A Game of Thrones: Tragedy or Entertainment?

We don’t create very many tragedies in our media these days. It’s sort of a lost art form. Tragedy is about suffering and calamity. I read A Game of Thrones (GOT) years ago, but at the time it never struck me that it could be a tragedy. It’s got all the hallmarks of a tragedy, especially the tragic part. But it’s series is even called a Song of Fire and Ice, which would put it in the traditional vein of tragic drama (which was sung). We see these so rarely that it’s tough to spot. Everything has a happy ending nowadays, but GOT shakes us violently from those expectations.

Martin wrote GOT and we’ve all mostly taken it for diversionary entertainment, but that’s a mistake. Sure, we may use GOT as a diversion, but that’s not what it is. I think this actually happens to us a lot, when we are the audience for problematic film, books, games, and movies. We treat them as mere amusement and don’t really judge them independent of our motives. But tragedy …this is the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. As tragedy is supposed to do.

We all know what nervous laughter feels like and how it comes out when all we want to do is quiver and cry. We laugh. The laughter is our uncertainty and discomfort. But at what point do we say to ourselves “no don’t laugh, this time …what am I feeling and why?”

And so a culture where diversionary entertainment is the only kind we know, whose goal is to assure the us that everything is actually OK and …LOOK! His head just got blown off with a grenade! LAUGH! JOY! AWESOME!

The death of tragedy is, fittingly, quite tragic.

The Catharsis of Terror

So how does one “enjoy” tragedy? Well, I’m afraid the answer is: We’re not supposed to take joy in it’s specific events. It’s not supposed to entertain by getting the audience to find joy in guillotines and rape. It’s supposed to be therapeutic, a pleasure in resolving our emotions about those troubling events. That’s why it’s possible to enjoy games and movies which have this kind of content. They give us catharsis, a way to confront and get rid of our discomfort in a safe way.

Sometimes though, the content is just too much to wrap our heads around. That feeling of nervous laughter sets in. In those moments, we look for a diversion to put the thoughts from our minds. In other words, we flee from our most troubling feelings instead of dealing with them. The fear and anxiety people feel when talking about how problematic it is that The Mountain, a murderous rapist, is a favored knight of the kingdom or how dark the humor of Jaime Lannister is …it takes over us. It angers us. Dammit we didnt’ turn this on to to feel bad about crimes!

And catharsis, that “purging of the emotions” that we’re so damned used to being told suppress, to drown it with alcohol or cloud it with marijuana and cover over with the “bright side” of things …it’s waiting for us if we would only stop fighting it. It’s catharsis that gives us the chance to confront the emotions that trouble us most, and shows like Game of Thrones are like the shock therapy of tragedies! It’s the medicine we don’t want if only we could resist its candy coating. So we watch it and we laugh, but some of us are trembling on the inside at what we see.

History as Entertainment

The rape of queens, dashing of infant heads into stone, flaying of soldiers, incest of twins, the Red Wedding …historical? I’m sure these terrible things have happened at some point or another in our dark past, but are we really reliving these things for laughs and entertainment?

If the show doesn’t kill off characters I’m attached to – whether they’re killed psychologically, physically, or emotionally – then they become immortal which is anti-reality, anti-history. It fools me into a false sense of joy, suspends my human emotional expectations. it’s not because I believe people live forever, but that when everyone survives in tact we never come to terms with our own brokeness. I think this is the point of a tragic performance. This isn’t entertainment. It’s therapy.

I’m a sucker for a great medieval fantasy like many RPG lovers. There’s something about the setting that’s really comforting. Maybe it’s the simplicity of life. Things aren’t easy, but they’re much simpler than our complex society today. Plus there’s always a sense of adventure, the world as an unknown quantity. Is it truly round? Can I sail around it? Can I run off the horizon? It’s not that medieval societies didn’t have these answers, but the fact that those were uncommon feats and allows one to imagine what that could look like and be like. The world, from this perspective, is full of potential and excitement. That makes for a great fantasy for a gamer like me.

But tragedy isn’t fantasy. How do I enjoy GOT? I take it for what it is as best I can and let the tragedy do it’s work on me. That means sometimes I walk away from an episode angry. Sometimes numb. Sometimes glad. Whatever emotions it invokes, I don’t try to explain it away. I just feel it and let it be.

On Fantasy, Reality and Voyeurism

Recently, I paid my good neighbor Mr. Murf of Murf Versus a visit and found an article about a Tweetersation he had with fellow blogger Syl. It was a very thought provoking piece that I tried to leave a comment on. Then that comment got too long. I managed to narrow my thoughts from the piece into a few keywords that I feel set-up the essay and really defined it: voyeurism, empathy, and realism. The latter was mostly brought up in the comments, but really helped encapsulate an underlying theme of the article.

agotAt first read, it was very easy to relate to his experience of fantasy. It reads like a story and transforms into confession as it closes. It raises questions about voyeurism, empathy and realism, things that gamers talk about all the time, but less deliberately. A Game of Thrones was what inspired the discussion on Twitter originally. It’s the most gory, violent show to hit television in a while. It’s very depraved and if you’ve never seen it be warned that the content is extremely abrasive.

Full disclosure: I read the books long before anyone knew it was TV material! I still think this is one of the best written fantasy novels of my generation. Still, I always stop short of describing it as enjoyable or “good” or with like terms. There are a lot of sick things in the book that I don’t enjoy and which I don’t find entertaining. I don’t actually view the books as entertainment, though that’s what I was looking for when I bought them (who doesn’t enjoy a good medieval fantasy?). I experience them as trauma, not drama.I think the book offers something of value, but that value is lost when taken as entertainment. The series tells tales many authors wouldn’t dare and I think it does a fair job of not glorifying violence — this is why I think that it’s value isn’t as entertainment, though it is undoubtedly, overwhelmingly seen as such. It’s unapologetic and uncompromising in it’s pornography of tragedy which ranges from genocide to torture. Where it’s value lies as a work of fiction is an important question to all of us who watch and who read.

In fact, a friend who helped me edit this immediately compared the value of AGOT to something like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), which is a good comparison. SVU does a great job of taking serious things seriously. The crimes that occur in each episode are there to make us uncomfortable, and to make us think about them. That can’t be said of AGOT TV series most of the time. It has it’s moments, but it’s largely there to dramatize horrible events for entertainment. Many shows do this, so it’s not like it’s particularly surprising, but AGOT goes much further than most other shows. This show has managed to make at least half of the “sex” scenes about rape.

Voyeurism, empathy and realism …I had a personal revelation about why the article felt so easy to read and relate to. These are 3 things gamers commonly put together. It makes perfect sense. Gamers are experience enthusiasts and it happens to be what makes the medium unique, the interactive delivery as an experience machine. For anyone wanting to step into the shoes of another character, only games give you that. From there feelings of empathy and realism may arise. That’s where the piece got interesting for me. It attempted to make the lonely, impersonal experience of the voyeur an avenue to greater emotional intelligence. There’s a very wide gap to bridge between voyeurism and empathy, but its one that gamers try to navigate all the time. I can relate to what he said, but I also struggle to reconcile these opposites.

Voyeur: One who looks

spyAt base, this is what we’re dealing with on the topic of voyeurism. The most obvious elements of voyeurism are the watcher and the watched. Voyeurs look, they don’t interact. Empathy is difficult to discern because it’s too intertwined with the voyeur’s projections onto the subject, which replaces it’s subjectivity. Without interacting with the subject, all voyeurs can do is project their own feelings. Voyeurism is about the watcher, not the watched. Empathy is about the watched.

When you’re a voyeur you stalk your subject, enjoying hir without their knowledge. You can’t connect with a person via voyeurism because of this and since empathy acts precisely to connect us, this is the dilemma. So the idea that voyeurism can lead to empathetic experiences of the other is questionable. It seems like there’s something else going on emotionally. If voyeurism is about the watcher, then how we can we empathize with ourselves?

This is why “My voyeurism leads me to walk in these people’s shoes,” is a strange statement and it’s why I used the term illusion earlier. A voyeur doesn’t seek to walk in another’s shoes and doesn’t do it to empathize with them either. Empathetic experiences transcend the egocentricity of voyeurism. The voyeur watches to entertain hirself. A voyeur learns about their subject by circumvention, not by connection. The act of imagining walking in someone’s shoes is to erase them from their own shoes and put yourself there (the subject is a living, breathing person — you don’t need to put yourself in their shoes, but to be transported through the subject’s experience; the act of replacing them is an act of erasure). This is less empathy than an escapist adventure of some sort, one which the voyeur finds entertaining — because that’s why the voyeur is a voyeur. They get satisfaction from secretly watching others, imagining what they want about those others. And it’s this language – imagine, entertain, escapist, erasure — that is common to gamer experiences. They describe how we connect with ourselves, not others.

So …Empathy

Feelings derived from reading something as graphic and tragic as AGOT can be powerful and moving, but the more we find the misogyny, racism, violence and rape entertaining, the less we’re empathizing with any character who endures it. I can’t be entertained by torture and empathize with the tortured simultaneously.

In closing, he states:

“I don’t apologize for it. I won’t. Mostly because I believe in my ability to separate fact from fiction. Even if I take pleasure in it, I do not believe for a second that these depictions are changing me to be more violent, more misogynistic, or more rapey.”

The thing is, voyeuristic sadism in games or movies isn’t about causation, but revelation. The point is not what they will make us into any one of those things, but what it says about us that we find them entertaining. In this sense, what we consume and how we consume it reveals who we are, not makes us who we are.

On Realism

It was implied in the comments that realism was the justification for Martin’s depictions of sexism. The gist of it was that the sexism is a major part of why the series is so interesting and successful. I said in a previous article this year:

… through this lens these social ills [racism, classism and sexism] cannot be defined as problems at all. The sexism, racism and classism are [claimed as] part and parcel of the construction of the fantasy, whose authenticity is lost when those things are absent. Men invested in these fantasies feel entitled to have them and history is used as the reason this should be so, creating a virtual space where men escape from reality and to reality as Kimmel pointed out. This glorification of the medieval and warrior value set becomes much more worrying when we acknowledge the relationship between our fantasies and our personal longing. The fantasies we enjoy often betray us. — Read More …

McCloud-iconMy point is that history is unjustifiably used as justification for the bigotry paraded before us in the name of entertainment.

Martin’s world is fiction. It did not happen. It’s not a historical piece. It has no obligation to “stay true” to any events of the past, because it’s not attempting to recreate events of the past. It offers no historical perspectives – it borrows the trappings of history. It’s a romanticization — a very intriguing and powerful one — of a dark period of history, a fantasy, a caricature of it. It’s not realism. That this is being interpreted as realism is indicative of the problem with ahistorical thinking.

In the U.S., the opposition party in our congress tweeted just this past February that Rosa Parks, a major Civil Rights leader of the 1960s, helped to end racism. The tweet was rightfully mocked and critiqued — he made the statement as though racism had actually ended. The tweet was later edited to reflect the reality: she merely helped in the on-going battle against racism. Its a good example, of how ahistorical thinking skews the past to render the present. There’s nothing necessary or essential about the violence Martin choses to create in AGOT.

From Here

I don’t think voyeurism allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes. I think to “walk in someone else’s shoes” is a phrase that means we should try to empathize with others. But I think there’s common misunderstanding about what it actually means to empathize. It’s not just replicating someone else’s feelings based on our own perceptions. Imagine a spectator visiting the roman Colosseum and stating that the reason they bought the ticket was to experience empathy from those fed to the lions, that the spectacle is a vehicle that helps them to foster their emotional intellgience. It may be true, but do you see how this is a very roundabout, even strange, way to expand our emotional range of experience? This is one area I think games will soon dive deeper into, and in fact the topic of Empathy Games came up at this year’s Game Developers Conventions. Can media be a tool in expanding our emotional experiences, making us more emotionally intelligent? I think yes. But I think that media cannot be delivered as entertainment if that’s the goal.

So what does empathy really look like? I’d provide you with the ultimate guide if I had one, but I lost it. However, I read this article a couple of months ago on a blog I stumbled upon that I think is good anecdote. It’s called “She Wasn’t Being Rude” and it relates the story of how the author, a veterinarian, saved a dog’s life despite his less than cultured client, whom his staff described as rude. It’s a good story to read and the moral of it was that the dog’s owner had a very unpolished demeanor (low education, street-speaking, common folk). In the end, he counseled his staff that the woman wasn’t being rude and he focused instead on her needs. He listened to her and helped her. I think this was a good instance of what empathy looks like in action.

Empathy has at least two directions, though. While a connection to others is necessary, how can we tell when that connection is about us and when it’s about the subject? When is empathy about me?

Always and never.

If my family and I were on a sinking boat, I might have to save myself in order to save them too. It’s both a selfish act and a selfless one. In this sense, empathy is partially a recognition of your responsibility towards others. It’s not just an experience. It’s a realization you couldn’t have made without experiencing someone else’s experience. Voyeurs might seek to feel empathy, but the act can’t transcend it’s egocentricity in order to achieve it. Of course, the sinking boat is just an anecdote, but I think it gets the point across. Empathy is not for the sake of feeling. Not if it matters. Empathy is supposed to encourage us to act.

Does any of this make us evil for engaging in voyeurism? For seeking to empathize? For mistaking reality in our entertainment? For enjoying AGOT. As I said before, these things reveal us not make us who we are and I think no one evil for it — that’s for us to decide for ourselves. If we live in societies that have trouble with these issues, then we’re enmeshed in them as well whether we like it or not, know it or not, want to be or not. There’s nothing evil about that. I know I have a reputation for raising controversial questions, but there they are. To me, it seems that the importance of this exercise is to question why we enjoy problematic things (and yeah …we all enjoy problematic things). AGOT, as a work of entertainment, is one of the most problematic works in the medium right now. It’s inspired many hot debates for years for it’s content, but that’s exactly is where I think it’s true value lies: Inspiring debates about it’s controversies.

Scree Tags: #morality #gameofthrones #entertainment