Watching episode 3 of the final season of Game Of Thrones was a mixed experience. The battle has seemed inevitable for the last few season and the series has built the tension up dramatically over the last six or so episodes. I’m not going to spoil it other than to say that the battle happened at night and during a snow storm of sorts. Who won? It doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article.
The show in general is a visual masterpiece. It is filmed in a number of different locations and doesn’t rely too heavily on CGI to generate spectacular scenes. Green screen is used a lot and there are some CGI / post production components but the producers make use of reality as much as possible in terms of make-up, costumes, and real buildings. When I think back on some of the episodes and what they brought to the screen it really is breathtaking. Top marks needed to be given for the quality of what appeared on the TV screen week after week.
That was not the case on Sunday and I noticed my mind drifting off onto the experience of watching as opposed to being lost in what I was seeing. This was annoying to me, given the build-up of the battle that was being depicted on screen. The show took a full year off to film, edit, produce, and do whatever was required to make sure it was exceptional. This was evident in the first two episodes of the season and for portions of this one, but once the call to arms was sounded, the waiting to ensure the high quality seemed to have been pointless.
From a story-line perspective, it was decent, and held-up. The action was fantastic, the tension arc was outstanding and even though it is a show that has dragons and the ability for dead people to be reanimated like zombies, there wasn’t anything about the story that was too over the top that broke the spell or forced the viewer to suspend reality past the boundaries of what I was willing to do.
The problem I had with it was just how difficult it was to see. It was really dark. It was as though it was a battle that was occurring at night – which it was – during a snow storm – which it was – before they had invented electrical light – which it was – and the only source of illumination was fire – which it was. It was very authentic, and that is what is what made it really hard to watch.
When I say hard to watch, I don’t mean hard in an emotional way – like it was making me sad or angry. I mean hard in an energetic way. It was draining to watch because the normally super crisp details and HD clarity wasn’t there. While it was clear that people were fighting, it wasn’t clear who those people were or what the outcome was. The exceptions to this were when key characters got killed or did some killing. As I write that, I suppose that I should have used that as a tell that something important was about to happen. Oh well, maybe I’ll rely on that the next time I watch something that is only marginally brighter than dark.
The experience was not uninteresting. Even though the show was missing a lot of what makes it great and very easy to watch, the difficulty I was having in seeing what was happening on the screen served as a strong contrast to the normal viewing experience. I found that I began to care less about what was going on and started to become critical of the premise of the show. It wasn’t that I wanted any or all of the key characters to die, it was closer to not caring about the outcome one way or the other. One side is going to have to win and the sooner they did the sooner this visual black hole would end. The premise that I have always been willing to accept as just a part of the show started to receive the brunt of my critical internal dialogue. Dragons do not exist so their abilities are not constrained to any historical or factual set of rules or guidelines. But my skepticism was building about them and their imaginary powers. They breathe fire when they exhale but somehow they are able to exhale for a long time, even when they had been flying all over the places and should be breathing really hard? Their fire wasn’t just flame, it was like spraying napalm that continued to burn for a long time afterwards. How can they have an unlimited supply of that?
I didn’t get critical all at once, it was a slow build. Initially I just wished that thing were brighter, then I wanted to see things better, and then the frustration arrived and grew. On the screen was the unfolding of an epic battle that had been festering for 7 seasons and in my head was an annoyance that was growing with each passing minute of almost invisible action.
At around 30 minutes in, the amount of energy I was spending trying to see and figure out what was going on hit the “too much to bother” level and I disengaged.
What’s interesting about it, is the finding that people have better recall of text that is harder to read than they do text that is visually highly contrasted and very crisp on the page. Ease is a problem when it comes to short term memory and the tougher things get, the better our recall tends to be. I would imagine that there is a level of difficulty that represents the upper threshold of what people are willing to tolerate when it comes to working their way through difficult text, and that this level is related to the incentive the person has for putting in the work. I have no doubt that if I was going to be tested on what happened during the episode and that there was something on the line, if knowing would actually matter, that I would have been able to keep at it for longer. But there wasn’t any incentive for me to keep doing the work. In fact, the effort that was required actually served as a disincentive to keep manufacturing whatever meaning I had created that allowed me to remain interested. It is entirely possible that watching it was so draining that there was no energy left over to do the mental work that is needed for the suspension of disbelief.
This is a common enough occurrence. People who are highly engaged are willing and able to continue to work hard towards an impossible goal but only as long as they are able to maintain their belief that it is possible. The moment reality breaks through, they view their efforts for what they are and they check out. The process is very much like the experience I had. The amount of effort that is required to sustain the belief increases in a relative sense – either because it requires more units or because fewer units are available to do it because they are being siphoned off and directed onto something else. Once the relative effort hits a certain level the foundation begins to fall apart and the weight of the belief causes it to collapse leaving reality to stand uncontested.
Human beings are programmed to understand what they are experiencing, and are more than willing to take some very big steps to construct a coherent narrative interpretation of what is going on. Entertainment relies on this quality. Without it watching a play or reading anything other than nonfiction would be a waste of time because we would only be capable of perceiving what was going on as being fake. The context in which we are viewing the make-believe stuff serves to prime our brain with the information that makes watching or reading possible. There is a piece of us that is completely aware that it is a play or a work of fiction, but the volume of that part is dialed down allowing us to get lost in what we are experiencing. It isn’t that we do not know that it is fantasy, it is that the part of us that cares is being actively suppressed.
Being aware of reality is a natural operation while ignoring it is not; this is almost a paradoxical situation in that it costs more energy to suppress reality than it does to accept it. The consequence to this fact is that we will only suppress reality when there is an incentive to do so. In this case, the incentive is reward chemicals that are released in response to the thoughts or the type of thinking that only flow when reality is suspended. It only works when we get something out of it and when what we get out of it is much greater than the cost of what we have to put into it.
Imagine that it takes 20 mental units of energy to suspend reality. However, the chemical reward that this can lead to is worth the equivalent of 50 units of energy. This is a positive experience and is therefore something that the brain will be more inclined to perform in the future. After enough of these experiences, the brain will have learned that suspending reality is always worth the initial cost because of the magnitude of the reward. This is why consuming fantasy literature or entertainment is a learned experience; it is available to everyone who has a brain that releases reward chemicals in response to the changes in thinking that suspension of reality facilitates AND who have enough experiences of the pairing of the stimulus and the response. If anything is missing the person will remain fixated on reality and will never have a reason to transcend into the realm of fantasy entertainment.
However, for those who have learned to find the experience rewarding, it is not without its limits. There is a cost associated with generating the reward, and the cost must be paid before the reward is released. Human beings have a propensity to be more loss adverse than they are reward seeking, and this creates an interesting phenomena in terms of sensation and perception. The ratio of loss to gain is one : two meaning that a loss of one unit is equal to a gain of two units. This is the general break-even point marking the boundary between when someone will do something that takes effort because the gain is worth it and when they will not take an action because the gain is not worth it. For example, we’ll put in 50 units of effort to get 110 units of reward, but we will not put in 50 units of effort to get 90 units of reward. The math is fairly straightforward although the timing of the rewards does not necessarily need to be immediate once the learning has taken place. If we were to get 50 reward units now and get another 100 units later, so long as we believed that the 100 units later were the result of spending 50 units now, we would have no difficulty perceiving this situation as a win and making the effort. This delaying of gratification is also a learned skill so the notion of investing effort for future reward is something that tends to come into play a little later in life.
The 2:1 ration is a perceptual thing in that it is the threshold that separates costs from losses. It is of big narrative significance because it alters the meaning we give to work / effort / actions. As long as the reward at least 2 times greater than the amount of energy we have to put in, we view the effort as a cost. Since things of value have a cost, we are accustomed to paying a price for things. The lower that price is relative to the value we get out of them the better; and it is not uncommon for something that is priced too low to be viewed as less valuable than it is. This means that we do not necessarily want the things that are handed to us and that we are actually more inclined to want something more when its price is slightly inflated. There is a sweet spot or range within which we are willing to work at varying degrees to get the value of something. Above it we perceive it as worthless and below it we view the effort we need to put in as a loss.
The lower threshold is about 1:2 in terms of effort to reward. There is some variability at the exact point, but narratively it can be defined as the point at which the cost of something is experienced as a loss. It’s an entirely relative thing but that does not change the dynamics at all. All things being equal, if the reward increases the cost can increase by a factor of 0.5. If the reward decreases, the cost will need to drop by a factor of 2. If the cost increases, the reward will need to increase by a factor of 2 and if it decreases, the reward can drop by a factor of 0.5. When one of these things does not occur AND when the ratio of cost to reward drops below 1:2, the costs become losses and the transaction will no longer be viewed as favorable. There is a small margin in terms of the time it will take before the brain makes the decision to abandon the transaction but the window is very small and dependent upon the size of the ratio – 1.1:2 will be tolerated for longer than 1.2:2 and a 3:1 ration might result in an immediate end to their participation in the behavioral transaction.
Past experience will pay a role in someone’s interpretation of reward and in their willingness to delay gratification. Those who have a longer track record of positive transactional ratios or who have a number of experiences that support the notion of delayed gratification will remain engaged for longer than someone who has little or no experience with either one of these elements; both generally, but more specifically with reference to the context of the current situation. However, most people will reach a breaking point eventually and once it has been crossed, the transaction ends and will only be reactivated when the ratio improves again to move the outcome from loss to cost.
This is what was at play for me while I watched this episode of Game Of Thrones. I have been more than willing to put the energy into suspending reality given how I have learned that doing so can lead to immediate and future rewards – consuming fiction has been rewarding and I have gotten a lot out of watching this series. Up until about 9:20 pm the ratio had been favorable and I had not minded putting in whatever effort was needed to keep me watching because the reward had been predictable and large enough to consider this effort a cost. However, the ratio dropped below the critical threshold which threw the costs / losses switch in my head. I very quickly burned through whatever good will that had been built-up and my brain was no longer willing to waste the effort that was needed to suspend reality or figure out what was happening on the screen. And that was it, the spell was broken and I instantly became aware that I was watching a TV show about make believe stuff that cannot and will not ever happen. The laws of physics flowed in and altered my perception of what I was able to see on the screen so I stopped. It suddenly became kind of silly, far-fetched, and unimportant.
The episodes director, Fabian Wagner, doesn’t believe that there was a problem. He suggested that the lighting was by design and used as a way to aid in the story telling. Everything that was important was visible, even if it was a little tougher to see than normal. He made some other comments about it that aren’t helpful. Suffice it to say, what was broadcast WAS what we were supposed to see. A collection of people took a look at the final product and approved it for distribution. I’m not a film maker and am only a fly by night fan of the show and not likely the person they were targeting with this episode. I am a lot less engaged than a diehard fan and may lack the specific commitment to put in the effort that was required to manufacture the information low picture quality failed to supply. True fans probably did the work and remain lost in the battle of until it was won.