Opinion | Why Game of Thrones is so satisfying

GREY ZONES: It's confusing, epic and hugely satisfying.
GREY ZONES: It's confusing, epic and hugely satisfying.

Game of Thrones has become something of a TV event over the past six years – the last season attracted more than five million 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.

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. 

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’ 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).

2. Understanding the inner world

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.

3. Investigating the outer world

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 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.

4. Forgetting the inner world

Another shared need for narrative is to break away from daily life. Humans cannot escape the need for escapism. Game of Thrones is effective whenever you just do not want to think about your things anymore. It’s an effective way to escape your problems, or at least, forget them for a while. 

5. Looking after a lonely, 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. 

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. [The Conversation]”

Tom van Laer, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, City, University of London. This article was originally published on The Conversation.