‘Why I believe Game of Thrones is important’

The iron throne: Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau star in Game of Thrones. © HBO
by Tom van Laer

A senior lecturer in marketing at Cass Business School, University of London, Tom van Laer specialises in storytelling, narrative persuasion, and social media.

The epic fantasy TV series is back for its seventh season. Here one leading expert explains five reasons why the show satisfies our psychological needs (besides the sex and violence)…

Game of Thrones has become something of a TV event over the past six years. The attractions are obvious: large helpings of sex and violence, bolstered by a serpentine storyline said to be inspired by the War of the Roses.

Yet I think the series meets deeper, more fundamental human needs. With two colleagues, I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with 55 people from 14 countries to get a more detailed picture.

We found five motivations for consuming stories like Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones is the perfect metaphor for where we stand as a society. Winter may be coming.

1/ Understanding the outer world

Game of Thrones provides insight into the lives of people in other places in other times, like the Scandinavian vikings (portrayed in the series as the Ironborn from the Iron Islands) as well as Genghis Khan and the Mongols (represented by Daenerys’s time with the horse-obsessed Dothraki).

Making sense of the world is something all humans need and do. So it is with Game of Thrones. We learn that problems of social and financial inequality combined with the mental infirmity and ineffective and weak rule of political leaders can cause conflict, power struggles, and fighting.

2/ Understanding the inner world

People use stories to make sense of individual experiences. For example, some people watch Game of Thrones because they can easily relate to the battle between good and evil being fought chiefly in the heart of Tyrion Lannister.

Similarly, other people enjoy Game of Thrones because they feel a personal stake when another character dies. Hodor was not a major character but he was beloved for his gentleness. Though his master would ultimately cause his demise, Hodor stuck with him loyally until death. We all need a Hodor in our lives.

3/ Investigating the outer world

Different from needing to understand the outer world, needing to investigate it reflects the human need to appreciate that other people’s perspectives are different from one’s own. A story like Game of Thrones enables viewers to navigate other lives that are alien to their own.

Some people take this seriously enough to visit locations from the series such as Dubrovnik in Croatia. Travelling to such locations turns Game of Thrones into a personal event that becomes a discovery.

4/ Forgetting the inner world

Another shared need for narrative is to break away from daily life. Humans cannot escape the need for escapism. As such, Game of Thrones is effective whenever you just do not want to think about your things anymore.

5/ Looking after a lonely and suffering self

At other times, people use stories to improve personal resources and heal their suffering selves, including coping with profound sorrow, embarrassment, and guilt.

In Game of Thrones, Arya Stark’s migration to Essos is an example of a way to cope with loneliness – her story is a reminder that there are people out there having it harder than you.

Meanwhile Sansa Stark having Ramsay Bolton’s hound eat him alive offers a fictional revenge to survivors of sexual violence. Or you can use Tyrion as your alter ego, whose similar life events and emotions make you think you are not to blame for the mess the world is in.

Game of Thrones is the perfect metaphor for where we stand as a society. Winter may be coming but that is an opportunity to show how strong we are. Like the house of Stark, we are best when we are challenged.

Stories empower people to self-prescribe narrative therapy. Not only do we know which stories we like – we also know which narrative we need to escape from reality as well as transform it.

This is an edited version of Tom van Laer’s article in The Conversation. Follow the link under Become An Expert for the full text.

You Decide

  1. Some have described Game of Thrones as the best TV show ever made. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Write your own list of five things that every TV show should aim to do.

Word Watch

TV event
In the UK, the show received an average of 5m viewers per episode last season. In the USA, it received around 25m viewers.
War of the Roses
A series of battles in Britain which raged from 1455 to 1485 between the English houses of Lancaster and York. This has been compared to the competing houses of Lannister and Stark in Game of Thrones.
Two colleagues
Luca Visconti of ESCP Europe and Stephanie Feiereisen of Cass Business School.
Scandinavian vikings
Norse seafarers who travelled and settled throughout Europe between the 8th and 11th centuries.
Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan was the founder of the Mongol Empire, which conquered central Asia and China in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. He and his empire are infamous for slaughtering large numbers of the local populations.
Narrative therapy
A form of counselling which is focused on using personal stories to understand yourself and your life.

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