Just like plenty of fantasy worlds, may it be in literature, movies or tv shows, HBO’s spectacle ‚Game of Thrones‘ heavily draws on masculinities to tell the story. More than often this leads to an overemphasized image of men. Ideal masculinities, the consolidation of desired masculine traits, become very clearly visible and therefore are an accessible object of research. We are able to find one such magnificent example in Telltale’s digital adventure game series ‚Game of Thrones‘1. Similar to the tv show the game uses an episodic format, following the story of the minor noble family of House Forrester. The events told take place parallel to those in the books respectively the tv show.
Major parts of the game’s narrative are strongly driven by attributions of masculinities. For example one of the protagonists pursues his quest of vengeance for the malicious killing of his family by the hands of the opposing house, therefore seeks to restore his family’s honor. But besides such elements, there is a special constellation between three characters in episode 1, that deserves attention: It is the relationship between young Ethan, newly designated head of the house Forrester, and his two advisers Duncan Tuttle and Royland Degore. All three depict different masculinities, leading to conflicting moments when it comes to making decisions (struggles of masculinities).2
After the death of his father, Lord Gregor Forrester, Ethan rightfully inherits the title ‚Lord of House Forrester‘. According to Royland Degore, Ethan is far too young to carry a sword by his own, let alone rule the house. The young lord is therefore depicted as a playful, innocent boy, together with his siblings, his twin-sister and his junger brother. His masculinity could be describe as that of a young man in need of experience. From there on it is up the player to decide how Ethan’s character evolves. Choosing between four different answers during dialogue segments, the player is able to direct Ethan and shape his behavior. It is thereby an active involvement of the player, letting her/him decide which type of masculinity Ethan follows and consequently adopts. The player is able to combine different virtues, attributes and ideals to her/his pleasing.3 The result is a certain, individual masculinity of composite nature. By conferring one’s own expectations of masculine or not masculine through choices, imaginations of men are tested and confirmed (or possibly not confirmed) as right.4
However, the amount of choices is drastically limited. Strictly speaking there are two major positions: wisdom and strength. They symbolize two opposing (but in no way exclusive) masculinities. Smart versus physically strong, mind versus body are often used as a stark contrast. Following the way of the wise or the strong man changes the course of events, by letting Ethan adopt a certain masculinity and therefore following its associated narrative.
The struggle between these two positions of masculinities is most prominent with Ethan’s two advisors. As the st
ory progresses the player has to name a primary advisor, a so-called sentinel. At this point a decision between the wise and strong, the diplomatic and the forceful has to be made. Three moments of conflict emphasize these two positions, exposing the underlying masculine imaginations and narrative. The moments are:
- The Audience of Lord Whitehill
- The Punishment of a Thief
- The Audience of Ramsay Snow
During all those scenes there are two dominant topics, rather discourses: The need of being a fit leader of House Forrester and providing safety for the subjects. Both are inherently calling on imaginations of historical rulers, kings and emperors, transporting certain expectations, which rely strongly on masculine ideals.
The Audience of Lord Whitehill
Being Lord means having duties. One of those duties is holding audiences, receiving guests of important character. One of the first challenges for young Ethan Forrester as well as the player is such an audience. The guest is one very rude and upset Lord Whitehill, longtime rival of the house Forrester, enviously eyeing their treasured resource, the precious ironwood. Before the audience takes place, the two advisors state their opinion and views on the matter. Duncan Tuttle argues to reason with Lord Whitehill. He suggests to take a pacifying approach, trying to control the situation. Diplomatic, but not forceful. Wise words are what Tuttle wants Ethan to trust in as his mightiest weapon. Royland Degore, on the other hand, takes a much different approach. He suggest a more aggressive stance and demands that Ethan shows force. The young lord needs to stand up to such intruders and may not give them any satisfaction whatsoever.
Both positions depict strong positions, working with elements of ideal masculinities. Diplomacy and reasoning versus aggression and force.
The Punishment of a Thief
Scenes later the two positions collide again. After the capture of a thief it is up to Ethan to speak judgment. The thief was stealing out of desperation, fearing for his life and the wellbeing of his family. The player is put in front of an uncomfortable decision: Punishment is required, the wise and the strong masculinities agree on that. Duncan Tuttle reminds Ethan to be once again reasonable and that this is not the time for harsh punishment. Instead of applying the usual, traditional law of taking three fingers, Tuttle suggests to send the man to the Wall. Considering the implied consequences this can still be considered a harsh punishment, making the decision much more difficult. However, Royland Degore acts relentless in the face of the crime. He kicks the man and calls him a ‚craven‘. The advisor displays a strict and unwavering nature, calling for a hard, but just punishment. Degore favors the traditional judgment: The taking of three fingers. He asks Ethan to show strength in front of his subjects.
This decision is among the most difficult in the first episode. The reason for that lies in the blurring of the two masculine narratives. While the audience of Lord Whitehall presents two clearly distinguishable ways to go, the wise and the forceful, this is not the case with the thief. Both advisors call for a punishment that will lead to a similar result: the suffering of the thief and consequently of his family. Only their arguments differ: Tuttle argues with reason and to consider the circumstances. Degore takes a relentless position, calling once more for a strong hand.
The difficulty of the situation is furthermore proven by the existence of a third, much more appealing choice: mercy. Ethan has the possibility to show mercy and forgive the thief, not sending him to the wall and not taking any fingers. This would be a benevolent gesture, but it could make Ethan appear weak. This third choice is personified by Ethan’s sister. Therefore we find an interesting element here: an ideal commonly attributed to women. The imagination of the merciful female is added to further distinguish the two masculine positions. But it comes with the heavy price of attributed weakness.
At this point it is clearly visible that gender narratives support the ongoing story. Distinguishing between good and bad, subjectively Tuttle seems to be the good and Degore the bad advisor, is simply done by attributing desired traits of masculinity that are usually or commonly considered ‚traditional‘, for example reason. On the other hand, aggression signifies a mislead, overemphasized form of masculine strength. In case of Tuttle and Degore this is done very subtle, since both characters support Ethan, whereas the third and final moment introduces another, hyperviolent masculinity, that is therefore considered and understood as the antagonist and enemy from the very beginning: Ramsay Snow.
The Audience of Ramsay Snow
At the end of episode one Ramsay Snow, as his father’s emissary, who has usurped the rule over the North, including the lands of the Forresters, is about to arrive. It is up to Ethan, respectively the player, to prepare accordingly. By then the player has chosen a sentinel, either Duncan Tuttle or Royland Degore. Still the choice on how to welcome Ramsay Snow is undecided. Again the player is provided with two possible ways following the narratives presented so far. Tuttle advises us to once again use diplomacy and invite Ramsay Snow into the Great Hall. Degore argues in favor of showing military force and meeting Snow at the gates, letting him wait, consequently humiliating him. Tuttle and Degore’s positions become crystal clear, following the specific masculine ideals and associated narratives: the wise diplomat versus the aggressive soldier.
Looking at the first episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones allows a couple of fascinating insights. First, the importance of attributions of the masculine are evidently visible. Characters are equipped with various traits, building them after certain established, common imaginations of masculine ideals. Drawing upon positively established attributes usually leads to the creation of a ‚good‘ character. The exaggeration of such attributes, strength turning to aggression turning to violence, serves to establish antagonists, such as the likes of Ramsay Snow. But this descriptive approach is merely the first cut.
The analysis of the struggle between the contrasting masculine ideals shows the potential conflicts of differing expectations of male behavior. Duncan Tuttle and Royland Degore are symbols for diverging types of ideally imagined male, dramatically opposed masculinities. This struggle reaches its pinnacle after the last decision, when the ‚neglected masculinity‘ rushes out of the room, acquiring a new trait in the process: bad loser.
By pointing out the ongoing, conflicting rivalry between the contrasting masculinities behind Tuttle and Degore, the very essential process of conferring masculinities is illuminated. Ethan, or more important the player, is confronted with decisions. She/he may either pick the way of wisdom and diplomacy or the road of force and brute strength. Effectively the player has to decide what kind of man Ethan becomes, always being guided, and at the same time restricted, by one of the two ideals in front of him: the wise diplomat or the aggressive soldier.
It has to be noted that this process of conferring gender as part of a digital game has a far wider reach than simply creating the fictitious persona of Ethan Forrester. By simulating ‚good‘ and ‚bad‘ decisions, the game implies notions of right and wrong or successful and unsuccessful male behavior. It is therefore no surprise that about 70% of all players picked Duncan Tuttle as their sentinel, according to Telltale statistics.5 This is furthermore interesting regarding the fact that this decision has no effect at all on the outcome of the first episodes ending.
The struggle between the two ideal masculinities is the central narrative guiding the story of the episode. Ethan’s evolution to become leader of house Forrester is the focal point of the plot. Following the two main topics, establishing a firm rule and securing safety for the subjects, the aim is to create a leader that heavily relies on traits of masculinity, contrasted by hyperviolence or female mercy. The world of Westeros, the land of Game of Thrones, is a place of gender ideals (positives and negatives), not of gender practice (what we would call ‚normal’). Although there are choices to be made that are opposed to masculine ideals, like fleeing instead of fighting, such decisions usually have a dire ending. Failing to meet the masculine ideal therefore leads to the player being disciplined and punished6 through the games subsequently adapted narrative.
1. Telltale Games: Game of Thrones (multi-platform, published by Telltale Games, 2014).
2. For more research on Struggles of masculinities, see: Resilience and Longevity: Struggles of Masculinities
3. On ideals, role models and leading figures see: Stefan Horlacher, Überlegungen zur theoretischen Konzeption männlicher Identität aus kulturwissenschaftlicher Perspektive. In: Martina Läubli, Sabrina Sahli (Eds.), Männlichkeit denken. Aktuelle Perspektiven der kulturwissenschaftlichen Masculinity Studies (Bielefeld 2011) 19–82.
4. On ‚conferring of masculinities’ see: David Buchbinder, Studying men and masculinities (London 2013).
5. Telltale statistics: 69.9% picked Duncan Tuttle, while 30.9% picked Royland Degore as Sentinel.
6. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York 1979).