Game of Thrones

Coming Soon!:

“I Choose Violence”:

The Game Theory Underlying

the Game of Thrones

by Barry R. Weingast, Sam Weingast,

And Philip Petrov.

 Spoiler Alert! This extract contains spoilers.

From the introduction:

We are sucked in from the beginning, introduced to a new world through the lens of Eddard “Ned” Stark’s families’ perspective. Ned heads House Stark, one of seven ruling families in the fantasy continent of Westeros. The Starks live in a castle called Winterfell and rule the North. When the King, Robert Baratheon and his entourage arrive for a visit, events and complications quickly multiply. Robert and Ned are old friends. Over time, we are introduced to a large collection of colorful figures, including the Lannister family, the Stark children, Daenerys, dragons, and many others.

But Game of Thrones is not just a captivating television series involving action, drama, fantasy, and suspense. It is also a surprisingly accurate exposition of politics and violence in developing countries.

The story is set in a fantasy world consisting of two continents called Westeros and Essos, which are separated by the Narrow Sea. The civilizations on both continents are in something like the Middle Ages, Westeros in particular displays strong parallels with medieval Europe.

The purpose of this book is to highlight the strategic logic that underlies many of the main events of Game of Thrones. Readers who know the series well will see dimensions of its storylines that they may not have noted before. Readers who are learning game theory but have had little exposure to Game of Thrones will see that the series provides many examples of the types of interactions that game theory studies.

Like many popular television series, Game of Thrones interweaves multiple storylines. The first seven episodes of Season One, on which we concentrate in chapters 2 and 3, detail two storylines.

The first storyline occurs on Westeros. A power struggle has emerged at the heart of the Seven Kingdoms. Seventeen years ago, Robert Baratheon led a revolution that captured the Iron Throne, displacing the previous king of the House Targaryen. The one who sits on the Iron Throne rules the Seven Kingdoms. Now, Robert is struggling to hold on to the throne. The crown has run out of money, and the coalition supporting it in power is in danger of collapsing. Jon Arynn, the Hand of the King (the king’s chief executive) has recently died under mysterious circumstances. In combination with these other circumstances, Arynn’s death induced Robert to call upon Ned to come to the capital of King’s Landing to help save his kingship. Ned reluctantly agrees, leaving his wife and three of his sons behind. Being the King’s Hand introduces Ned into a world far more complex than any that he has experienced. Ned’s inability to understand or adapt to the intricacies of power politics has severe consequences for him and his family.

The second storyline occurs on Essos. Viserys and Daenerys are the last surviving descendants of the once powerful House Targaryen. The family had held the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms for generations, but Viserys’s and Daenerys’s father, King Aerys II Targarean, the “Mad King,” lost it to Robert. As the deposed king’s descendants, Viserys and Daenerys were exiled to Essos. As the siblings come of age, Viserys plots to retake the throne of the Seven Kingdoms. In particular, Viserys makes a deal with a powerful warlord named Drogo, a Dothraki Khal (warlord). In exchange for command of part of Drogo’s army, Viserys offers his younger sister Daenerys to be the Drogo’s wife. Drogo, however, betrays him.

Game theory provides valuable tools that provide new insights into the underlying logical structure of Game of Thrones. For example, it can help us to answer questions like the following.

  • Why has the political alliance led by King Robert Baratheon been stable for many years only to erupt in intrigue, murder, and the threat of war?
  • Was Ned’s failure to save Robert’s kingship inevitable, or could a different plan of action have preserved Robert’s coalition?
  • Did Littlefinger, a member of Robert’s council, betray Ned and cause his downfall? After all, as Littlefinger put his knife to Ned’s neck in Season One, Episode Seven, he told Ned, “I did warn you not to trust me.”
  • Why did Drogo renege on his promise to give Viserys an army?

As we will see, the game-theoretic perspective yields a surprising number of insights about why the major characters of Game of Thrones make the decisions that they do. In the process, we learn a surprising amount about why modern (and historic) developing countries find it so difficult to develop.

 

 Table of Contents

Preface………………………………………………………………………………………….5

Acknowledgements………………………………………………….………………………6

Chapter 1: Introduction: The Games Underlying Game of Thrones…………………….7

Chapter 2: A Ridiculously Brief Introduction to Game Theory Using Four Illustrative Games…………………………………………………………………………………………..14

Chapter 3: Dynamics of an Authoritarian Leader’s Support Coalition: “I Learned How
to Die a Long Time Ago”………………………………………………………………………38

Chapter 4: Turning Loved Ones into Weapons: Shae and Rickon as Hostages…………………………..…………………………………………………………..58

Chapter 5: Uncertainty: Robb Stark Negotiates with Walder Frey……………………………………………………………………………………………..72

Chapter 6: Signaling and Preference Revelation: Jon Snow, the Wildlings, and the
Night’s Watch…………………………………………………………………………………..87

Chapter 7: Installing Subordinates and Empowering Allies: Tyrion, Cersei, and
Robert…..………………………………………………………………………………………105

Chapter 8: Repeat Play and Reputation: “A Lannister Always Pays His Debts”………117

Chapter 9: Dilemmas of Cooperation: Cersei, Daenerys, and Jon Snow………………118

 Chapter 10: Game Theory as an Interpretive Device……………………………………145

Chapter 11: Larger Lessons: The Violence Trap and Other Impediments to Development…………………………………………………………………………………..150

Appendix I: Characters………………………………………………………………………154

Appendix II: Glossary of Terms……………………………………………………………..167

Game Theory

Game of Thrones

Appendix III: Handy Reference Guides to Game Theory………………………………..171

The Parts of a Game Tree

Solving a Game Using Backward Induction

Appendix IV: Further Reading………………………………………………………………173

About the Authors…………………………………………………………………………..176

References

 

Table of Games

Figure 2.1 A Simple Game Tree

Figure 2.2. Sansa’s Game.

Figure 2.3. Catelyn Stark Confronts Tyrion Lannister.

Figure 2.4: The Viserys-Drogo Exchange.

Figure 2.5. Ned Keeps the Secret of Jon Snow’s Birth.

Figure 3.1: Robert Must Decide whether to Let Ned Seek Justice.

Figure 3.2. Ned on the Throne Pursues Justice.

Figure 3.3: Renly Offers Ned a Choice.

3.4. Littlefinger’s Proposal to Resolve the Crisis

Figure 3.4. Ned Loses his Head (A Reneging Game).

Figure 4.1. Shae’s Game (Hostages)

Figure 4.2. Rickon’s Game

Figure 5.1. Robb’s Marriage (= Reneging) Game

Figure 5.2. The Red Wedding Game (A Game Under Uncertainty)

Figure 6.1. The Horse Breeder: A Revelation Game.

Figure 6.2. Margaery’s Rose: A Signaling Game.

Figure 7.1. The Classic Prisoners’ Dilemma

Figure 7.1. The Cersei-Daenerys Truce Game (A Game of Cooperation, or Lack Thereof)

Figure 7.3. The Night’s Watch and the Wildlings at War.

Figure 7.4. The Night’s Watch and the Wildlings Cooperate

Figure 8.1. Slynt’s Game.

Figure 8.2. The Cersei and High Sparrow Play a High Stakes Game.

Figure 8.3. Jaime’s Game (sovereign debt).