This week: real-life implications of Game of Thrones. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
[This episode and shownotes contain spoilers from season 8 of Game of Thrones]
Tom van Laer, Associate Professor of Narratology at the University of Sydney
The story this week:
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Disclaimer We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.
Intro This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter, and I'm Kai Riemer. And every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world. Okay, let's start. Let's start!
Sandra Today on The Future, This Week: angry fans, and real implications for female leadership on Game of Thrones. I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra So Kai, what happened in the future this week?
Kai So a German, a Hungarian, and a Dutchman walk into a podcast studio. If you want to hear the end of this you need to listen until after the podcast. But seriously, we have a guest today.
Sandra Yes, we have Tom Van Laer, Associate Professor of Narratology here at the University of Sydney Business School. And Tom's here because he studies storytelling, social media, consumer behaviour. And besides being published in all leading journals, and highly regarded academic outlets, he's also been on the ABC, in The Sydney Morning Herald, in Newsweek in all reputable print and media outlets. And he's joined us from the Cass Business School and City University in London, and you know, having worked at the European Commission before, really to talk with us about Game of Thrones.
Kai #GOT, and spoiler alert for those of you who haven't seen the latest episode of Game of Thrones, you might want to postpone listening to this until after you're caught up on the latest episode. So Tom, welcome to the podcast.
Tom Thank you.
Kai Manners, right? I'm German.
Tom And I'm Dutch, so yeah.
Kai So this is where normally Tom and I would go into a long and fierce debate about soccer., but you know, we agreed that's a whole different podcast. So we're going to talk Game of Thrones today, and I'm going to be the neutral voice to speak on behalf of the minority of people who haven't actually joined the Game of Thrones fandom. So I'm going to ask some random questions, it's really up to you, Sandra and Tom, to kick it off, because you're both really deeply into the universe.
Sandra So we've asked Tom to bring one of our first stories for this week. So Tom, over to you.
Tom So there was an article in The Guardian that basically said that the latest episode of Game of Thrones sends a "...curveball to children named Khaleesi". Actually, there's quite a few of those.
Kai Named Khaleesi?
Kai Which means what?
Tom That means 'queen' in a fake language of the Dothraki people, and refers to Daenerys. And Daenerys kind of had a bad day on last week's episode.
Kai And so you're telling me there's actual people out there naming their children after Game of Thrones characters?
Tom There's 3500 parents that have decided to call their children Khaleesi.
Sandra So Daenerys Targaryen is one of the contenders for the Iron Throne in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. So how did we get to having a bad day?
Tom So basically, Khaleesi, or Dany, or Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons and all the other titles she has, started off as a very strong female character over the last seven years. Working her way through many, many obstacles to get to Westeros, the continent where this is all taking place, and in front of the gates of the capital. To take the capital, and then take the Iron Throne. And she actually does get the city, get the enemies to put down their weapons, and then she snaps. Which is somewhat incredible, because there is very little that leads up to that decision. She snaps, and murders an entire city of about a million people.
Sandra Who had just surrendered.
Tom Who had just surrendered, yes, kind of an important detail. And basically, there is just very little that leads up to that. Yes, she loses a dear friend, but there is, again you know, nothing else to explain this kind of behaviour.
Kai And when you say 'snaps', we mean genocide, right, because...
Sandra Someone killed her assistant.
Kai Okay, well that's a justified reaction.
Tom Therefore, a million people will die.
Sandra Hence a bit problematic for people who named their kids Khaleesi, who went from, you know, the Breaker of Chains, and the liberator of all these people, and the Unburnt, and the Mother of Dragons, and the strong female lead, to some crazy lady.
Tom Yeah, it's somewhat sad that they didn't name their children Arya. Some people made that call, about 20000 people, so should have gone with the majority there.
Kai So they'll be disappointed next week, I take it.
Tom You never know, on Game of Thrones you never know.
Kai So why are we talking about this.
Tom Well what is happening now, so not only these 3500 people are disappointed, but up to 35000 people have now signed a petition to have the entire season rewritten.
Sandra So why do these people feel so strongly about the way it has been written?
Tom Well the last season is pretty shit. So what's basically happening is: up until season seven, everything was quite like a theatre play, it was calm it built up narrative arcs, it got people to really care for some very complex characters that the good and bad in them. Now time moves slowly in those seasons. This season everything is very rapid, and what you basically see is that people know it's the last season, viewers no that, realise that, but don't seem to have time to come to grips with the idea that they are going to lose, well virtually some of their best friends.
Sandra So could you say that people have built strong relationships to these characters, they're invested in them?
Tom Yeah, no doubt about it. The kind of research we've been doing, it really shows that people that very much view a series, and are big fans of these series, (and there's many of us) they have similar relationships to fictional characters as other people would have to physical, other people like friends, family.
Kai So it's no wonder then that they're upset when, for no apparent reason, other than an assistant dying, the beloved character turns from a strong female leader into a crazy person who unleashes her wrath on to a city. So Game of Thrones has become quite famous for these completely unpredicted change in narrative, and these twists and turns and people dying for no apparent reason. And now we have this in one of the lead characters. Why is Game of Thrones unique? This is not something that we have seen a lot previously in TV series.
Tom Yeah, in that sense Game of Thrones is one of a number of new type of TV series. Basically with the advent of Netflix, HBO, people buy into a channel, basically take out a subscription, and know that they're going to get an entire season. What that means on the industry side is that show runners get hired for an entire season. So they have way more time to develop a character, and they use that to develop way more complex characters. Examples are Breaking Bad, House of Cards. It took at least an entire season to really understand the good and the bad of a character, and really care for them. They've done the same thing with Game of Thrones, possibly without realising that that also leads to viewers having different type of relationships, they're not having relationships with flat stereotypical characters, they have relationships with complex human beings.
Kai Somewhat ironically, the internet is often associated with short attention span, and ephemeral communication, and everything happening in the moment. But what you're saying is that really this switch from old fashioned TV, where you had competition between channels and people could just switch between shows, what you're saying is that the move to online streaming and subscription services, gives narrators more creative freedom to actually develop their shows.
Tom Yeah, I think that's a fair point to make, yeah.
Sandra So really new business models of companies like Netflix, or HBO, or Hulu, have influenced the way the structure of the show develops, and the way in which these stories are told.
Tom Yeah, yeah they basically lead to narrative worlds that are stricter in their frame. So viewers accept less ambiguity. It is not allowed to make characters change very quickly, because characters have gotten so complex. It's not allowed to introduce elements that are somewhat outside of the box. There was a lot of debate a few seasons ago with Game of Thrones about bringing Jon Snow back from the dead, because until that moment there were no characters that came back from the dead. All of a sudden this magical element was introduced, which didn't seem part of the universe. Before, that was not so much of an issue for viewers, now it has become an issue because viewers care more about the rules.
Kai So the writers are really caught out by the format that they have created, which has a slow timeline, slow development of the universe, of the characters. And now all of a sudden this unanticipated and very sudden change in direction, for what is one of the most beloved characters, a strong female leader. And let's not forget that Daenerys was actually endorsed by people such as Julia Gillard, our former Australian Prime Minister, who saw in her a role model for women in leadership roles. And now she has gone batshit crazy, and people are outraged. And what I hear you saying is that they actually have good reason to do so, because it does spill over into real life, with people endorsing her, and taking Game of Thrones as a role model for talking about leadership in real life.
Tom Yeah, and I daresay, to take that argument even further, that you can see that there's these symbols, people naming their children after it, there is a layer underneath that, it's almost like an iceberg, the stuff that happens under the water, is that people's beliefs are shifting. So, you had a strong female lead in a time of a #MeToo movement. It was a very inspiring character. There are a few others, but Daenerys was probably the, the one that really stood out the most. That then all of a sudden, stereotypically for a female fictional character, cannot handle the pressure of losing a dear friend, becomes overly emotional and snaps. Well, first of all it's in poor taste, but it's also kind of incredible that they resort to such a quick and easy way out of a complex situation.
Sandra A story of unrequited love, of losing a dear friend, and that's all it takes for a strong woman to just crumble to pieces.
Tom So, in contrast to Daenerys snapping over losing her love, and losing her friend. Jon Snow, a few seasons ago, lost his love, and sees a number of his friends die in one and the same battle, and actually becomes stronger for it.
Sandra And this is indeed what happens in the show. Right now we have most of the strong female leads being either crazy, snapping, murderous, genocidal, emotionally volatile, but we have the male character being strong, firm, steadfast, considered.
Kai And while I'm not watching the series, I have been following some of the news, and there seems to be a real discussion now around stereotypes in the series. Because it's not just women who are portrayed in a certain way, it's also race.
Tom Yeah, and this is somewhat even more disturbing. Until this very episode, there was an army, the Unsullied, who were Middle Eastern looking, and very highly trained. They were incredibly disciplined, way more disciplined than any of the other armies in this particular series. They were in that sense, different from (thinking from a Western perspective) the stereotypical foreign invaders. Now all of a sudden, in this series, they are the ones that lose their shit, while the other army, the one of the northerners, that until this very episode they were kind of a loose bunch of somewhat crazy people, but white, were the ones that were restrained in the amount of violence that they inflicted on the people.
Sandra And it's not just the Unsullied who behave in an uncharacteristic way. We see that the Dothraki as well, who have so far managed to grow out of their primal impulses to become these nobler people who follow the Khaleesi, to basically an invading horde, akin to Genghis Khan's army.
Tom So basically what now happens is that very complex kind of narrative arcs, and very complex characters, have been reduced to stereotypes. What that does subconsciously to viewers, is that they shift in their beliefs. There have been hashtags that were trending on Monday about #Daenerys Did Nothing Wrong. Now what that tells me, as a narratologist, is that people actually condone, more than before watching the series, the acts, even though they're fictional, of Daenerys. People have shifted in their belief system, and this is a responsibility that the showrunners have underestimated, I believe.
Kai So what you're saying is that besides the artistic freedom of just going crazy with the characters, because many people buy into these fictional worlds, and make these connections with their daily lives when we have these sudden shifts that play on dangerous stereotypes there's a real responsibility for the writers not to overdo it because it can really shift people's real life belief systems.
Tom Yeah, it does shift real life belief systems. People cannot make the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. It's something we're not able to do as human beings. So when we believe a fictional world, and we kind of do the moment we start empathising with the characters, the moment we start imagining those story worlds. At those moments, our beliefs are impacted by these story worlds.
Sandra So whilst the show like Doctor Who might maintain in you the fact that there are these fundamental beliefs of helping others, or of truth, of justice, of fighting for the little people, increasingly in shows like Game of Thrones, or for that matter House of Cards we become more and more accustomed to people being quite complex, but also for forgiving people sometimes fairly horrendous acts or lapses in judgment or vices, or moral failures, because we like them as characters on the whole.
Tom Yeah, we forgive their behaviour. So in earlier seasons, for instance Tyrion, now one of the most beloved characters out there did some pretty horrendous things. He murdered his dad. Now his dad wasn't a good guy, but he murdered his dad! Nobody seemed to have a problem with that.
Sandra He also was fairly loose in his morals and women. He has a drinking problem. All of that seemed to be fine.
Tom As a matter of fact, maybe not Game of Thrones as an example, but there is quite some research out there that shows that Mad Men actually lead to more consumption of whisky, around the times that those series were airing. That's because in the series there was a lot of whisky consumption.
Sandra And maybe Game of Thrones even more so than Mad Men, in an era where we all watch very fragmented television because of all the streaming services available, and all the shows available, it's very seldom that we have a coherent social cultural conversation about a show. Game of Thrones has managed to capture many, many people's attentions. Hence we can have joint cultural conversations and shifts in perception.
Kai So, back to the responsibility of the writers then right, if they do wield that kind of power. There's a whole discussion around women in leadership positions. We have the #MeToo movement, we're making some progress in organisations, we talk about the glass ceiling, right?. What then does the case of #NotMyDany to women in leadership and organisations.
Tom It takes us back. It takes us back to before #MeToo. It basically shifted the belief system of at least 50 million people on the Monday night.
Kai And just like that we have made what started off like a light-hearted discussion really depressing again. So welcome to The Future, This Week, Tom.
Sandra So surprisingly there seem to be organisational implications, even for the narrative in a show like Game of Thrones. So first is belief systems, and ways in which we think about the people that we hire, or the people that we promote in organisations. But actually Game of Thrones has had other really big business implications.
Kai In tourism for example.
Tom Yeah, there's tons of implications for tourism. Mass tourism in many of the sites, so we're thinking Dubrovnik, we're thinking Ouarzazate in Morocco which was Yunkai in the earlier seasons. We had the land Beyond the Wall that Iceland profits from, because that was taped over there. Northern Ireland had many castles that featured in the series. These places have seen immense boosts in tourism because of this particular TV series.
Kai And there's Hobbiton in New Zealand, right?
Sandra That's Lord Of The Rings.
Kai Well I've seen that one.
Sandra This is a different one.
Kai Okay, so Dubrovnik is an interesting example, has on some level benefit immensely, but it also can be too much, right?
Tom Dubrovnik now has instigated in their summer season, which is about to start, that they can only let so many people at any one time within the walls of the city. Now this was always a tourist destination. If you take away the Balkan war, outside of that period Dubrovnik was always a very attractive destination for tourists, but it was mostly because of the actual historical features there. The actual wall, and what it meant in the Balkans history, not because of a made up TV series.
Kai So people now go to investigate the history of the world of Game of Thrones?
Sandra They basically go to King's Landing.
Kai So do we have merchandise about Kings Landing now in Dubrovnik?
Tom Yes there is.
Sandra But interestingly what you're saying is that people go there to visit the history of Game of Thrones. So many people think 'well, back in the day of Game of Thrones'. This has pretty much taken over any historical significance that the place may have, as this is now competing directly with the historical narrative in Game of Thrones.
Kai And that's one of the defences for the Khaleesi's behaviour that we've heard, right. To say that 'oh back in the day, that is how anyone would have reacted in that situation', right?
Sandra 'That's just what they did, back in the day'. That was actually a dinner conversation I had a couple of days ago after the last episode of Game of Thrones.
Tom Yeah people can distinguish between the history air quotes of Game of Thrones and actual history of planet Earth.
Kai And that's actually the spoiler we referred to earlier, this never happened, so...
Sandra And yet people still want to see these places.
Tom Yeah, and it goes beyond Game of Thrones. Frozen has had the effect that there's a tiny town up in Norway, the name escapes me right now.
Kai And yet it's an animated movie, right?
Tom Yes. So it's even more fake in that way. But there is a castle in there, and that Castle is made after a castle and a tiny little village up in Norway. And every winter there are busloads of tourists that love to see this castle and that go there. And this town is completely overrun.
Sandra But on a more serious note these things might not have happened, but they are nonetheless a reflection of the zeitgeist.
Tom Yeah they are. And that actually impacts people at all levels in all kinds of positions. The First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans once gave a speech to Google, in which he referred to Game of Thrones. He said "It's confusing, it's epic, it's good and bad, it's black and white. It's about challenges. It's like society in general today". Well, if the vice president of the European Commission says that, I'm pretty sure it has an impact on other people too.
Sandra So the real question now is who's going to survive next week and who will sit on the Iron Throne.
Kai We had some predictions by an AI a few weeks back, if you remember. So let's catch up how the AI is doing, to see whether we should believe the AI about what's happening next week. So Sandra...
Sandra The AI really didn't do all that well. Out of the top four predicted survivors, Lord Varys is dead, and Jaime had only a 4 percent chance of dying, he's very dead as well.
Kai So out of the four sure survivors, two are dead. That's like flipping a coin, right, that's 50/50.
Sandra Well and it's going to be 50/50 going forward as well because both Daenerys and Tyrion are on that shortlist.
Kai Okay. Which actually is what we predicted about the AI, because Game of Thrones is one of those series where you really cannot make predictions based on the past, right, so the AI learns from the past, and Game of Thrones has defied those patterns. So not surprisingly the AI, the way it works, really didn't work here. But we have the expert with us. Tom as a narratologist, who will die, who will survive in the last episode? We're going to put you on the spot here, you saw this coming.
Tom And I'll stay on the fence on this one. It's actually one of the things that I do say the showrunners did really well. You can still not tell who is going to be on that throne next week, or who might still die.
Kai Well maybe it doesn't actually end next week, and you know, there's going to be another episode or something, because let's face it, right, this is big business.
Tom And 35000 people can't be wrong.
Kai That's right. That's the petition. So maybe it's never going to be settled who dies, because there might be a whole different parallel universe that they have to create in order to settle the dispute with all the fans.
Sandra Or maybe it's Sansa.
Kai So Sandra puts her money on Sansa.
Sandra I'm just saying, there's a chance.
Tom It would at least lead to a strong female lead on the Iron Throne, so it would save whatever mess they've created.
Kai They could still clean it up...
Kai In order to make good on their responsibility.
Tom I mean, don't underestimate we're also looking at this now like they are now currently making decisions to save their mayhem. But obviously all of this has been taped.
Kai Yeah, that's right. So we will know more next week. But I learnt a lot today. I learnt that you can make a career out of watching TV series. You can get a PhD in this and then Associate...
Sandra And you can get paid to watch Game of Thrones.
Kai At the University.
Sandra At this University!
Kai How did you pull that off Tom?
Tom A long story for another episode.
Sandra So what was the end of that joke, about the...
Kai The German, the Hungarian, and the Dutchman walking in the podcast studio. The German is late.
Tom Which is actually really funny in Europe.
Sandra And that's all we have time for today.
Kai See you soon.
Sandra On the Future...
Kai Next week.
Sandra This week?
Kai Yes, but next week.
Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next week. Thanks for listening.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week, right here with us, our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good, and keeps us honest. Our theme music was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Kai Megan, I think we're in for a treat...
Sandra and Tom and Kai Do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do. Duh duh duh duh uh do do do do do do do do... Sounds glorious! Peter Dinklage, Peter Dinklage.