections with each other. In his book Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall described cultures that use relational communication styles and rely heavily on insider knowledge as ‘high context,’ versus ‘low context’ cultures that use straightforward, explicit communication (Hall, 1976).  As a high context community, fandoms not only talk about a show or book, they use it to shape the way they communicate. Without a thorough knowledge of a story, it is almost impossible to understand the fans. So, while fans are normally eager to learn as much about a show as they can to better connect with their fandom, the widespread fear of spoilers indicates that some information fans would rather gain through individual experience than from their fandom community. In this article, I argue that fans maintain a careful balance between individually-experienced and community-accumulated information that is important for both the fan’s independent enjoyment and their fandom membership. Spoilers disrupt this balance, and by investigating spoilers we can understand it better.

If you were to greet a stranger with “valar morghulis,” you’ll probably just confuse them, and maybe motivate them to leave your presence more quickly. But if they happen to be a Game of Thrones fan, they’re more likely to greet you with the traditional High Valyrian response, “valar dohaeris.” That’s because “valar morghulis” is not just a greeting, it is a reference that speaks volumes about your media involvement, interests, and identity as a member of the fan community.

Fandoms are relatively high context subcultures. Fans use their favorite show, movie, or book to develop a rich vocabulary of references, traditions, and social mores that is almost
incomprehensible to non-members. The more a fan watches and reads, the more they are able to discuss with others. The more they discuss with other fans, the more integrated they become in their fandom community.The more a fan watches and reads, the more they are able to discuss with others. The more they discuss with other fans, the more integrated they become in their fandom community. Therefore, fans are constantly looking for more information and ideas about their favorite media, not only for their own entertainment, but also to facilitate more community involvement and solidarity with their group.

However, spoilers present a problem with this reasoning; while fans devour new information about their favorite franchise to facilitate more involvement with the community, they just as actively avoid ‘spoiler-y’ information. The term is relatively young, having come into common use in the 1970’s as fans began utilizing email and online forums to connect with other audience members (Zimmer, 2014). The social expectations and mores surrounding spoilers are debated with nearly every popular release and season finale.

Netflix claims that spoilers have become less consequential for today’s viewers because 94% will still watch a show or movie even after the plot has been spoiled (Rawden, 2014). However, I don’t believe this is an accurate depiction of fans’ feelings about spoilers. The widespread debates about spoilers in popular media, and the prevalence of spoiler-warnings in regular conversation paints a very different picture about the significance of spoilers for viewers. Netflix also found that only 21% of those surveyed believe it’s acceptable to spoil the plot of a movie or episode immediately after the release (Rawden, 2014). Therefore, I think it’s safe to say that people still care about spoilers.got-sansa-spoiler-stop

Merriam-Webster defines ‘spoiler’ as information “that can spoil a viewer’s sense of surprise or suspense,” but I believe this, too, fails to capture the social significance (Merriam-Webster, 2015). Spoilers do more than just ruin the surprise; they rob the viewer of the opportunity to experience the narrative, the suspense, and the surprise on their own, and free from preconceived opinions or expectations.

Although fandoms act as high context, collective communities, (where the content shapes the way members communicate along with a collective identity), the individual’s independent ideas and opinions about the story are just as important for their community involvement as their knowledge of story itself. Fans don’t just share information and theories, they share their feelings and their impressions, which feed into their theories, ‘headcanons’, ‘ships’, and other fan topics.Spoilers can tarnish those first impressions, potentially robbing fans of important cultural capital that could have been used in fan discussions. Spoilers can tarnish those first impressions, potentially robbing fans of important cultural capital that could have been used in fan discussions. Spoilers disrupt a fan’s carefully negotiated equilibrium between independent and group experiences.

By investigating spoilers, we uncover a fascinating relationship between the individual fans, the content, and the fandom community. In the case of these plot twists and surprises, the blank slate experience becomes more important to the individual’s experience than the accumulation of information is for the individual’s community experience. This is because the individual’s first impressions and feelings about the content are just as important as the content itself, and play a significant part in the individual’s involvement with, and relationship to the fan community.

Spoilers are and will continue to be important because they impact not only the entertainment experience, but also the social experience of fans. By exploring the role spoilers play in the social landscape, we can better understand our relationship with media and how media shapes our relationships with other fans. Today, there is an abundance of great movies, TV shows, books and games, so all fans must fortify themselves against the constant threat of spoilers. Because in the game of spoilers, you win or you die.

Emily Jackson is a recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh, where she earned her Masters of Science in Social Anthropology. Her dissertation explores fandoms and fan groups as online communities and their growing efforts to change the world through social activism. Emily’s research interests in human interaction and the social importance of narrative have fueled her passion for the academic study of fans and geek culture. In the future, Emily hopes to continue her education and eventually become a professor of Anthropology. You can find Emily’s dissertation in its entirety at her Academia.edu profile.

Works Cited

Hall, Edward T. 1976. Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.

Rawden, Jessica. 2014. New Survey Finds People Aren’t All That Bothered by Spoilers Anymore. CINEMABLEND. Retrieved April 20, 2016.http://www.cinemablend.com/television/Survey-Finds-People-Aren-t-All-Bothered-By-Spoilers-Anymore-67937.html

“Spoiler”. 2015. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved April 20, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/spoiler

Zimmer, Ben. 2014. Spoiler Alert: How Spoilers Started Out. WSJ. Retrieved April 20, 2016.http://www.wsj.com/articles/spoiler-here-we-reveal-how-the-term-began-1412965772

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About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

There are 6 comments

  1. Dr. K

    This approach reminds me of the “auteur” discussions of decades ago. Does the author of the work control the meaning (and thus we don’t want to challenge the experience that the author has set up for us) or is meaning created in the use or experience of a text or activity? Interesting that some research suggests we want spoilers because that is how we create meaning: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/archive/newsrel/soc/2011_08spoilers.asp

    Also, I see controlling spoilers as a corporate strategy designed to keep meaning creation in their hands. AMC just proved this again by bringing down the anti-spoiler hammer on TSDF.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/06/17/how-a-walking-dead-spoiler-website-became-an-amc-target/

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  2. laurentdsb

    In reference to previous point of communities that doesn’t mind the spoilers, i would also argue that even in people who don’t actively participate in fandom communities valued the individual experience and spoilers. I see it like a rollercoaster : you could see it from outside, see video of it and could talk about the feeling you could have to be inside the rollercoaster. But you would not have lived it. You could not be part of this group of friends that actually have done it. Its kind of an initiation rite almost, to acquire the shared experience that make you feel part of the group who actually did it.

    One point that bother me though, is still the way we communicate through it and the forms this communication can take. You mentioned : ” As a high context community, fandoms not only talk about a show or book, they use it to shape the way they communicate.”

    Maybe in fandom some will greet each other using a quote of GOT. But if i take me, that value the individual experience and avoiding spoilers, also to share this experience with others, but still not involved in any fandom ; how this shape the way i communicate? Your theory hold and i share it, since indeed im subject also to this attempt to be part of a higher context. But it can be difficult, for an anthropologist ( i made my bachelor degree in it also) to notes those aspects of communication when you get to people who are not at the core or particularly active in the fandom. Except directly sharing their experience, what consuming this experiences without spoilers change to the way their communicate?

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  3. Dr. K

    On the other hand, there are some fandoms that embrace spoilers and do not feel “fans must fortify themselves against the constant threat of spoilers.” The best example I know is The Walking Dead and specifically the Facebook group, The Spoiling Dead Fans (TSDF). They research spoilers and the show’s production and post what they gather before each episode. The nearly 350,000 people who enjoy the site are clearly not worried about having their experiences ruined. The communal nature of their sharing and the conversations that follow are much more interesting to me as an anthropologist than the claims that individual experiences are ruined. Recently the network showing TWD, AMC, had the Facebook page of TSDF shutdown before the season finale. The communal efforts that ensued to collect any scraps of spoiler info was fascinating. Also interesting are the endless discussions with newbies who come to the site and complain about the spoilers! Not only are they reminded quickly of the name of the site (The SPOILING Dead Fans) but the value of spoilers is always discussed. I would say that there is no “widespread fear of spoilers” from an anthropological perspective (including for Game of Thrones).

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    1. Emily Jackson

      Thank you for your input! I’m not familiar with TWD fandom or, by extension, TSDF Facebook page, but they do bring up a great example of fans who “seek out spoilers before they can be ambushed, beating them to the punch” (second paragraph), and use that content to bolster their community. However, I think using this one group (as large as it may be) to argue that there is no widespread concern about spoilers ignores a great deal of evidence.

      Spoilers and “spoiler alerts” are not only present in main stream media discussions, but also throughout online fan discussions, fan-made videos and music, between individuals, etc. Most, if not all fandoms with an online presence have franchise-specific memes (like those used in this post) that humorously deal with the issue. Even in your own commentary, you note that many who approach The Spoiling Dead page are initially alarmed by the spoilers.

      Also, I would be hesitant to call the members of The Spoiling Dead Facebook group representative of the entire Walking Dead fandom; the 336,000 fans of TSD Facebook page make up less than 1% of The Walking Dead fans on Facebook (over 34 million). And it is important to remember that most self-identified fandom members very rarely consider themselves members of only one fandom, and it is therefore possible that those spoiler-enthusiasts of The Walking Dead fandom might not feel the same way about all their other fandom connections.

      As an anthropologist, I find it fascinating how (as many of these fandom communities exist within the larger, individualist cultural context of the West) the individual experience produces cultural capital fans can use to embed themselves in the high context, collective subculture of fandom. That use of individual experience for community engagement is amazing to me, and I believe further ethnographic research into this relationship will result in some interesting revelations about our media-rich society. I have no doubt many fans might choose to skip the individual experience and the capital that comes with it in order to connect with other like-minded fandom members, but I do not think this is emblematic of the majority of fandoms and fan experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

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