What Game of Thrones tells us about ourselves: A GoT research roundup

 
Photo by Mauricio Santos on Unsplash
By

May 3, 2019

With more people than ever watching HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and just three episodes left in the series, we wanted to remind readers that GoT is not just a cultural phenomenon, it’s an academic one too.

Academics have analyzed GoT from many angles — race, history, politics, gender and power, and linguistics — to find out what a fictional show based on past events can tell us about our real present.

We’ve rounded up some of our favorite GoT-related research below.

But for those who haven’t watched the show or aren’t totally caught up, be warned: Arrikhokh jadoe!

That’s how to say “spoilers ahead” in Dothraki, a made-up language that first appears in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, which “Game of Thrones” is based on.

We know because we reached out to David Peterson, who developed the Dothraki language for HBO, and asked how he would translate “spoiler alert” or “spoilers ahead.” According to Peterson, the literal translation of “arrikhokh jadoe” is “a spoiler is coming.” Perfect.

Anyway, here’s the research, which includes details about various episodes.

Lessons from Westeros: Gender and Power in Game of Thrones

Clapton, William; Shepherd, Laura J. Politics. April 2016.

Westeros is one of four continents that make up the bulk of the GoT world. Most of the show takes place there. International political decisions in Westeros come with consequences for characters.

Clapton and Shepherd explore how Westerosi politics can inform global politics and international relations on our real-life continents. Their premise is to “take seriously the idea that popular culture is global politics and vice versa.”

By the way, academics make a distinction between ir and IR when discussing international relations. Lowercase ir refers to global politics in practice — treaties, United Nations declarations, that sort of thing.

Uppercase IR refers to academic scholarship that studies the practice. In this paper, the authors explore how Westeros can inform IR.

Their primary finding is that IR under-explores the relationship between gender and power, but this relationship is central to GoT plotlines. This is a serious oversight in IR, according to Clapton and Shepherd:

“We argue that these disciplinary conventions are fundamentally unsatisfactory, that we need to ‘open up’ and unsettle the disciplinary divisions that inform our research and teaching.”

Pop-Cultural Mobilization: Deploying Game of Thrones to Shift U.S. Climate Change Politics

Milkoreit, Manjana. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. October 2017.

The author studies 55 commentaries published online from 2013 to 2016 that link GoT storylines with climate change politics. Commentaries come from personal blogs and more widely known news outlets like Mother Jones, Forbes, Huffington Post, USA Today, Vox and Reuters.

The commentaries largely use similar rhetorical devices and reach similar conclusions, according to Milkoreit.

For example, writers analogize creatures like White Walkers to climate change, though one writer did use GoT to explain their skepticism of climate change science. Milkoreit coins the phrase “pop-cultural mobilization” to refer to the practice of using a piece of pop culture for a political purpose.

“Ultimately, it is possible that political opponents draw on the same pop-cultural resource to offer competing interpretations of its meaning with the goal to sway their audience,” she writes.

Race in Online Fantasy Fandom: Whiteness on Westeros.org

Young, Helen. Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. August 2014.

“The fantasy genre and its fandom have a reputation for whiteness,” Young writes.

In this paper, she takes a deep dive into selected discussions of race and racism on Westeros.org, a GoT fan site, to shed light on how the fantasy genre has maintained its reputation for whiteness.

Here’s some of what Young finds:

  • Raising the question of race on Westeros.org is touchy, and fans seem overly apologetic in bringing up race to avoid the perception they might be criticizing the world George R.R. Martin created. Responses like, “This is fiction. You are taking it too seriously,” minimize any potential conversation around Euro-centricity in GoT, according to Young.
  • Another common refrain sounded when fans broach racial representation in Martin’s world: GoT is based on a time in history that was white. “I have elsewhere termed this the ‘monochrome Middle Ages argument’; it (incorrectly) states that Europe in the Middle Ages was racially white, and that since the fantasy world is inspired largely by the period and place, it must also be white,” Young writes.
  • Commentary on Westeros.org inherently comes from a white point of view even though commenters don’t know each other’s skin color, because being a “good fan,” according to Young, means accepting GoT’s Euro-centricity.

A Past that Never Was: Historical Poaching in Game of Thrones Fans’ Tumblr Practices

Matthews, Christine Jolie. Popular Communication. March 2018.

Matthews turns to the blogging platform Tumblr to explore how fans interpret the historical events on which Martin’s world is based.

She narrows down the field to 165 posts tagged with “historical parallels” and “history” for insight on what modern interpretations of a fictional world based on historical events say about our current times.

  • Fans primarily draw parallels between Martin’s world and medieval British history, though they also draw parallels to modern non-European history. The War of the Roses and Tudor England appear in 45 posts while the U.S., Russia, Africa and Asia appear in a total of 25 posts.
  • Posters tend to focus on women’s issues and race, and they defend representations of oppression in GoT as being historically accurate, according to Matthews.
  • One fan defends a controversial scene where a white character is lifted up by a crowd of non-white people through the lens of historical accuracy — “you can’t expect progressive rewrites such as powerful brown characters who aren’t slaves,” the fan writes — even though there were non-white, non-Western rulers during early modern history. “As such, this post highlights how modern-day cultural normalizations and beliefs about the past shape the reading of text and the poaching of history,” Matthews writes.

On Jon Snow’s Death: Plot Twist and Global Fandom in Game of Thrones

Pérez, Héctor J.; Reisenzein, Rainer. Culture & Psychology. April 2019.

GoT fans are no strangers to characters getting the axe, but even die-hards were shocked when Jon Snow met his maker at the end of Season 5. Pérez and Reisenzein turn to social media reactions across the globe to understand how viewers adjusted to a new reality where Jon Snow was no more.

Sure, plot twists are surprising, but the level of global surprise at the death of Jon Snow happened because fans had constructed theories on why Jon Snow couldn’t die and widely shared them in online forums and across social media, according to Pérez and Reisenzein.

Plus, viewers were surprised because Jon Snow seemed to be so central to the plot, part of “a small group of core protagonists — a kind of chosen group,” Pérez and Reisenzein write.

Until, of course, Jon Snow wasn’t part of that chosen group anymore.

Until, of course, he was again.

“Perhaps of greatest psychological interest in the present case is the finding that very similar reactions to Jon’s Snows death occurred world-wide in numerous fans,” they conclude.

Are Planned Languages Less Complex than Natural Languages?

Gobbo, Federico. Language Sciences. October 2016.

Constructed languages, or conlangs, are languages that did not arise naturally through societies. L.L. Zamenhof created Esperanto in the late-1800s, but the mothers and fathers of invention in Hollywood doing science fiction and fantasy have come up with others in recent years.

Klingon from Star Trek, for example, and Dothraki from GoT.

“One of the key factors in Dothraki’s success is the clear link between the language and the diegetic culture, which makes the language sound real,” Gobbo writes.

In other words, Dothraki works because it makes sense for the (fictional) people who speak it. They’re nomads, they ride horses, and Dothraki is grounded in concepts dear to a horse-riding culture. In Dothraki, distances are calculated in how far a horse can gallop, according to Gobbo.

Gobbo examines Dothraki and several other conlangs through a linguist’s lens and concludes words and relationships between words are simpler in conlangs than natural languages — which makes sense considering modern languages evolved over thousands of years — but that doesn’t make conlangs easier to learn.

Need an incentive not to watch too much GoT in one sitting? Check out this research about the link between TV viewing time and mortality. And don’t miss this podcast in which Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, joins Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Chris Robichaud to discuss how GoT touches on issues such as institutional reform. 

 

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