A Science of Ice and Fire
April 10, 2019
Game of Thrones is more than a global media phenomenon. Enormously popular with college students, the show is a hot topic in classrooms, where it offers lessons in areas as diverse as story structure, languages and cultures, power dynamics, and the art of war.
In anticipation of the final season of the seminal television program, we approached students and faculty to explore some of the possibilities Game of Thrones holds beyond entertainment.
Dancing with Dragons
It isn’t a particularly bold supposition that dragons are a formidable weapon. Still, we wondered: exactly how much of an impact would a dragon have on a battlefield? Chandler Thornhill, a graduate student in economics, and Matthew Redington, a graduate student in computer science, offered to devise a few simulations.
Both are currently enrolled in the course Modeling, Simulation, and Military Gaming, an interdisciplinary, project-based class requiring collaboration across a range of backgrounds and skills. Groups of students spend a semester researching and dissecting historical battles, using this deep understanding to adjust variables and outcomes through computational modeling.
Creative visual of a simulated dragon in battle
Introducing fantastical elements may seem an inconsequential exercise, but to one of its instructors, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs Assistant Professor Mariel Borowitz, introducing pop culture elements allows students to connect with modeling simulations in a different way.
“One of the things I like about bringing dragons into a simulation is that you really have to go through the same research process,” she said. “You have to be rigorous in how you find data and how you make assumptions. Obviously, there’s not a lot of data available on a dragon’s efficiency but you can look at the information sources available as a basis to formulate and justify assumptions. It shows the process can be applied in all sorts of areas.”
So how much of a difference did the dragon have? By their calculations, roughly 70 percent of opposing forces were turned to ash.
Video: Georgia Tech graduate students Matt Redington and Chandler Thornhill used military modeling simulation software to insert a dragon into the historic battle of Cannae.
Merging Media: Breaker of (Narrative) Chains
More than 20 years ago, in her seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray, the Ivan Allen College Dean’s Professor, predicted the rise of a new genre of deeply complex narrative driven by the marriage of television and computer.
It would be what she called the “hyperserial.” Plot, backstory, and detail too fine to showcase in an hour-long drama would pass back and forth between television screen and computer screen, high-speed digital transmission of content would enable new ways of accessing stories, and narrative would, as a consequence, grow richer and more complex.
“The confusion we feel in viewing programs like Game of Thrones, and the immersion that draws us to them, are signals to me that these stories are outgrowing the classic television format.”
Nowhere has the promise of complex narrative storytelling been so fully realized as HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. So it is no surprise that Murray and her students in the college’s Digital Media program have used those stories to test her hypothesis.
“The confusion we feel in viewing programs like Game of Thrones, and the immersion that draws us to them, are signals to me that these stories are outgrowing the classic television format,” Murray said.
Game of Thrones Companion from Janet Murray's Prototyping eNarrative Lab
In recent years, Murray’s students in the Prototyping eNarrative Lab (PeN Lab) have prototyped a companion app meant to help fans keep track of the dozens of characters, backstories, alliances, and antipathies that make up the dizzyingly complex world of Westeros. Working with Murray, they also have built an application to help viewers track the many plots of Game of Thrones, and the fates of its characters.
The companion tablet app provides a moment-by-moment window into a Game of Thrones episode, automatically serving information about onscreen characters and their relationships without user intervention.
The Digital Story Structure Project graphed the fall and rise of characters, showing, for instance, the opposite fates of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow early in the series, followed by the merger of their fates in season 7.
“I am interested in prototyping the future of narrative,” Murray said. “Computers give us a new vocabulary of representation, and I believe this will lead to ever more complex storytelling. We need more complex storytelling to understand the world and share our understanding of complex systems and multiple chains of causation, multiple points of view, and multiple possible outcomes.”
Photography: Rob Felt, Game of Thrones Images courtesy of HBO
Video: Evan Atkinson, Harriss Callahan, Steven Norris, Brice Zimmerman
Writer: Michael Pearson, Michael Hagearty, Monet Fort
Editor: Stacy Braukman
Design: Harriss Callahan, Monet Fort
Production: Christine Brazill