Thieves and liars: just another episode of Game of Thrones

Remember the dark ages when, if you missed your favourite TV show, it was gone and you couldn’t catch up? Back before video-on-demand, DVD or even VHS recorders, I wasn’t allowed to watch the final episode of BJ and the Bear. “It’ll come back,” said my mum, sending me off to bed. It never did come back. I held a grudge for 30 years.

Having forgiven my mum and moved on from BJ and the Bear, my favourite show is currently Game of Thrones. This is not a programme I would ever recommend to my mother, even though she went through a slightly uncharacteristic phase of watching Jack Bauer torturing people in 24.

Game of Thrones is a gritty, meandering medieval fantasy, riddled with gratuitous nudity and visceral violence. More interesting is the politics: backstabbing with lots of front stabbing. It’s compelling stuff because no character is ever safe. That’s probably why it’s the most illegally downloaded television programme in the world.

Making it illegal to watch TV seems entirely unnecessary to me. There are millions of people around the globe who obviously want to watch Game of Thrones. I’m sure that at least some of them would pay a nominal fee to get their fix legitimately if they could.

Why do they make it so hard for us to behave? Here in New Zealand there’s no legal way to watch stuff like Game of Thrones unless you are prepared to shell out for SKY and their SoHo channel. It’s not SKY’s fault, they’re just making the most of their exclusive broadcast rights. It’s all to do with international distribution deals that I neither understand nor care about because I just want to see who makes it to season five.

I suppose I could wait another year for the DVD, but waiting even a week in the spoilerific land of social media is a logistical minefield. This is the 21st Century. It’s my human right to watch whatever I want, right now.

Not that I’m confessing to any dodgy downloads. I’m squeaky clean, honest … although it’s possible that I know a guy who knows a guy. Possibly. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.

Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone – Especially Ourselves, says that every single one of us will cheat if we think we can get away with it, especially if we don’t have to come into contact with actual money.

Think about it this way. You wouldn’t pinch a dollar from the petty cash draw at work, because that’s stealing. But what if you take home a pen that’s worth a dollar? Is it still stealing? What about using a dollar’s worth of personal photocopying at your work’s expense?

You will have a good argument for why a coin is different to a pen or a bit of photocopying. In the same way, people have lots of good arguments for why downloading sneaky episodes of Game of Thrones is different to swiping a DVD from the video store.

So long as we can justify our misbehaviour to ourselves, we each have a line of dishonesty under which we feel comfortable operating.

“Essentially,” says Ariely, “we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.”

I love that phrase “reasonably honest”, as though it’s the highest level of integrity we can possibly strive for. Personally, I’d like to think I’m better than just reasonably honest but Dan Ariely would say that I’m lying to myself. He’d also suggest that it’s getting easier to fool ourselves into acting dishonestly. “The more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips.”

That’s serious food for thought. I shall need to ponder it carefully – after the next episode of sex and violence.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 13 June 2014. Stolen dishonestly with permission.