Game [Theory] of Thrones -- An Example
Paul Sztorc
September 24, 2017

As stated, most of the stories we tell are actually lessons in applied game theory.

I’ve picked an example from “Game of Thrones”, a popular show, which is [a] short and [b] features all of the principles discussed above.

Note: fix backlink

Spoiler Alert! It is from Season 6, Episode 2, and it is ~three minutes long:

The Setup

If you don’t know anything about the story, I’ll summarize:

  • The scene is set at a castle.
  • One man (the man who first speaks) has initiated a coup, by killing the castle’s previous leader.
  • Loyalists to the slain leader, have barricaded themselves inside of a room.
  • The usurper wants the loyalists to surrender, but the loyalists believe that if they surrender they will simply be killed.
  • One of the loyalists has already escaped the castle, to appeal for assistance from elsewhere.

The scene features all of the principles we’ve discussed above.

1. Expensive Negotiation

In this case, the two parties would prefer not to fight at all. In the first phase of the scene (pre-arrival), the marginal cost of each hour spent negotiating, is the heightened risk of death and psychological toll of stress and anxiety. In the second phase of the scene (after reinforcements arrive), the marginal cost of each hour spent battling is the loss of human life. That’s expensive!

Notice that the Usurper doesn’t want to have to break a door, or lose any of his men, or any arrows. Hence he attempts negotiation.

2. Attempts to Persuade

Shackled By Ability – Too Much Freedom

Usurper tries to convince the loyalist to just surrender, but they aren’t convinced. Instead, the loyalists think they’ll be killed if they surrender. It would be better for the Usurper, if he was somehow unable to kill the loyalists. And likewise it would debatably be better for the loyalists if they were somehow unable to kill anyone.

Bonus for Being Unreachable – Un-movable

Moreover, the Usurper’s attempts to negotiate are partially hampered by their inability to communicate with Jon’s wolf (a vicious and loyal animal – in fact, the Usurper’s ridiculous claim to safely transport the direwolf, amid the animal’s growling, seem almost to be the final straw – the last even that prompts the loyalists to write the negotiation off).

When the loyalist draws his sword, everyone knows that his mind-state has not changed, initiating the rejection of the proposal and the onset of violence.

3. Closing the Loop / Restraint

After the reinforcements arrive, things get even more interesting.


  • One loyalist leads assistance to the castle – he can credibly claim that he only did this for the sake of justice (see final point), and not for the purpose of plundering the castle or seizing control of it.
  • The attackers (the loyalist’s assistance) aggressively penetrate the castle’s defenses, and approach the defenders. However, they do not assault them. They exercise restraint.

Closing the Loop / Reciprocation

  • The castle-defenders, realizing the unusual context of the situation, also exercise restraint – in temporary defiance of the usurper’s leadership. Notice that, if the defenders believed that the attackers intended to kill all of them, they would fight, without any hesitation.
  • The defenders tacitly communicate this to each other by remaining quiet – an activity that is [1] deniable (the intent is ambiguous, so they cannot be blamed for it later), [2] coordinative (allows participants to easily measure the strength of their consensus), and [3] one which highlights non-conformists (making them easier for the attackers to single out one-by-one, instead of reciprocating against the entire group) and fosters communication generally. Silence = listening = openness to negotiate.
  • The attackers yell, to announce their presence and their greater numbers and strength (similar to a lion’s roar – the physics of sound are such that loud, low sounds are only possible from large, powerful sources), and perhaps also to create chaos to prevent any individual among them from being signaled out for persuasion. But the attackers also pause, and then maintain reciprocal silence with the defenders, as both groups realize what it allows.


  • The Usurper isn’t happy about this. He would rather attribute the onset of violence to the attackers – unfortunately, they have used restraint and so far only attacked a door. The Usurper can hardly claim that it is wrong to break down a door to deal with unreasonable people, as this is exactly what he himself was doing moments earlier. Instead, recognizing the threat posed to him by the silence falling all around him, he attempts to reverse the trend by yelling and loudly drawing his sword. And he thereby re-escalates the situation.


  • Still, many defenders perceive a chance for them to escape this situation without risking their lives. They know that the attackers (led by a friend and fellow defender of the castle, who is conspicuously front-and-center) likely do not have a problem with them personally. They are open to persuasion, and so they watch the ensuring man-to-man confrontation carefully. The red-haired attacker defeats his sole adversary…but he again exercises restraint and does not reciprocate against the other defenders. In fact he instead makes eye contact with them while he does this – a simple proof that he is fully aware of their presence, and yet he is not attacking them anyway. This proves to be a winning move, as it prompts the bowmen to conspicuously lower their projectile weapons.


  • The Usurper again attempts to escalate violence. In this case, the stakes are even higher – a projectile weapon against a giant. Giants are less cognitively gifted and may be deficient in exercising restraint. Fortunately, this proves not to be the case, and the giant follows the example of restraint set by the Red Haired man. Problematically for the giant, a mere arrow won’t kill him – this places the activity of arrow-firing in ambiguous state – is this “restraint” or no? The giant issues a growl to confirm that he will no longer tolerate being struck with any arrows. The negotiation is complete and the defenders yield.
  • The Usurper attempts some verbal persuasion but is unsuccessful.

(Mixture of Concepts)

  • The Red Haired man issues a taunt – a lack of restraint. It successfully causes a nearby child to initiate an attack. Fortunately Red Hair makes up for it by using restraint, by neither killing the boy nor retaliating against anyone.
  • Usurper attempts to take advantage of the chaos but is unsuccessful. He is restrained.
  • Finally, the counter-usurper does not execute the traitors on the spot. Instead he sends them “to the cells, where they belong”.

Most people can process all of that, even if they aren’t aware of each nuance involved, or feel unable to articulate exactly what is motivating their actions.

More Thoughts [and Spoliers]!

If you’re caught up on the show, and don’t mind other spoilers, here are some of my other thoughts:

  • The guy that killed The Lord Commander, earlier in this very episode, attempted to use “attribution” when he says “he [the Lord Commmander] thrust a terrible choice upon us…and we made it”.
  • “Five or one” – “persuadability” — squabbling perils “everybody wants something different”.
  • Ned Stark’s reputation as an “honorable” man led to his defeat at the hand of Cersei. But it also saved his life (until Joffery betrayed his mother unexpectedly). In general, the “honorable” knights are disadvantaged in that they must do as they are told. But this constraint is also an advantage, in that there is little to be gained by killing or harassing them (the Hound [pre-Blackwater Bay] is a good example of this).
  • Lysa Arryn cleverly employs a turnkey that is psychologically resistant to persuasion (specifically, bribes), by virtue of being –or pretending to be– too stupid to even be capable of understanding bribe-offers.
  • Similarly, Lord Tywin employs Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane (who is immune to empathy, and therefore un-persuadable), allowing Tywin to strategically opt-out of his logical mode by deferring to others.
  • At Tyrion’s wedding feast, Tywin defends Tyrion from King Joffrey. In my opinion, he does this because Tyrion obeyed Tywin’s [in marrying Sansa]. Tyrion seems to display some awareness of this, and exploit it intentionally – an example of Tyrion closing the loop [as the wedding is connected to his obedience to his father] and an example of Tywin maintaining his ‘strategic currency’ [Tywin shows, not only Tyrion but also the whole room, why they should continue to obey him – because he will repay favors].
  • In s03e10, there is a famous moment when King Joffrey attempts to assert his authority as King, and fails. This is because Joffrey’s assertion is done in private, among people who are already tightly-coordinated by Tywin. So there is no “leadership premium” for Joffrey to enjoy, and there is no looming threat of mass un-coordination (as there would be if this had been done outside in public in front of the peasants). Joffrey has a very simple, linear, model of power (from “King” downward), and has never appreciated interdependence (a precursor to this scene occurs in s03e07 and even in s01e03). Tywin is already coordinating anyone.
  • In the s03e07 scene, Joffrey can’t influence Tywin, because Tywin is already doing everything he can to protect Joffrey – the loop is already closed. Joffrey has nothing useful to contribute to their planning, because he has no relevant knowledge – notice that Tywin subtly emphasizes this, by burying his response to Joffrey’s request in qualifiers “appropriately…important…whenever necessary”. Joffrey is experiencing the problem of the unknown unknowns – you can’t command someone to tell you those.
  • In general, Tywin is never disrespectful to Joffrey in a way that is “quotable” to third parties. Which brings me to my favorite character…
  • Petyr Baelish works very hard to prevent anything from being attributed to him. He has other people do his dirty work, and plants his own ideas into other people’s heads. When he threatens people, he speaks indirectly (so that his threats cannot be quoted to third parties). In this way he fills his adversaries with doubt, and prevents them from coordinating against him.
  • Sometimes, people need some extra credibility, they “swear it”, “on all the Gods”. This technique helps an individual achieve powerlessness – ie, helps them constrain themselves into being unable to tell a lie. This is often helpful (it helps Petyr Baelish trick Lysa Arryn). But Lady Bolton fails to trick Ramsay Bolton.
  • LittleFinger’s attempt to intimidate/manipulate Brandon, in Season 7, fails because the interdependence criterion no longer applies (Bran is not affected by LF, because he is [a] at home surrounded by allies / armed guards, but more importantly [b] is relatively omniscient, and therefore flatly immune to Petyr’s plan).
  • After Dany conquers Mereen, she has her army basically work as police officers. While the Unsullied are effective warriors, they have no investigative experience and fail to track down criminals.