My notes on Tufekci, Z (2019) The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones. Scientific American: Observations. May 2019.
This fascinating piece reflects on Game of Thrones as “sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual”, driven by characters who “evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them”. That is until the final season which has provoked so much ire amongst fans. When the show ran ahead of its source material, the new show runners turned towards a psychological mode of storytelling which radically changed the character of the show.
This is a problem because so much of what made the show gripping, argues Tufekci, rested in the sociological character of its storytelling. Major characters were regularly killed yet the story could proceed because its poetics was not dependent upon them. This breaks from the dominant approach in which “a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics” is what drives the narrative. This differs from sociological storytelling:
“the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life. People then fit their internal narrative to align with their incentives, justifying and rationalizing their behavior along the way.”
We tend to seek personalised explanations for the behaviour of those around us, described by social psychologists as the fundamental attribution error. In contrast we are often capable of contextual explanations for our own behaviour, recognising how it has been shaped by forces external to us. If I understand Tufekci’s argument correctly, sociological storytelling can lift us outside of the everyday in this sense, offering a new vantage point for making sense of the world. This is what game of thrones did:
“That tension between internal stories and desires, psychology and external pressures, institutions, norms and events was exactly what Game of Thrones showed us for many of its characters, creating rich tapestries of psychology but also behavior that was neither saintly nor fully evil at any one point. It was something more than that: you could understand why even the characters undertaking evil acts were doing what they did, how their good intentions got subverted, and how incentives structured behavior. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.”
She observes that this permits identification with any character, as opposed to merely the ‘good’ ones. It encourages the sociological imagination by letting us imagine how we might make similar choices under those circumstances. The Wire is another example of sociological storytelling in this sense, with the star of each series being a particular institution within the city. The sociological genre helps us understand social change, while the psychological undermines that understanding by reducing it to the unpredictable actions of capricious individuals driven by internal dynamics which are always somewhat opaque to us. She draws a fascinating comparison to how digital elites are written about to explain digital change:
“There are a significant number of stories, books, narratives and journalistic accounts that focus on the personalities of key players such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos. Of course, their personalities matter, but only in the context of business models, technological advances, the political environment, (lack of) meaningful regulation, the existing economic and political forces that fuel wealth inequality and lack of accountability for powerful actors, geopolitical dynamics, societal characteristics and more.”