As a social scientist, I watch GoT differently than most, asking how the show reflects our own social and political world — and how we relate to the fictional institutions we see on the show. To answer these questions, I conducted a study of University of Dayton students who watch GoT. I asked participants to identify with one noble house and one religion from GoT — and found that attitudes toward the show are related to one’s real-world politics, religion and other characteristics.
‘Game of Thrones’ as a simulation of reality
Scholars have described powerful works of fiction like GoT, the Harry Potter series or Marvel movies as simulations — in which we are able to explore various approaches to social interaction and ask ourselves important questions like WWJSD, or “What would Jon Snow do?” The vivid characters and the dilemmas they face captivate us.
I argue that we not only relate to these characters, but the institutions they embody.
Each major GoT character is connected to a noble house and its associated sigil; Stark/Direwolf, Targaryen/Dragon and Lannister/Lion are the big three. The houses and the regions they rule are in turn associated with fictional religions. These houses and religions, based on historical counterparts, are the major institutions in Martin’s world.
Institutions shape us
Political scientist Samuel Huntington classically defined institutions as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior.” Works of speculative fiction portray real social institutions — for instance, conceptions of government, religion, family, or science — in novel contexts, as I’ve found in my research and analysis of “The Walking Dead.”
In the real world, institutions shape us into who we are, sometimes in ways that we do not recognize. For instance, if we’re associated with a religion that’s administered by hierarchy, we’re more likely to believe that governments should be centralized than if we’re associated with a religion governed more independently by local congregations.
Martin understands such institutional linkages. He paired “the North,” the large, remote region governed by the Starks, with an animistic folk religion — known as the “old gods” — that lacks clergy, a sacred text or meeting halls. The more autocratic houses of Westeros, including the Lannisters, follow the “new gods,” known officially as the Faith of the Seven — essentially medieval Catholicism, replete with priests, scriptures and grand cathedrals.
Here’s how I did my research
In September 2014, following GoT’s fourth season, I asked over 300 participants — undergraduate students aged 18-28 recruited for another experimental study at my university — whether they ever watched GoT. Approximately 100 did. This group was two-thirds male, compared to half among all participants. Viewers, like the full sample, were balanced politically with a mean ideology just right of center and distributed across the political parties: approximately 40 percent Republican, 20 percent Democratic and 40 percent other/none. They were asked to rate four concepts — national (vs. local) control, hierarchy, consolidation of local governments, and democracy — from “very negative” to “very positive.” These measures were consolidated into an index of their opinions of centralized government.
I asked which major house or religion they would join given the chance, from a shortlist of choices: House Stark, Lannister or Targaryen; and for the religions, the old gods, new gods or a third tradition worshiping the foreign Red God. (They could also select “I have no idea what these are.”) Since this research was conducted in late 2014, their responses were unaffected by this season’s plot shifts.
House Stark was most popular, chosen by over one-half, followed by Targaryen, selected by one-quarter. Almost four in 10 chose the old gods, the most popular religion, but one-third were unsure. Those who chose Stark were more likely than not to choose the old gods, a correct institutional pair, despite these questions appearing at different times during the study.
Real-world allegiances did shape some of viewers’ GoT affinities. Catholic and urban-dwelling viewers were significantly associated with the Faith of the Seven, patterned after Roman Catholicism. Republicans were more associated with the most decentralized religion, the old gods, while Democrats were less associated with House Stark.
Most interestingly, those who identify with the Starks and the old gods expressed less favorable views of real-world centralization. Other houses — Lannister and Targaryen — were more likely to favor more centralization. A statistical model finds that support for the Stark family was the most important predictor of one’s penchant for decentralization, surprisingly trumping conservative or liberal ideology, political party, and religious identity.
Does Game of Thrones affect the real world?
While exploratory, my findings suggest that — for at least some audiences — our beliefs about political and religious institutions are related to how we view GoT’s fictional structures. Viewers see the houses and religions on the show as reflections of institutions they interact with every day.
Perhaps it is also the other way around. Watching the Starks’ mode of governance, embodied in the leadership of Ned Stark and later his ward and presumed bastard son Jon Snow, with Sansa Stark as highly active adviser, could affect whether a viewer thinks society should be organized locally or federally.
Any statistics instructor will warn that correlation is not causation. My study of undergraduates at a single Midwestern Catholic university doesn’t necessarily generalize to all viewers. However, in the age of bingeing Netflix shows, we may wish to consider how our favorite entertainment outlets are influencing our beliefs and behaviors. Much as kids play-fight after watching a Star Wars or Avengers movie, adults may well channel their viewing allegiances and insights into beliefs about how real-world institutions should function — or transfer their real-world allegiances into attitudes toward the show.
Doing that without knowing where the fictional universe is heading, of course, has its hazards. That’s what Democratic senator and presidential contender Elizabeth Warren learned after she declared herself and her approach to governance to be allied with the mission of Daenerys Targaryen against the “Cersei Lannisters” of the world. But Warren can rest assured she is in good company; after all, so did Jon Snow, right up until he changed his mind.
Joshua D. Ambrosius is an associate professor of political science and director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Dayton.
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