More than entertainment: WVU professors use ‘Game of Thrones’ to teach

Game of Thrones, the Emmy-award winning HBO show that became a cultural phenomenon, is more than just entertainment. It is sparking questions in academia in fields from religious studies to political science.
Warning: If you’re behind on the show, this article contains spoilers from Season Eight’s fifth episode. Don’t worry though, Elizabeth Cohen, a communication studies professor at WVU, said research has shown that by and large, spoilers don’t ruin the enjoyment of something.
“At the end of the day, spoilers don’t enhance enjoyment but there’s not a lot of evidence that it detracts enjoyment,” Cohen said. “I think we overestimate how much surprise factors into our enjoyment of these stories.”
Now, onto the spoilers and another academic field the show has impacted.
Christinia Fattore, a WVU political science professor, said Daenerys Targaryen illustrates a central concept about leadership — that men and women aren’t really that different.
Targaryen, one of the show’s central and generally beloved characters at least until last week’s penultimate episode when she destroyed much of King’s Landing — including many of its innocent citizens — used any means needed to reach her goal, the Iron Throne.
The show has also done a great job developing other strong female characters, such as Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark, Fattore said. Stark started as a meek timid child who wanted to marry the prince and is now a strong contender for the Iron Throne in Fattore’s book.
There are also problems with the show’s portrayal of women, she said. The show is rife with sexual violence against women and that’s been a topic of discussion in Fattore’s classroom.
“We talk a lot about sexual violence in ‘Game of Thrones’ and how we can enjoy something where morally there is so much wrong and so many characters are morally bankrupt,” she said.
The fantasy trappings of the show allow everyday people to enjoy something and dismiss the violence that would horrify us if it happened in our streets, Fattore said.
Game of Thrones has also raised a lot of philosophical questions about what religion can or can’t accomplish, said religious studies professor Alyssa Beall.
The show’s varied religions have examples of followers behaving in both extremely ethical and less-than-moral ways, she said. Other characters are seen as both very ethical and yet non-religious, prompting those questions about religion and what makes a good person.
“It’s not one particular religion that makes these people moral or immoral,” Beall said. “A religion might offer guidance to some of the characters, but that same religion can also be taken in some really extreme and less-than-positive directions.”
The series finale for “Game of Thrones” unfolds Sunday night on HBO.

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