Game of Thrones returned to our screens on Monday, and faster than you could say Daenerys Targaryen, eager fans had either watched the first episode via their legitimate cable subscription, or taken to the illegal file-sharing sites to nab their copy. By 5pm, just under 150,000 downloads had been logged, making Australia the fourth biggest torrenting nation in the world for the show.
For the new season, however, the gods of Westeros had something a little extra in store for the nation’s pirating hordes. Illegal downloaders soon discovered that not one but four episodes were ready and waiting on torrent sites, the result of a leaked DVD “screener” which was sent to reviewers in advance.
No doubt this was a real kick in the wallet for legitimate cable subscribing fans, who must chose to either remain above the law and work hard to avoid spoilers for the next three weeks, or dabble in the dark arts of file sharing to keep up.
For many less scrupulous folks this release was no doubt akin to stumbling across a stash of unguarded Lannister gold. In an era of box sets and binge watching, the patience required to wait for a weekly instalment can often be overwhelming. The sweet relief of instant gratification — even if it means no new episodes for three weeks — may be too much to resist.
To others, though, the availability of these extra episodes presents a different kind of quandary. The serialised nature of the show means that for many Monday has become “Game of Thrones Night”, a ritual which brings families, flatmates, partners and friends together to experience the most thrilling, engaging and often shocking drama on television today.
Even more brilliantly, each new episode is preceded by days of mounting anticipation and followed up with analysis and in-jokes that engender a real sense of shared connection on social media and in offices, universities, cafes, shops and bars across the country.
Watching the first four episodes might be satisfying in the short-term, but the price is the temporary loss of that communal social experience.
This dilemma — to consume immediately or to delay gratification for greater reward — brings to mind the famous oft-replicated marshmallow test. Beginning in the late 1960s, American psychologist Walter Mischel and his team gave pre-schoolers a fiendishly simple, yet enormously revealing, test of their self-control.
Children were seated at a table in a stimulus-free room and presented with marshmallows or other treats.
The deal was that the children could choose to eat one straight away, or wait until the researcher returned after up to 20 minutes and be rewarded with two marshmallows. The children would then be left alone with the marshmallows and a bell.
Ringing the bell would bring the researcher back and allow them to eat a single marshmallow, but waiting until the researcher returned of their own volition would mean double the reward.
While the tests had initially been designed to measure at what age the human ability for delayed gratification developed, years later the researchers discovered a much more important result: as adults, those children who could resist the temptation longer did better on their college admission SATs, had higher self-worth and lower drug use as adults, and were less likely to be overweight.
Certainly a debate continued over what it was that led to greater willpower, with studies variously suggesting a relationship to parenting, beliefs about the reliability of the world around them, an ability to find ways to distract themselves in an empty room, or just pure grit. But the fact remains that however they managed to do it those skills or innate qualities led to more benefits in later life.
It would be a stretch to suggest that those who have already downloaded and watched the first four episodes of Game of Thrones would have failed the marshmallow test. And there are other factors at play here — the concern about spoilers being a not-inconsiderable one.
At the very least, the marshmallow test should remind us of the benefits of a developed ability to delay gratification, to postpone short-term satisfaction for richer reward.
In an era of Netflix, Spotify and their less legitimate counterparts, where we rarely have to wait too long to get our hands on the next big thing in entertainment, the pleasure of the increasingly rare shared social experience of the weekly instalment is worth the wait.
And there’s nothing to stop you from eating as many marshmallows as you like while you watch.
Ruth Alexandra Liston is a PhD Candidate in Criminology at University of Melbourne.