Your Game of Thrones obsession, decoded by data science

It’s not just the dragons that keep us hooked on A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s about the characters, like Sansa and Jon.

Helen Sloan/HBO

What is it that makes George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books so compelling that we read them all and then devoured eight seasons of Game of Thrones on TV? Data science may have some answers.

A team packed with mathematicians, physicists and psychologists crunched the numbers on the book series that started with the publication of A Game of Thrones in 1996 and now includes five entries (with two more hopefully on the way). While the fantasy is fun, a lot of us may be responding to the rich social connections between the characters along with some seemingly unexpected deaths.

On Monday, the team published a study — Narrative Structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with realistic measures of social complexity —  in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. 

On paper, the books sound like they might be a turn-off. According to the researchers, there are over 2,000 named characters with more than 41,000 interactions between them. However, the science suggests that Martin gave our brains exactly what we could handle.

“The study shows the way the interactions between the characters are arranged is similar to how humans maintain relationships and interact in the real world,” the University of Warwick in the UK said in a statement on Monday. “Moreover, although important characters are famously killed off at random as the story is told, the underlying chronology is not at all so unpredictable.”

An impressive chart shows the social network that has developed by the end of the first book. The blue spots are male characters and the red are female. Gray spots (spoiler alert) are characters who have died.

This may look like a hopelessly complex social network based on A Game of Thrones, but our brains can handle it.

University of Cambridge

“Even the most predominant characters — those who tell the story — average out to have only 150 others to keep track of. This is the same number that the average human brain has evolved to deal with,” the university said.

The research team found the narrative networks in the Martin books were similar to those found in Icelandic sagas from the late 9th century to the early 11th century. 

The data analysis helped the researchers define Martin’s secret sauce: “1. The reader’s attention is maintained by the unexpected sequencing of significant events to encourage page turning to find out why something happened or what happens next. 2. The reader’s sense of what is natural is not overtaxed (i.e., seemingly random events make sense).”

A Song of Ice and Fire has delivered a string of bestsellers and fans are desperate for the long-delayed next entry, The Winds of Winter. Last we heard, Martin is still writing it. The research team may need to update its analysis when the book finally arrives.

“People largely make sense of the world through narratives, but we have no scientific understanding of what makes complex narratives relatable and comprehensible,” said study co-author Colm Connaughton, a theoretical physicist with the University of Warwick. “The ideas underpinning this paper are steps towards answering this question.” 

We may have a better understanding of the appeal of the Game of Thrones books now, but there are still plenty of X factors in play, like dragons. Everybody loves a good dragon story.

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