Why Do I Care So Damn Much About Game of Thrones?
Spoiler Alert. Although the neuroscientific, psychological, and cinematic concepts explored in this piece are relevant to all kinds of fiction beyond Game of Thrones, this post will be examining these concepts through the lens of the global obsession surrounding the final season of Game of Thrones, which wraps up in just a few days. So consider yourself warned: the finale is coming, and this post contains spoilers that will come at you faster than wildfire in the Sept of Baelor.
The eighth season of Game of Thrones is the hot pop culture topic of the minute. Almost 18 million people tuned in to watch “The Long Night,” the season’s third episode featuring one of the biggest battles ever committed to film. It’s not the first television phenomenon ever, and it won’t be the last, but still there is something special about this tale of ice and fire. Nowadays you can watch countless prestige television shows whenever you want and often in batches of entire seasons all at once, yet somehow Game of Thrones has reached the status of “appointment television” that had all but disappeared. Everyone is going to talk about what they watched on Sunday night, so if you haven’t watched the episode by Monday you’ll almost certainly be spoiled on the plot by the time Tuesday rolls around — whether you care about the show or not.
What’s even more impressive to me about the sensation that is Game of Thrones is how invested people are in this story — sometimes literally, as my friends and I have bet actual money on the outcomes of season 8. But also invested on a deeper, less literal level. I helped to host a rewatch of the entire series before season 8 bowed (which took months). We paid such close attention to every detail that we won a Game of Thrones pub trivia event that we had no business doing so well in as graduate students with ostensibly more important things to do. And perhaps most concerning to me, I am unequivocally emotionally invested in what happens to my girl Daenerys Targaryen and her sweet baby Drogon, the last of her magnificent dragons. This season has taken her from hero to villain (faster than could possibly make any narrative sense), and it’s having actual effects on my Monday morning moods. It is a problem.
Game of Thrones may be fiction, but I have very real reactions to it. Why do I waste valuable energy ruminating over the wildly unconvincing plot devices that led to the loss of Daenerys’ second dragon? Why was Jon Snow’s inability to give Ghost so much as a pat on the head when he said goodbye so infuriating (he’s a good dog, Bran!). And why experience the emotional discomfort of what feels like actual hatred for Cersei Lannister? I am cognitively aware that none of this is real and that concern over “unrealistic” plots in a universe with dragons is itself absurd, yet here I am crying over the loss of Ser Jorah. At moments like this, when my attachment to fiction feels almost too strong to be sane, I look to science to explain my feelings. Fortunately for me and every other superfan out there, neuroscience and psychology offer much more rational explanations for my feelings than I ever could.
A Girl Has Many Faces — And She Understands Them All
Even the casual consumer of fiction is likely to find themselves saying “I identify with this character” from time to time. What exactly is this feeling? It isn’t a literal identification, to the point which your own self-identity becomes one with that character; I identified with many of Daenerys’ personal struggles throughout the show, but when she laid waste to King’s Landing after an easy battle win it was easy to be both heartbroken for the apparent evaporation of her moral compass yet confident in the existence of my own. Instead, this feeling is likely more related to what is known as our theory of mind — our ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, even when they differ from our own.
Scientists have been eager to explore where theory of mind lives within our brains. Everyday interactions rely heavily on our abilities to understand the motivations of others, and if we can identify the network of regions that constitute theory of mind, we may be able to gain profound insights into how we socialize with others and why some disorders (most notably autism spectrum disorder) can mess with a person’s ability to interact with others effectively. Fictional stories have provided a tool for us to study exactly this question since the mid-90’s . Researchers give their subjects stories to read and then assess their comprehension with some questions. They do this while monitoring their brain activity, generally by PET scan or fMRI. When compared to written text that is not character-driven — such as a physical description of events without any underlying motivations to decipher — studies like this can reveal the parts of the brain that are critical to understanding the actions of others and thus may form the basis for our theory of mind.
Brain regions that appear to be central to theory of mind — including the medial prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in social cognitive processes and decision-making, and the temporoparietal junction, which may facilitate mental inference and directed attention — demonstrate some overlap with brain regions that have been identified as necessary for narrative comprehension . Although the connection between theory of mind processes and story comprehension is not fully understood, this overlap in brain activity implies that our perception of fictional characters may not be all that far removed from our perception of real people. In fact, the medial prefrontal cortex in particular has been implicated in our perception of personality. In one study, participants were presented with a group of fictional characters whose personalities were based on real-world personality metrics . The participants were then presented with a scenario and asked to explain how a given character would react. Remarkably, the researchers were able to reliably distinguish what kind of personality the participant was contemplating (e.g. an extrovert) based on the pattern of activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, as if the brain was building a model of that personality.Our ability to build these personality models allows us to predict how people will react to a situation, which is important for our everyday interactions in real life. Since fictional characters also appear to generate these models in our brains, we may start to feel like we really know a character after spending a considerable amount of time in their world. Game of Thrones has been exceptional at building complex and thoughtfully developed characters, and as such it is entirely possible that your brain has some sort of distinguishable representation of what a Cersei might do in a situation versus a Brienne.
These inner models are likely at the heart of why so many people over the past week have been especially vocal about how out-of-character Daenerys’ war crime spree was in “The Bells.” The assertion that a fictional person is acting “out-of-character” is a little odd, for a character by definition is at the mercy of the author and has no real agency. But a character that acts on the nonsensical whims of some “other” external force probably won’t trigger that sense of identification that makes them truly resonate with audiences (I’m talking to you, latest version of Jaime Lannister). However, if you do a good enough job building a character, as I would argue Game of Thrones historically has, you can start to build a real working model of that character’s personality.
The fact is that nobody should be surprised by the Dragon Queen’s rampage — the writers had foreshadowed as early as the first season that she too had some of the same “fire and blood” mania that fueled her father, the Mad King. And yet many people just don’t buy this sequence of events — why? Probably because her writers spent six full seasons telling the story of a just and strong-willed liberator who actively fought to repress her most destructive tendencies because she had a gentle heart. But the careful narrative pace that created the Breaker of Chains hurriedly attempted to transform her into the Queen of the Ashes in just a few episodes, breaking quickly from the inner cognitive model of the Mother of Dragons that audiences had come to know and love (and sometimes even name their children after — lots of tough conversations this week!). Our mental personality models are so strong that some people have taken to the internet to write their own versions of how Daenerys could become the Mad Queen, and somehow the exact same outcome suddenly makes infinitely more sense! The ultimate choice the writers made for her fate may have been believable (even expected), but no realistic person could have made the jump from savior to war criminal so quickly with such thin rationale, and thus the narrative fell flat. In a fantasy such explicit feasibility shouldn’t matter, but it’s almost as if the Khaleesi became too real for her own writers in the audience hivemind.
“I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things.”
Just as a fictional character can trick your brain into building a convincing inner model of their personality, they can play very realistic games with your emotions. More specifically, a character can start to feel real, especially when you’re fond of them. We humans are social animals, and we tend to form bonds with others because we have an innate need to feel like we belong. It has been suggested that this need contributes to the development of parasocial relationships with characters, or one-sided relationships in which the character (because they are not real) necessarily cannot reciprocate any aspect of that relationship.
These parasocial bonds are stronger when we like the character, just as a relationship grows stronger when you genuinely admire a friend. This is partly due to the notion that a character will actually seem more real to you based on how much you like them. In one study, participants were presented with two characters from the same television show, one of whom was a favorite of theirs and one of whom was not. They were then given a series of questions intended to assess three things: their fondness of the character (e.g. “She makes me comfortable”), their knowledge of the character (e.g. “I know where she hangs out”), and their perceived realness of the character (e.g. “I sometimes make remarks to the character while watching”). The results revealed that the favorite characters were perceived as more real than nonfavorites, even when they were equally familiar with both characters.
The “realness” of your favorite character doesn’t stop at perception — it can even be measured in your behavior. When we are around other people, we tend to perform better on simple, familiar tasks due to an experience known as social facilitation. On the flipside, we tend to perform worse on totally novel tasks when there are other people around. Since favorite characters seem to feel more real to us, the same group that performed the previous study investigated whether the image of a favorite or nonfavorite character would influence task performance in a way that mirrored the effects of real people. When the favorite character was present, these social phenomena were very much at work: participants performed better on the familiar task and worse on the novel task compared to the presence of a nonfavorite character.
The effects of fiction go beyond your perceptions and simple task performance. Works of art in various forms can break down the icy emotional walls around our hearts like zombie dragonfire. We all cope with emotions differently, and some people are considered avoidantly attached, meaning they tend to not engage in emotional situations or remain detached. Perhaps counterintuitively, this attachment style is actually associated with being a more emotional person, and perhaps the avoidance is meant to protect against the anxiety and sadness that can come from interpersonal relationships like a defense mechanism (did someone say Arya Stark?). In a study that examined the effects of fictional literature on avoidantly attached individuals, researchers found that reading fiction produced greater changes in the emotions of avoidantly attached individuals compared to more securely attached people. Furthermore, this emotional change was greater than reading a passage of pure nonfiction. Perhaps Arya would be a bit more emotionally adjusted with a book from Shireen Baratheon’s reading corner than a list of names — I’m just saying.
If having your emotions toyed with by fiction is making you feel like a chump, don’t worry about it. When it comes to film and television, writers and directors know exactly what they’re doing, and they have many tools available to pull at your heartstrings. Take for example the visual close-up on a character’s face. This is a filmmaking device intended to make you focus intently on a character’s facial expressions, partly to assist the narrative by directing your attention, but also to place you in that character’s point-of-view so that you can better understand their thoughts and feelings. The creators of Game of Thrones explained their use of exactly this tool during the most recent episode: we have a close-up of Daenerys’ face as she makes the impulsive decision to drastically change the game plan so that we can understand her inner turmoil, but then we never see her again, instead focusing on close-ups of civilians and Arya so that we can fully comprehend the terror raining down from the sky.
Ultimately these close-up shots can mean more than just understanding a character’s emotion, but may even translate to feeling the emotion with them. It has been shown that audiences will mimic the facial expressions of characters when they are engaged with a film . Although it remains to be fully tested, there is evidence to suggest that there may be some form of feedback which results in a person feeling the emotions on their face; in other words, happiness may make you smile, but smiling may also make you happy. And the cinematography isn’t doing all of the work on its own either; Game of Thrones has an incredible soundtrack that facilitates this grip on our emotions.* I can’t delve into why music is so effective at stirring up emotions, as it could be and probably is the subject of its own dissertation. The score is moving to be sure, but importantly it also carries narrative power. Motifs are so intimately associated with different characters that we’ve been conditioned to expect the appearance of specific people with musical cues alone as strongly as Pavlov trained his dogs with that bell.
The science and film theory described here only scratch the surface of our relationship with fiction. The obsession with Game of Thrones may feel crazy sometimes, but it’s really a perfectly normal response to an especially compelling work of literature and television. In just a few days, millions of people will say goodbye to Westeros when the final season wraps. For better or worse, many of us have formed an emotional bond with these characters and will be sad to see them go. If you’re struggling with the long farewell, take heart that the beauty of fiction is that they truly can live on in your mind! Valar morghulis, but you can keep a good story forever. And what do we say to the god of death?
*One final hot take: Ramin Djawadi has written Daenerys’ story better over the latter seasons than the writers themselves, and I’ve got a fun fantasy/music nerd activity for you to drive the point home (if you’re into that sort of thing). Find a playlist with all of the Dany/dragon themes (there are some on Spotify and Youtube) and listen to them chronologically — her slow, creeping descent from heroism to madness is actually quite powerful and moving when told musically. Or for a quick version, just compare the music from when she took back Meereen to her attack on the Loot Train, and then finally when she razed King’s Landing. It’s the same basic musical theme (she’s even setting stuff on fire in all three clips), but it’s not the same Queen, is it?
 Mar, RA. (2011). The neural bases of social cognition and story comprehension. Annu Rev Psychol 62: 103-134.
 Hassabis, D, Spreng, RN, Rusu, AA, Robbins, CA, Mar, RA, and Schacter, DL. (2014). Imagine all the people: how the brain creates and uses personality models to predict behavior. Cerebral Cortex 24: 1979-1987.
 Gardner, WL, and Knowles, ML. (2008). Love makes you real: favorite television characters are perceived as “real” in social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition 26(2): 156-168.
 Djikic, M, Oatley, K, Zoeterman, S, and Peterson, JB. (2009). Defenseless against art? Impact of reading fiction on emotion in avoidantly attached individuals. Journal of Research in Personality 43: 14-17.
 Plantinga, C. “The Scene of Empathy and the Human Face on Film.” Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion (1999). The Johns Hopkins University Press.