Game of Thrones has been dominating the headlines recently, and not necessarily for all the right reasons. The incredibly intricate fantasy saga is still a riveting watch every week, but it's also been accused of excessive depictions of rape and a few other, more minor infractions. The show's producers, however, make it general policy to avoid online discussions. In this day and age, that's a problem.
Entertainment Weekly asked Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss about their approach to dealing with vocal criticism on the Internet, and they admitted that, after a while, they just decided to tune it all out. Benioff explained:
"We both made this pact that we were going to stop looking at stuff online because you can go into the rabbit hole and get lost in this world of online Thrones commentary if you're not careful. We both felt a lot saner after we stopped doing that. There's many more important things to be reading about online than our own show."
"You look at a message board and there might be nine positive comments, but the tenth one is negative—and that's the one you'll remember, that's what sticks in your head. And you want to have an argument with the person: 'Well, here's why this happened [in the show],' and you can't. You start having an argument in your mind and you realize you're losing your mind. You're having an internal argument with somebody named DragonQueen42—you're never going to win that argument."
It's an understandable stance to take, especially when your show is massively popular and the tidal wave/avalanche/volcano eruption of commentary that comes in each week would crush/crush/crush (and also melt) any normal person.
As a lowly (by comparison) video games writer, I sometimes bow out of comment threads on my own articles or videos because, frankly, it's terrifying. Hundreds of people have opinions about this thing I did, and some (or even many) are angrily opposed to my own? When a billion other stresses—work, friend/family drama, planning for my future, staying in shape, deciding what to eat, etc, etc, etc—are baring down on me, that's the last thing I want to immerse myself in. And when one comment hits perfectly, almost absurdly so, on a fear that was already gnawing away at the back of brain stem? It's like a match being lobbed into a powder keg of all my insecurities.
I've avoided the Internet for entire weeks before, not because I thought I'd done something wrong or worthy of hiding from. Sometimes it's just too much. I'm not saying it's the right thing to do in every case, but I am saying it's something I've definitely done.
It all comes back to the way discussions on the Internet tend to unfold. So many reactions are just that: reactions. Posted in the heat of the moment, with raw emotion still dripping off like fresh sweat. The Internet gives people who are angry—sometimes justifiably so—a place to vent. I don't think that's necessarily bad. The problem is that it's become the predominant way people communicate on this unwieldy mess of a thing that is probably also the height of human accomplishment.
What we've essentially done is taken the way we react before, say, a good friend talks us down and turned that into the starting point of many conversations.
It's kind of wild, when you think about it. I mean, how many horrible mistakes would you have made in real life if you actually acted on a spur-the-moment knee-jerk reactions? Speaking personally, I'd probably be in prison at this point, if not worse. That is the level of decision-making that is guiding many online discussions. Or at least shaping them initially. But once you push a ball in one direction, well, it takes a whole lot of extra effort to get it going the opposite way.
But who cares, right? It's not like anybody who matters is actually gonna read this stuff. Problem is, that's a self-perpetuating cycle, and somebody's gonna have to break it. Everyone—commenter, creator, or anything in between—needs to be part of the process if anything's gonna change, which brings us back to Game of Thrones' showrunners.
They stand to gain a lot from listening and communicating. Not to everything, because that would be impossible, but to the larger discussions unfolding. That's how you keep something relevant and important in this rapidly changing world. That's how you avoid filming a rape scene while apparently not understanding that you filmed a rape scene. You pay attention. You keep your ears open. Otherwise you end up tone-deaf, ala—to use a recent example from the world of non-throne-based gaming—Nintendo with its Tomodachi Life gay marriage debacle, in which it attempted to distance itself from an event fans were lauding and more or less made a very upsetting social commentary in the process.
Games of Thrones' frequent use of rape—especially where it wasn't in the books (it's not like the books don't have it, after all) or even directly contradicts what the books were trying to achieve with various characters—has started to grate on some viewers, as have other changes. I'm all for the show having its own voice and identity (I think it's also improved a lot of characters and elements), but adding shock value for shock value's sake isn't good or necessary. It drives away diehard supporters, the very people who made this show so immensely popular in the first place. Possibly even worse, it send the wrong message to newcomers, makes them think the show is gross, insensitive, or endorsing those kinds of actions.
Even then, though, I don't necessarily want Game of Thrones' showrunners to kowtow to fans' every whim. That extreme is nearly as bad as not listening at all, because then you just end up with mindless, heartless, soulless fan service. A show with no teeth or a show that pulls punches where punches shouldn't be pulled. That's not how you tell a good or engaging story. Some fans—the ones who don't join discussions so much as they post lists of demands with pictures of the creator's cat they're holding hostage—won't be satisfied until they get exactly that, but you can't win 'em all.
That's not the point, though. The point is to simply listen, consider, and occasionally—when it's called for or necessary—weigh in. To be aware. It's the year 2014. Everyone is always connected. Full-stop radio silence is no longer an option. Even when it's frightening. Especially when it's frightening.
The biggest lesson I've personally learned in dealing with People On The Internet? The comments that touch a nerve or hit on a deep-seated fear of mine are the most valuable. In some cases they could've been worded a bit more, er, constructively, but they make me anxious or afraid for a reason. They're not necessarily correct nor do I need to make any changes because of them, but they are worth consideration. For future reference or for the purposes of bettering myself. Through picking apart the things I have doubts about, I learn and become better at making stuff people enjoy.
It doesn't have to be some big fundamental change—or any noticeable change at all, for that matter. I've picked up countless little tidbits by paying attention to those critiquing or dissecting my work. Criticism is important. It isn't censorship or even hate when someone says they dislike an element of something. It's an observation or opinion, and creators are free to choose what they want to do with that information, even if what they choose to do is nothing. The idea that someone might ignore that information entirely, however, is worrisome.
Art, contrary to popular belief, isn't created in a vacuum, nor is it consumed in one. The idea that criticism inherently compromises art is incredibly troubling, as it assumes art cannot be critiqued on any level, nor can it be improved. It's possible to enjoy something and still take it apart. I adore Game of Thrones and many of the smartly written, utterly enthralling characters and stories it's given us. I even think it's handled some of its universe's more overtly unsettling elements really well. That is why I want to see it be better. Because—a handful of key exceptions aside—I really, really like it a lot. Maybe I don't know what's best for it, and I fully accept that. It won't, however, stop me from hoping for something better and, when I feel it's necessary, saying so.
Online discussions aren't perfect, and everybody has ample room to improve the way they conduct themselves. I know I do, and I'm sure you do as well. But even so, there's tons to be learned from what people are talking about online—from understanding the gist of various discussions if nothing else. They're indicative of trends, mindsets, and culture, the very things that lead people to create in the first place—more indicative than any other tool in human history. At best Game of Thrones' showrunners are hurting themselves by outright ignoring that. At worst, they're hurting a lot of other people too.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.