Celine Cunen, a PhD student at the Department of Mathematics at University of Oslo, has examined whether the mortality rate in Game of Thrones is abnormally greater than in a real civil war in the Middle Ages.
She has compared death rates of the nobility in Game of Thrones with the Wars of the Roses, a civil war that ravaged England between 1455 and 1487. Surprisingly, her analysis show that the mortality rates of main characters in the TV show match the mortality rate of the noble classes in the Wars of the Roses pretty accurately.
All in the name of fun
The author behind the TV series, George R. R. Martin, has himself pointed to the Wars of the Roses as a main source of inspiration. Even the family names given to the nobility are similar: Lancaster and York in the Wars of the Roses compared to Lannister and Stark in the Game of Thrones.
“The Wars of the Roses is an obvious source of inspiration for Game of Thrones, and while working on an home assignment in one of my PhD classes, I came up with the idea to examine whether the fictional or historical war was the most bloody,” explains Cunen.
Cunen is a statistician, and a large part of her job is to find sample selections that give a meaningful basis of comparison. “I have to add: I did this just for fun. I am part of a group of researchers that wish to communicate statistics to the world. I regarded this as a good opportunity to do just that! However, it is of course impossible to obtain a correct statistical basis in a comparison between a TV-show and a historical war. But it might give you some idea of the realism of the show!”
To get the right statistical basis of comparison she made a computer program that screened all Wikipedia articles on people living in Great Britain during the Wars of the Roses. Next, the program traced the time of birth and the time of death of all these people if it could find it.
Subsequently she compared this to data from Game of Thrones. She quickly registered that the data were similarly biased. Both sets of data concentrated on what you can call «important people».
As expected both sets of data were dominated by the nobility and by men. In the selection from Game of Thrones you find 55 percent nobility and 76 percent men, compared to the historical data that consisted of 68 percent nobility and 88 percent men. “To analyze I used so-called Kaplan-Meier plots,” explains Cunen.
The people in Game of Thrones are not a random selection of people living in the Game of Thrones universe, consequently Cunen had to figure out a way to create a similarly biased selection from the Wars of the Roses.
“The answer was Wikipedia!” she adds. “Wikipedia contains, rather surprisingly, at least on my part, quite a number of articles on people living in the 1400s.”
Nobility and the game of thrones
The Wars of the Roses was made possible by nobility that had run wild and clashed together in a fight for the British throne. Pretenders to the throne, together with their noble allies and professional armies, fought each other for power. In this great game there was no place for the common citizen, and today we have little information regarding their fate.
This is a reality that is mirrored in the fictional world of Game of Thrones, even though the series tries to picture a society on the decline. You hear reports of massacres, refugees, famines and general decline, but it’s nevertheless the noble powerhouses we generally follow in the fight for supremacy. And this fight is painted just as red as its historical counterpart.
“The medieval wars were fought by the nobility and professional warriors,” Cunen says. “Furthermore, all historical data from these wars are completely fixated on so-called ‘important people’, meaning politicians or nobility. Consequently, this is not a comparison on these wars’ general mortality, but a comparison on the mortality between ‘important’ people.”
The point is that the data in both circumstances will be biased in favor of “important people”.
Statistics and mortality
The mortality rate in the Wars of the Roses and Game of Thrones, considering the sample, is very similar. The life expectancy in the sample selection corresponds very well. In short, the series is true to its inspiration.
However, the two sets of data are very different in one very important aspect; all people from the Wars of the Roses are dead, while the data from Game of Thrones contain several characters still alive who potentially could reach an older age.
“Consequently their life spans will increase. The analysis has to account for this by specifying that the life expectancy for the ones still alive are ‘censored’,” explains Cunen.
The results reveal that the characters from Game of Thrones have a marginally higher mortality rate than the people from history. It also reveals that the mortality among the nobility is very similar in both show and history. When it comes to commoners, however, this is turned on its head.
The statistic shows that in the Game of Thrones, commoners have a higher mortality rate compared to the nobility. In the War of the Roses, however, the commoners actually have a lower mortality rate compared to the nobility. So there you go, the TV-show is only bloodier when you step out of the rank of nobility.
People, don’t despair if your favorite character is full of stab wounds. Comfort yourself with the notion that his or her death is realistic! Or, of course, you can curse statistics and reality for contaminating your favorite TV-show.
If this doesn’t help, you can put your faith in the world of fantasy. In the game of thrones you win or die, or alternatively: win, die and get resurrected.