A buddy asked me, “Do you watch Game of Thrones?”
I replied, “Yes.”
His eyes lit up with excitement. It was the kind of revved up expression where you knew the next thing that would come out of his mouth would be a spoiler—e.g., ‘dude, I totally can’t believe so-and-so was killed’—if you weren’t caught up to the latest episode.
I wasn’t. So, immediately, I interjected, “But I’m only in the middle of season three.”
Like pulling the keys out of a moving car, my friend’s face went neutral as he silently probed for a non-spoiling comment. “Um, so where are you?”
This was the baffling part. I didn’t remember. How many hours have I dedicated to that relatively new series and now I can’t even represent where the hell I left off in the show? I wondered further. How many hours of fiction television do people devour weekly and then just go about their day like the head of House Stark was not just slain at the hands of a bastard who I can’t wait to die? Riveting television fictions, overwhelmingly available on the Internet now, can’t be all that good for us can it? I mean, why are we so addicted to something that seems to do no biological good for us?
Unsurprisingly, there are upsides and downsides to gobbling up story the way that we are wired to do so. Here are two substantive reasons; one in favor of the pursuit of story, and the other, a glaring precaution.
Why fiction is good. At the risk of oversimplifying Gottschall’s (2012) work—The Storytelling Animal—the scientific upside of fiction, in short, is practice. “Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality… We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead” (p. 58). This ‘simulator’ idea also provides the basis for understanding a popular theory behind human dreams—which Gottschall also references. To conclude the point, story makes us better, socially. (Needless to say, I recommend this book.)
How fiction can hurt us. It can hurt us when we ‘overeat’ it. In this digital age when the Internet threatens the extinction of TV we are more cognizant of our level of digital story consumption. Are we binging on stories? Gottschall (2012) suggests, “It could be that intense greed for story was healthy for our ancestors but has some harmful consequences in a world where books, MP3 players, TVs, and iPhones make story omni-present—and where we have, in romance novels and television shows such as Jersey shore, something like the story equivalent of deep-fried Twinkies” (p. 197).
Needless to say, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and now Orange is the New Black will be around for a while. The entertainment consumption lifestyle in America can be a sensitive topic. In our society, no one can tell me what is good for me, and don’t think about telling me what I should or should not consume, or how much of my time I choose to spend with whatever. God made Netflix, and by God, I will put it to use. Assuming this is the general ethos, it is still worthwhile to ask from time to time who is on the throne of my leisure life: me, or Joffrey Baratheon? As far as global marketing is concerned this is fabulous news. No matter how many watch-worthy things are currently available to the public it seems there is always room for one more quality HBO or Netflix original series to feed into our culture of addictive consumption.
Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Pagels, J. (2012, July 9). Stop binge watching TV. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/07/09/binge_watching_tv_why_you_need_to_stop_.html
BLS American Time Use Survey, A.C. Nielsen Co. (2013, December 7). Television watching statistics. Retrieved from http://www.statisticbrain.com/television-watching-statistics/
Sepinwall, A. (2014, April 11). How much good TV is too much? Retrieved from http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/how-much-good-tv-is-too-much