This is the first scientific study to examine mortality and survival in Game of Thrones. It revealed that more than half of the important characters had died by the end of the seventh season, and the probability of dying within the first hour after first appearing on screen was about 14%. The vast majority of these deaths were due to injury, burns, or poisoning at the hands of other characters. The survival time of individual characters varied widely, a finding that echoes the quote from Jaqen H’ghar, an assassin featuring in Game of Thrones, which appears in the title of this paper.
The high rates of violent deaths observed in Game of Thrones are not without precedent in human history. For instance, archaeological evidence from prehistoric societies suggests that violent deaths accounted for about 15% of all-cause mortality, while ethnographic evidence indicates that the share of violent deaths for people living in pre-state societies was about 25% (Roser 2013a). In Europe, the homicide rates per 100,000 population have declined from around 40 homicides during the Middle Ages, to around 10 homicides in the eighteenth century, to around 3 homicides today (Roser 2013b; World Health Organization 2018).
Although many factors have undoubtedly contributed to the decline of violent deaths throughout human history, the following paragraph will be limited to a brief outline of some of the most significant ones. Perhaps foremost among these factors is the emergence of the nation-state with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force (Pinker 2011). The presence of such nation-states will tend to quell and restrain the anarchy, raiding, and feuding characterised by non-state societies. Next follows what Steven Pinker refers to as the “civilising process”, the process by which feudal territories were consolidated into large kingdoms with centralised authority and infrastructure for expanding commerce (Pinker 2011). As the importance of commerce increased, other people became more valuable alive than dead. The continued exchange of goods and services is, after all, more effective when trade partners are alive. The increased concern for the welfare of human beings, in turn, gives rise to the establishment of public institutions that can provide services to improve the health and well-being of the people (e.g. hospitals and public health departments). Lastly, but by no means least, is the rise of reason, the increasing application of knowledge and rationality in problem-solving and decision-making.
Where does the known world in Game of Thrones sit in regard to the factors that were highlighted in the preceding paragraph? For obvious reasons the world of Game of Thrones cannot be interpolated into human history; however, it may nevertheless be instructive to comment on to what extent any of the above-mentioned factors are apparent in Game of Thrones. Nation-states are not entirely universal in Game of Thrones, but they are common and wide-spread. The civilising process is clearly in progress, albeit far from completed. Although feudal territories in Westeros have coalesced into seven kingdoms, which in turn has been subjected to the rule of the Iron Throne, the political structure of the realm is evidently unstable. The legitimacy of the ruling power is questionable and the rule of law is ineffective, thus several competing factions are attempting to effect a regime change. There is clearly an emphasis on war rather than commerce, and although very limited medical care is available to some characters, there is a paucity of institutions for delivering public goods (e.g. schools, hospitals). Knowledge and reason do not appear to play a significant role in problem-solving and decision-making. Although some characters express concerns for human welfare and attempts to abolish slavery, such ideas are not universal or well enshrined in the world of Game of Thrones.
Given the societal structure outlined above, it should come as no surprise that violence prevention is presently not a priority in Game of Thrones. Despite being ubiquitous in human history, violence can be predicted and prevented (World Health Organization 2018). Effective violence prevention requires good quality data measuring the burden over time and identifying risk factors amenable to intervention. This study found that the risk of violent death was higher among characters who were male and lowborn. This is consistent with data from the real world suggesting that homicide rates are higher in countries and areas with lower socioeconomic status and that 80% of homicide victims are male (World Health Organization 2018). Other well-established risk factors for higher rates of violent deaths are transitions in political regime (World Health Organization 2018), the absence of good governance and the rule of law (World Health Organization 2018), and climatic instability (LeBlanc 1999; Jones et al. 1999). Although data pertaining to these risk factors were not recorded, it is nevertheless evident that the storyline in Game of Thrones is premised on the presence of these factors (e.g. the struggle to sit on the Iron Throne and that “Winter Is Coming”).
It could be argued there is great potential for violence prevention in the world of Game of Thrones. Beyond instituting legitimate (i.e. democratic) and stable governments that can deliver public goods such as justice based on the rule of law, the following recommendations could be offered: (1) increased efforts to expand commerce, thereby increasing the value of other people and creating more wealth and resources; (2) increased investment in institutions that can deliver public goods that will improve human health and well-being (e.g. schools, hospitals, and public health departments); (3) improve the built environment; and (4) develop and implement evidence-based violence prevention policies. Unlike violence prevention efforts in modern society, any of the above-mentioned recommendations could be implemented in Game of Thrones with the stroke of a pen. However, because this may negatively impact the show’s popularity, it seems unlikely any such changes will occur before the last episode of the final season reaches television screens worldwide.
Firstly, only important characters were included in this study, thus the findings may not be generalisable to the entire population in the world of Game of Thrones. Secondly, this study is potentially limited by the quality of data extraction and missing data. Independent data collection by two authors watching the DVD box set should have served to minimise errors. Furthermore, extracted data were subsequently cross-referenced with the information contained on the IMDb and the Game of Thrones Wiki site (Internet Movie Database (IMDb) [Internet] 2018; Game of Thrones Wiki [Internet] 2018). Although the accuracy of the information contained on the wiki site cannot be guaranteed, it is likely to be robust given that the information has been collaboratively reviewed by thousands of die-hard fans, including fans who have developed strong parasocial relationships, to the extent that overt grief was observed after the death of certain characters in the show (Daniel and Westerman 2017). Information regarding allegiance, occupation, and religion were indeterminable for some characters. Similarly, the unavailability of death certificates may have diminished the accuracy of the information regarding some deaths. Thirdly, it was not possible to calculate mortality rates per unit population because there were no available census data providing population estimates for the world of Game of Thrones. Lastly, the findings for time dependent covariates should be interpreted with caution. Although interaction terms were included alongside time dependent covariates in the multivariable Cox regression model, their parameter estimates are probably best interpreted as the average effect of the covariate (Allison 1995).