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The first-season finale of Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series launches this week after a months-long wait, and with it comes a few certainties:
- Favorite characters are going to die.
- Others will have horrible, terrible things happen to them.
- Players will have to make agonizing, gut-wrenching decisions to drive the story to its grim conclusion.
- And they’re going to love every moment of it.
Which made us think: What is it that keeps fans of the game (and the TV show, for that matter) coming back for episode after episode of psychological punishment? What makes such a bleak storyline so compelling?
To find out, we spoke with Jamie Madigan, PhD, an expert on the psychology of video games and the author of Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them. Madigan maintains the website The Psychology of Video Games and hosts a podcast of the same name.
(P.S. If you’re scratching your head at the mention of a “Telltale Game Series,” check out our recent infographic to find out how this interactive story ties into the Game of Thrones universe. And don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win the complete first season!)
WIKIA: What do you think is the psychological appeal of Game of Thrones for fans? This is one of the most emotionally devastating shows ever to air on TV -- we witness our favorite characters endure tragedy after tragedy -- yet we eagerly anticipate each new episode.
JAMIE MADIGAN: I suspect Game of Thrones is appealing to some people for the same reason soap operas and relationship-driven dramas like Breaking Bad are popular: They test our emotional intelligence. This is a term psychologists use to describe someone’s ability to understand and track people’s relationships with and attitudes towards each other. And then to use that information to make predictions about how people will treat each other. Just as we enjoy game shows or mysteries because of how they test our regular intelligence, we like character-driven shows (and books) because they give us a chance to exercise our emotional intelligence.
Also, dragons and full frontal nudity.
W: Can you speak to complex emotions fans feel when witnessing bad things happen to bad people on the show? I don’t think any fans were rooting for Theon after he took Winterfell, for example, but no one (aside from Ramsay, of course) took pleasure in his transformation into Reek. Similarly with Cersei: Most fans would agree she deserved comeuppance for all her scheming over the years, but her walk of shame at the end of Season 5 was horrifying to witness.
JM: Personally I never felt any pity for Theon, because I saw him as such a bad person. Ditto for Cersei. Though you’re right: I didn’t root for or cheer on their abuse in either case.
I think what may temper people’s dislike for characters in those situations, though, is when they’re seen in a different context that humanizes them more. Cersei, for example, is literally stripped of everything that protects her and is shown as vulnerable. Add to that the fact that the director doesn’t allow the scene to come and go quickly. It lingers extensively on the walk of shame as a way to underscore what’s happening in the character’s head and what she’s going through. It seems endless to us, so it helps us understand how endless and humiliating it is for her. To the extent that we can imagine ourselves in a similar situation, we are more likely to feel emotions like pity, regret, embarrassment, and the like.
W: Telltale’s episodic adventure games based on morally conflicted universes -- like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and A Wolf Among Us -- have been very popular, both critically and commercially. What do you think draws players to these games -- games where they’re forced to make gut-wrenching decisions?
JM: Everything I mentioned about emotional intelligence applies here, with the added bonus that we get to now control some of those relationships. We can choose who the characters abuse, ally with, or save. That’s fun.
I’ve also written about how the detailed facial animations in these games leads us to sympathize with and mimic the emotionsof the characters. Whenever we see someone display an emotion, parts of our brains make us automatically mimic that expression or movement. Maybe just a little and not in a way that we consciously notice, but studies have shown that if we see someone frown, for example, the same muscles on our face move at least a little. Furthermore, our minds often take such physical actions as indicators of what emotions or mental states we should generate. Again, it can be a slight effect that’s unconscious, but over time and in conjunction with other nudges it can have an effect.
W: Can you speak to the psychological effects of permanence in Telltale’s games? Certain decisions have ongoing ramifications for the story. Personally, I find that making a decision and immediately seeing “So-and-so will remember you said this” in the upper left corner is harrowing -- even if I made a choice I was happy with!
JM: Yeah, we hate to lose options once we feel that we have them. There’s a whole host of psychological effects related to this: the endowment effect, psychological reactance, loss aversion, and others. We’re wired to pay more attention to losses than we are gains of equal size. If the game suggests to us that we lost the option to do something with a character because we made her angry, then that stings more than keeping that option open feels good. Even just suggesting that it might happen makes us less likely to take risks with that character’s relationship and work harder to keep it up.
W: What effects do timers have on the emotional response of playing a Telltale game? For most decisions, players have a very short time limit to make a choice.
JM: Timers probably make people go with their gut reaction instead of one that’s more reasoned out. This can lead to interesting results if those choices are different. If you don’t have the time to metagame a choice you may actually be more satisfied with it or find it more interesting. Though I guess it may depend on what your goals were.
W: Telltale games are popular titles to stream on Twitch and YouTube. How do you feel the social pressure of an audience affects how people make decisions while playing?
JM: There's been research on what's called the audience effect. That is, how knowing that we have an audience affects our performance on a physical or mental task. For hard tasks or playing a game on a difficult setting, having an audience hurts performance because preoccupation with the audience and what they might be thinking diverts mental resources that are needed for the task. But if it's an easy task, having an audience actually helps because it increases our motivation to do well on the task. And since we have mental resources to spare on an easy task, the net effect is usually better performance.
Now, given that Telltale games are pretty easy, this probably means that people are doing better at the parts that require mental resources -- stuff like quick time events or puzzle solving.
As for what moral choices people make when they know they have an audience, I'm tempted to say that players would be more likely to choose the socially acceptable options if there is one. But knowing that streamers are also there to entertain and get people talking, I wouldn't doubt that they just make the more dramatic choices. Sometimes entertainment trumps psychology.
For more information about the intersection of psychology and video games, be sure to check out Jamie Madigan’s website, http://www.psychologyofgames.com/. And for all of Wikia’s coverage of Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series, visit our Super Walkthrough hub.