Game of Thrones has become something of a TV event over the past six years – the last season attracted more than 5m viewers per episode. On the face of it, 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, one of the bloodiest periods of English history.
Yet, I think the series meets deeper, more fundamental human needs than just a romp through the bedrooms and battlefields of author George R. R. Martin’s imagination. With colleagues Luca Visconti of ESCP Europe and Stephanie Feiereisen of Cass Business School, I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with 55 people from 14 countries to get a more detailed picture of what the psychological needs are that narratives like Game of Thrones satisfy.
We found five motivations for consuming stories varying from Game of Thrones specifically to other books, documentaries and films, to paintings and frescos, to music and novels. These are: understanding the outer world, understanding the inner world, investigating the outer world, forgetting the inner world, and looking after a lonely and suffering self.
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’ time with the horse-obsessed Dothraki). We get a glimpse of the Slave Coast of Africa with Slavers’ Bay while the various Free Cities in Game of Thrones – Lys, Braavos, Pentos, Norvos, Myr – can be found in our history books as various trading cities of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (Alexandria, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Tyre, for example).
However, the main action in Game of Thrones is inspired, according to Martin, by the Wars of the Roses, which raged from 1455 to 1485 between the English houses of Lancaster and York. That bloody story has been transferred to Game of Thrones where the two main competing houses are known as Lannister and Stark.
Making sense of the world is something all humans need and do. As American scholar Athinodoros Chronis wrote, visitors to places such as the American Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg turn what are essentially commercial tourist sites into personal experiences by comparing what they see and hear with their own prior knowledge, filling in the gaps in their knowledge, and using their imagination to immerse themselves in the story of the past. So it is with Game of Thrones and the Wars of the Roses. 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.
Living through an event or feeling certain emotions does not necessarily make them easily interpretable. 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 individual human heart of Tyrion Lannister, instead of between heroic elves and evil orcs in, say, Lord of the Rings.
Similarly, other people particularly enjoy Game of Thrones because they feel a personal stake when another character dies. Hodor, body servant to young Bran Stark, 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.
Different from needing to understand the outer world, needing to investigate it reflects the human need to understand not only our own beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives but to appreciate that other people’s are different from one’s own. A story like Game of Thrones enables viewers not only to interpret their own lives, but also to vicariously 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, whose walls were used for scenes in King’s Landing and the Red Keep. Another popular destination is Ouarzazate in Morocco which stands in for Yunkai on the Game of Thrones’ continent of Essos. Iceland was used to film the Land Beyond the Wall on the Game of Thrones’ continent of Westeros and Northern Ireland provided Castle Black, Vaes Dothrak, Winterfell, and other locations. Travelling to such locations turns Game of Thrones into a personal event that becomes a discovery.
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.
The series is an effective way to escape from your problems, or at least, to forget them for a while. Fans even invent great (and weird) fan fiction that grants elevation from mundane affairs. Beware though: fan fiction can suit solipsistic indulgence and denial of personal problems. One 39-year-old French woman we interviewed was struggling to overcome her alcoholism. She escaped from her urges by binge-watching horror films, simply replacing one addiction with another. In the end, escapism is about putting your issues aside and keeping them for later. As a result, they do not get resolved.
At other times, people use stories to improve personal resources and heal their suffering selves, including coping with profound sorrow, embarrassment, and guilt.
Game of Thrones can be used for various self-prescribed therapies too. Participants mentioned a wide variety of stories they used for therapy. One 80-year-old Irish woman told us she had used David Copperfield to help her deal with the grief of losing her mother. 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 makes you think you are not to blame for the mess the world is in.
First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans used Game of Thrones in a speech to Google:
It is confusing, it’s epic, it’s about good and bad, but it’s not black and white. It’s about challenges … Sort of like society in general today.
Paraphrasing him, Game of Thrones is the perfect metaphor for where we stand as a society. Our time is a challenging time. Winter may be coming but that is an opportunity to show how strong we are because – 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 – but we also know which narrative we need to escape from reality as well as transform it.
Tom van Laer, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, City, University of London