Gamification: What Makes Game of Thrones Addicting

Game of Thrones Gamification

This is a guest post by Steven Laird. Steven is currently a Systems Integration Consultant at Accenture and is interested in the intersection of technology and psychology. He believes a gamified culture may be the answer to a countless array of world problems afflicting the human condition. Feel free to contact me if you would like to post a guest post here too.

Gamification of Thrones

Having had the wind knocked out of me from the heart-wrenching conclusion of Season 3 of Game of Thrones, I began to think of what else I could do in the meantime while I waited another eternity for my beloved show to come back.

Given how much time I sit around thinking about two topics: Gamification and Game of Thrones (Game of Thrones), I found it fitting to unravel the show that has taken the world by storm and offer some semblance of an explanation as to why I and many others feel just as addicted to this show as any popular video game.

In a nutshell, this show has every addicting element beautifully woven together into an epic masterpiece that is able to appeal to anyone…and here’s why – from a screenwriting, gamification, and avid fan perspective.

Game of Thrones through the Lens of Gamification and Octalysis

To start with, this show naturally has plenty of violence and sex to appeal to our baser appetites and fulfill that Hollywood formula. This is of course the 9th, or “hidden” Core Drive in the Gamification Framework Octalysis – Sensation.

While this is a crucial element, it really is just a miniscule ingredient as the script and story itself stem from the creepy genius of George Martin who has already done the heavy lifting of crafting an elegant and fantastical world containing a gamut of interconnected characters vying for a claim to the throne.

With the groundwork laid out, Game of Thrones is already ahead of its peers as it does not have to suffer from tight deadlines stifling the quality of creativity necessary for a story to unravel with the right amount of tension, unpredictability, character development, and the answer to those “so what” questions. (Remember how Lost unfolded?…me neither)

While I can make the argument that Game of Thrones is well done from a screenwriting perspective, how exactly does this relate to gamification? Although we have typically thought of gamification as only relating to the addicting elements of games, Yu-kai Chou likes to refer to it as “Human-Focused Design,” and can actually be thought of much more broadly given those same elements of great screenwriting touch upon the same core drives outlined in the Octalysis Framework.

By providing an Octalysis Score of how Game of Thrones fares among each one of the Core Drives, it is my intent to exemplify how fundamental screenwriting principles increases an Octalysis score from a viewer and Game of Thrones character’s perspective.

(Warning..Spoiler Alert!)

Core Drive 7: Curiosity & Unpredictability

With over 34 characters in the background of the world of Westeros – the fictional world where the action takes place – Game of Thrones has captivated audiences by featuring unpredictable plot twists that invoke a multitude of emotions.

Just as one story ends, the genesis of a new plotline carries on concurrently to progress the story in a fashion where a constant tension always exists between what the audience believes to happen, what the characters intend to happen, and what actually happens.

As main characters are killed off in realistic brutality usually reserved for the “bad” guy, viewers can’t help but wonder and debate with their friends what will happen next. In an age where TV shows and movies are incredibly formulaic, and hence, predictable, watching a show where I have no idea what is going to happen until right before the moment is a welcomed surprise.

In the spirit of welcomed surprises, the cunning and ambivalent Varys frequently demonstrates the core drive of Curiosity & Unpredictability as he commands an army of “birdies” across all lands to constantly keep him updated on gossip and critical war info. Having no real loyalty to any faction, Varys is an interesting conundrum who proves to be quite unpredictable himself as viewers have to wonder what ploy he will hatch next. Given how much this core drive jibes with both viewers and characters alike, I have to rate this as the strongest core drive for Game of Thrones, especially in the early Onboarding phases.

Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

Along the lines of wondering what is going to happen next, the core drive of creativity is extremely prevalent for both viewers and characters as each one of the major factions (Lannister, Stark, etc.) come up with all sorts of tactics and dirty ploys to usurp the throne.

As we watch Rob Stark strategize in his war room while his mother, Catelyn Stark, negotiates with greedy and perverse lords, we can’t help but creatively put ourselves in the shoes of the characters and scheme up various alliances and combinations.

Moreover, the short glimpses of an impending undead army marching down from the North as well as mythical dragons slowly growing up throughout the show serve to only add more fuel to the fire of imagination burning in each of our minds.

Indeed, these thoughts can often be the fodder of stimulating conversations or daydreams from long commutes to work; however, it is perhaps Game of Thrones’s ability to uniquely develop key characters in such a dynamic and deep way that there is a character that each one of us can closely identify with in our own lives.

For example, Tyrion Lannister, brilliantly played by Peter Dinklage, is possibly the most popular and interesting character in Game of Thrones as he plays the role of a dwarf who has all the riches and intellect in the world, yet lacks acceptance and love from a cold (pun intended) Westeros world.

When Tyrion is spouting sage quotes such as “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you,” it’s hard not to identify with him.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the show lies in its ability to show both disgusting and redeeming elements of each character which serves to ultimately make us wonder, who really is the “bad” guy anyway?

As we initially learn to hate characters such as Jaimie Lannister given his incestuous activities, spoiled brat arrogance, and mangling of a little boy, we are pleasantly surprised by his compassionate and heroic actions to save Brienne from a hungry Grizzly Bear.

When we begin to peel more layers of characters, Game of Thrones does not disappoint as it begins to realistically show that no one can truly “have it all,” as each character is blessed and cursed with their own strengths, weaknesses, and predicaments:

  • Jaime Lannister: Suave, good looking, skilled swordsman, and incredibly wealthy…but shoot…his right-hand got chopped off which means everything to a Knight’s identity.
  • Tyrion Lannister: Incredibly short, face is slashed, shunned by his own family, yet has the sharpest mind in all of Westeros along with the coin to go along with that wit.

I could do this for every single character but I think you get the point. Given how viewers around the world come from varying social classes, cultures, worldviews, etc., there really is a character for everyone.

As we go on an epic journey with each character and follow their evolution, our minds creatively wonder what we would do in the shoes of the characters we identify with, which leads to feedback and validation as each character’s strengths and flaws unfold.

As a result, I have to say that Game of Thrones ranks very high on the Creativity core drive as there are so many dimensions of creativity and feedback that occur.

Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning & Calling

While there are many characters that we can find ourselves identifying with, there are also many social issues in the world of Westeros that mirrors our own contemporary issues.

Typically when we think of the core drive of Epic Meaning & Calling, we think of situations where a player (or in this case viewer) feels that she is a part of something greater than herself.

In the same vein, thinking about some of the deeper social issues in Game of Thrones allows us to identify with characters such as Daenerys Targaryen (aka the “Mother of Dragons”) as she embodies everything a woman can be: caring, compassionate, yet undeniably fierce in a male-dominated world where women are expected to be submissive, bear children, and act as pieces on a chessboard for political conquest.

Game of Thrones begins with our base needs (violence and sex) on Mavlow’s hierarchy of needs and works its way up towards those controversial and intellectual topics that lie closest to our hearts.

Just to name a few (you could write whole articles on each of these topics):

Social Issues Game of Thrones Examples
Controversial Relationships: Homosexuality, Incest, Mistresses Renly’s homosexuality, Lannister incest, and Stannis’ mysterious mistress
Religion: Faith versus Cold Tactics Stannis’ faith in Melisandre’s God compared to Tywin Lannister’s tactics tested in battle
Moral Dilemma: Ends justify the means? Stannis’ dilemma: Offer your nephew as sacrifice to gain a Kingdom?
Modern Day Realism: Lannisters to Wallstreet comparison “Honorable” Starks die (Mainstreet) while conniving Lannisters rule (Wallstreet)


Perhaps the most enduring and recurring theme in Game of Thrones that embodies Epic Meaning & Calling can be attributed to one word… Duty.

The idea of Duty is a timeless word that applies to everyone in some shape or form (duty to your family, your country, etc.).

In the show, John Snow takes up the oath of the Night’s Watch, which requires him to swear to abstinence in the name of honor and the protection of the realm.

Originally inspired by the notion of taking up arms to guard the realm, John quickly learns the real-world cruelties that lie on the other side of the wall. The words of the ousted Targaryen “What is honor compared to a woman’s love?” perfectly embodies the age-old dilemma that has plagued man throughout history in every war.

Given that Epic Meaning & Calling is so powerfully invoked by both viewers and characters alike, I have to rank this as the third most motivating core drive in Game of Thrones.

Core Drive 5: Social Pressure & Envy

Naturally, as each of the previous core drives motivates people to watch this show in ever growing numbers, the word of mouth network effect has ensued and Game of Thrones has quickly become the next hot thing everyone has to watch and read.

The books, A Song of Fire and Ice, already have a huge fan base from those who love the Dungeon & Dragon genre.

As the main advocates and early adopters of this show, they have helped to propel Game of Thrones to a sort of “tipping point” where you can’t go two steps anymore in public without seeing someone watching or reading Game of Thrones.

Other similar examples where this has happened before include DaVinci Code, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Lord of the Rings.

While in my mind there is no denying how well written and executed Game of Thrones is; in reality, to most of us, it takes a large network effect for us to see what’s going on primarily due to the Core drive of Social Pressure & Envy.

As more and more people watch and debate about the show, we naturally want to be a part of the action and feel included in these conversations. (aka Bandwagoning)

Game of Thrones also became referenced in many other cultural mediums, making everyone feel that they “should” know what is going on in Game of Thrones.

Mario Gamification

For instance, an image like this might appear in the gamer community, and if you didn’t know what it represented, you could feel a bit obligated to find out.

In the world of Westeros, social pressure & envy are powerful and deadly forces driving the story of Game of Thrones onwards.

A lot of emphasis can be seen in class divisions between “high-born” and “low-born” families as these characters live in a world where the legacy of the family name means everything.

As a result, an enormous amount of hatred and envy is ever-present in Game of Thrones which can be seen when Jaimie Lannister’s captor slices off his sword hand in bitter resentment of Jaimie exerting his arrogant social status.

While the previous core drives explains why exactly people enjoy the show, this core drive better explains how Game of Thrones has catapulted into the international spotlight.

Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience

With the books already written and each season coming out at a moderate yearly pace due to a focus on high quality – acting, costumes, scripts, CGI, etc. – Game of Thrones has become a sort of scarce resource as many of its addicted fans indulge in one episode every Sunday.

While I usually binge on watching shows myself, Game of Thrones is one show I cannot wait for to finish completely before devouring.

Armed with the knowledge that there is a definitive ending to the show as it aligns with the existing books, audiences inevitably end up treasuring each episode that much more.

A good example of this can be seen by how treasured dragon eggs are in the world of Westeros. Even though the general population believes dragons are extinct, rendering petrified dragon eggs useless, it still serves as a valuable wedding gift due to its rarity and meaning to the Targareyns.

Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance

Although this Core Drive is not a primary motivation to watch Game of Thrones, it does exist to some degree in the End Game phases as we eventually become increasingly attached to certain characters that we identify with.

As important characters are killed off, leaving us with a sense of loss and anger, there becomes a deep desire to see vengeance enacted in order to re-balance the karma of Westeros.

As a result, this core drive indirectly motivates us to continue watching the show as we want to make sure that justice is not lost in this world.

Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession

Again, this core drive is not very prominent in Game of Thrones for viewers; however, it is extremely prominent for characters such as Littlefinger as he slowly accumulates ships, castles, and power.

With an insatiable appetite to own everything, Littlefinger reveals another subtle theme when he talks about how he always dreamed of owning a ship.

With not only one ship, but several ships to his name, Littlefinger admits the novelty of owning multiple ships has quickly faded and as a result, he now desires an entire fleet. Basically…more is never enough.

Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment

Lastly, we have the core drive of accomplishment which again does not register much of a punch on the Octalysis Richter scale for viewers as it’s hard to imagine people jumping out of their chairs to level up skills while watching Game of Thrones.

I suppose if you’re writing an analysis on Game of Thrones like I’m doing right now you could be leveling up your analyzing skills.

Jokes aside, most people would understandably prefer to sit back and enjoy the show.

While the spoiled King Joffrey sits back and enjoys shows of brutality, Tyrion Lannister toils in the background by leveling up his intellect and silver-tongue ability by constantly reading and intellectually sparring with his counterparts.

The core drive of accomplishment becomes painfully clear to Tyrion’s significant other, Shae, as she implores him to escape with her and begin a new life with her far from the back-stabbing environment they fight to survive in on a daily basis.

Tempted for a second by the earnest and caring eyes of Shae, Tyrion offers a sobering explanation as to why he couldn’t possibly leave as so much of his identity and fulfillment stem from his ability to outwit his contemporaries and thrive in the game of politics (thrones).

Octalysis Score: 

Game of Thrones Gamification

Game of Thrones is Winning & Addicting

After vetting Game of Thrones through an Octalysis analysis, it becomes apparent that those same essentials of screenwriting that make a show great closely mirror the same core drives of a carefully crafted video-game.

Game of Thrones is strong on the Right Brain Core Drives, and while it lacks some Core Drives in the left brain (this is nowadays solved by innovative Transmedia campaigns like the Suits Recruits), but for the Core Drives it does have are extremely strong. It also uses a good balance between White Hat and Black Hat Gamification.

Too often Gamification gets a lot of flak for simply being a tool for companies to extract more productivity out of people through “vapor” points.

While there are many debates on what aspects of Gamification relate to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, I think the key take away to focus on is that you can really apply a Gamification or Human-Focused Octalysis to any piece of culture in life that has the ability to capture and inspire our attention.

Perhaps we are doing the same thing Psychology does by creating a definition for every phenomenon we observe; however, I really do believe strongly that breaking down all the elements of what truly motivates people and harnessing it into a set of tools to reinvigorate un-motivated bureaucratic segments of our society can be the answer to our societal and economic woes.

As an exercise, I challenge you to think of any hobby, work, entertainment, etc. that truly interests and motivates you and rate it on an Octalysis scale. I’m willing to bet that your own personal hobbies will rate strongly on Octalysis.

As a tool, we can then harness this analysis to focus on institutions that poorly engage people and re-vamp them to naturally re-invigorate motivation rather than focusing on the old tools of carrots and sticks.

If you happen to be stuck in the drudgeries of corporate America and are trying to trick yourself into motivation, remember Syrio Forel’s words “The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true.”

It’s time for a change America. Winter is coming.

Gamification Winter is Coming

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