Spoiler warning – two of my least favourite words in the English language, not including phlogiston and topiary.

They remind me of those signs that soulless bureaucrats put up in their windows; the kind with 'Polite Notice' written on them in the hope that passers-by will be robotic enough to file the inevitable pettiness that follows into the desired brain receptacle.

In both cases, the qualifier is added for one reason alone: that deep down, the person knows that in a fair and just world, what they're writing would earn them a well-deserved slap in the kisser. Then they write it anyway.

The problem with a spoiler warning is that, almost by definition, it's an admission that you're in a place where readers shouldn't have to worry about them. If you actively hunt them out, of course, you'll get no sympathy from me. I don't care how exciting the show or game is, you make your click, you make your choice.

What annoys me to the point of absolute spitting fury is having an experience randomly ruined. Once, long ago, when dragons roamed the Earth and 56.6k modems had only just been invented, enjoying the latest shows, movies, games and novels the way their creators intended was as easy as avoiding forums for a while.

Or making it clear that any friends incapable of keeping their mouths shut would be having themselves a hot date with the business end of a blunt needle and length of black thread.

Speedy spoils

Now, however, there's always something exciting on the way, and avoiding unwanted info is next to impossible. The statute of limitations for spoilers seems to be roughly five picoseconds, especially for net-friendly shows like Lost.

With Twitter, events can be spoiled in real-time. Or faster, if The Pirate Bay's minions are on the ball. It doesn't take much, and usually the guilty party isn't even aware they're doing it.

They think that by writing 'Spoiler Warning' they're doing their duty, oblivious to the fact that the eye doesn't magically blank out everything except the currently focused word. Yes, the warning's there, but like finding the words 'Do not drink' at the bottom of what turns out to be a tall glass of cool urine on a hot summer day, you're still left with a foul taste in your mouth.

Staying in the dark

Personally speaking, when I'm looking forward to something, I like to go in knowing as little as possible. Something that sounds terrible in summary can work brilliantly when you have all the facts, and simply not knowing what to expect adds that all-important Christmas Eve excitement to getting your hands on something new.

True, sometimes I crack; sometimes the nature of my job makes it impossible to know as little as I want to about what's coming up over the next few months. But all things considered, ignorance is usually bliss.

This month, for instance, I dodged the spoiler gauntlet for both Mass Effect 2 and BioShock 2. The worlds, reveals, plot points, mechanics… all of them unfolded at the pace the creators intended. It wasn't easy, but holding out was worth the effort.

What's ironic is that it's rarely the good bits that get directly spoiled. If someone really loves a twist, chances are they'll hide it so everyone else has the same moment of realisation or discovery. True, you might find out that there's a That Bit in the game/show/movie, or that (to borrow an IT Crowd line) There's A Twist, but generally nothing specific, and nothing that ruins the experience.

It's when someone's disappointed that you tend to get the dismissive, back-handed 'Spoiler Warning: I was so cross when I found out it was Earth' level variety. These are spoilers in the purest sense – not just ruining the moment, but poisoning the whole experience.

Even if it turns out to be great, that old saying about only having one chance to make a first impression is every bit as true for media as people. And of course, with people, you don't have to spend up to £50 a shot to talk to them. Not most people, anyway.

Until we have a magic helmet capable of zapping very specific memories, or some form of trebuchet-based justice system for dealing with persistent spoiler offenders, there's really nothing that can be done about all this. If the occasional big release means becoming a temporary online hermit, so be it.

Still, I would politely urge that the next time you're about to wax lyrical, check you're in a spoiler-friendly place, and if not, don't say anything you wouldn't have wanted to read in advance yourself. The people you're talking to have a right to enjoy things at the same pace. They may also have knives. Just a thought.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 293

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