Games People Playby Eric Berne
When asked if you play games, you might think of board games, sports games, or party games. But did you know that there are psychological games you play unconsciously every day? Often, we do this to turn conversations into games, so we can avoid intimacy and vulnerability. Games People Play will teach you all the psychological games people play, from marital to social games, sexual games to rule-breaker games. By recognizing the games at play, you can better understand yourself and those around you. Spot the games hidden in conversations and learn how to achieve a life free of games.
Everyone Has Three Ego States
“The position is, then, that at any given moment each individual in a social aggregation will exhibit a Parental, Adult or Child ego state….”
People interact through one of three ego states: Parent, Adult, and Child. These states are a system of feelings or behavior patterns.
The Parent ego puts you in the same state of mind as one of your parents. In this case, you would respond as they did, including posture, gestures, vocabulary, and feelings. This state can be exhibited in two forms: active (responding as your parents would) and indirect (responding the way you wanted your parents to respond to you).
For example, if your father used to yell at you when you did something bad as a child, you may also adopt this behavior. If your child misbehaves, you might catch yourself yelling too. This is the direct Parent ego at work.
Next, the Adult ego is a well-structured state of rational thinking. This state helps us solve problems, make big decisions, and utilize logical thinking. It develops through experience and reflection. For example, when figuring out how to build furniture or asking someone to lower their voice in a library.
The final one is the Child ego, which causes you to react as you did when you were young. Like the Parent ego, the Child ego has two forms: adapted (behaving as you were expected to behave) and natural (acting spontaneously). This state isn’t meant to be confused with immaturity, as this form can contribute to creativity and pleasure.
Actions to take
Goals Become the Games We Play
“In the ‘insurance game,’ for example, no matter what the agent appears to be doing in conversation, if he is a hard player, he is really looking for or working on a prospect.”
By understanding the ego states, we can get better at noticing the kinds of games people play.
When you communicate with someone, you interact through one of your ego states. For example, your Adult state might be present while making a decision, your Parent state might scold someone for talking too loud in a movie theater, or your Child state might cause a spontaneous outburst.
Sometimes, the goal is clear when you communicate with someone. Other times, you might appear to be acting from one ego state when, in reality, you’re acting from another. When this happens, the goal becomes a game.
Imagine two people going out for a dinner date, for example. After dinner, one invites the other to their home to meet their dog instead of parting ways. Their partner agrees, mentioning that they absolutely love animals. While this may seem a simple enough conversation and innocent on the surface, two Child egos are actually spontaneously flirting.
Now, why is this an example of a game? Simply because this conversation isn’t about meeting the dog. The real aim is sexual intercourse.
While in this example, the two love birds are aware of the game they’re playing; sometimes, games are played unconsciously. Often, the player doesn’t know what the game is or why it’s being played.
Actions to take
Games We Play Throughout Our Lives
“On the surface, their argument was Adult to Adult, a legitimate business dispute over a stated sum of money. At the psychological level, it was Parent to Adult….”
The ultimate goal is to develop relationships in situations where games aren’t needed. But because humans are so busy, there is little opportunity for intimacy in daily life.
This is why most of our social life is used up by playing games. While some games last a single conversation, others can last a lifetime. And some may even have serious ramifications.
Take the game “Alcoholic,” for example. Within alcoholic behavior, there is a game with specific goals afoot. The need to drink is merely a move in a game carried on by people in the environment.
Imagine an alcoholic asking for help. Those around may will assume he’s being rational, like an Adult, when, in reality, he is just inviting other players to join the game by challenging them to get him to stop drinking. It is an act of rebellion brought forth by the Child ego state. The other players, who appear to be Adults helping, are just Parents scolding the Child.
When other players become angry, fueling the alcoholic’s need for self-pity and therefore resulting in more drinking, the alcoholic wins the game.
Aside from this, you may also encounter the game “See What You Made Me Do.”
The main character in this game is feeling unsociable and is looking to enjoy some time alone. They become engrossed in a solo activity like painting.
All is well until an intruder, perhaps his roommate or children, bursts into the room, asking questions or looking for attention. This interruption causes his focus to slip, and our main character drops his paintbrush, smearing paint on the floor. This ignites a rageful response, causing the main character to scream, “See what you made me do?!” As the game repeats over the years, people learn not to interrupt him when they’re busy.
It’s important to note that even though the intruder caused the issue, the main character’s irritation caused his focus to slip and the brush to drop.
Actions to take
Games Spouses Play With Each Other
“Almost any game can form the scaffolding for married life and family living….”
When the honeymoon phase passes, it’s not uncommon for games to begin in a marriage. Compromises and arguments often have ulterior motives as each partner seeks different kinds of validation.
The first game is called “Courtroom” and is played during couples therapy between partners and their therapist.
The game starts with Partner A (the plaintiff) telling the therapist about something their partner has done that bothers them. Partner B (the defendant) will then plead their case. Once all is said, the therapist (the judge) will flesh out their feelings and come to a verdict.
At first glance, this situation appears to be a conversation between Adult states as the group seeks to solve a problem. In reality, however, both partners are acting through their Child states by complaining to their therapist. The therapist, then, assumes the role of the Parent by judging their behavior.
In this situation, the Child states are being settled by a Parent state who is validating their complaints.
Another common game is “Frigid Wife.” During this game, Partner A sexually provokes their partner, only to reject all their advances. For example, Partner A will walk around naked or wear lingerie, but the second their partner makes a move, they accuse them of only caring about sex.
In this situation, Partner A may seem like they’re acting as an Adult or Child, but instead, they are playing the role of the Parent, insinuating that their partner can have them if they desire. Partner B responds as the Child, excited and enthusiastic, only to be denied by Partner A in a Parent state.
Here, both partners are afraid of sexual intimacy. Through this game, Partner A can keep their prejudice against sex, and Partner B can blame Partner A for their lack of intimacy (despite not really wanting it in the first place).
Actions to take
Social Gatherings Are Great for Party Games
“Parties are for pastimes, and pastimes are for parties, but as acquaintanceship ripens, games begin to emerge.”
When you think of party games, you may think of charades or Pictionary. These games are harmless and fun, but other games afoot during social gatherings tend to go unnoticed.
One common social game is “Blemish.” This game is often played by the Child when in a depressed state. Here, the Child transforms into a Parent, seeking to find the blemish or flaw in the people they meet. This person cannot feel comfortable with a new person until they can identify their imperfection, reassuring themselves that it’s okay to have flaws.
“Schlemiel” is another social game that aims to force someone to forgive you. Think about a Schlemiel running around a fancy party, spilling drinks, and breaking things “accidentally.” In this case, the Schlemiel will apologize for their messes, and the host will accept the apology even though they’re angry.
While it appears to be a conversation between Adult states, the Shlemiel is actually acting as the Child. This forces the host into an example of self-control (the Parent). The Child will continue to be irresponsible because they know that the Parent will always extend forgiveness.
Aside from this, you may also recognize the game “Why Don’t You - Yes But.” Here, the player shares a problem with a group of people, and the group then responds with solutions and opinions.
For example, Partner A is complaining about how their partner always insists on doing their own repairs. A’s friends then offer them suggestions such as: “Why don’t you buy them better tools?” or “Why not hire a professional?” But every suggestion is shot down with a “yes, but….”
Partner A and their friends may appear to be having an Adult-led conversation. But in reality, the friends assume the Parent role, and A assumes the role of the Child. No matter what solutions their friends offer, they will present a reason why they won’t work. This player is a Child burdened with a problem that can’t be solved and gets to enjoy the Parent who is trying to help.
Actions to take
Sexual Relationships Involve Games Between Partners
“Some games are played to exploit or fight off sexual impulses.”
Despite what you might think, psychological games between partners in the bedroom aren’t about sex. Often, they’re games of revenge or displaced anger.
In the game “Rapo,” Partner A initiates a sexual act. Once both partners follow through, A then accuses their sexual partner of assault. This causes their partner to apologize for the miscommunication and for taking things too far.
On the surface, this may appear to be a conversation between Adults. Partner A requests that Partner B acknowledge the assault, and B responds with an apology. This, however, is a conversation happening between Children. Partner A gets to reaffirm their beliefs about sex, and Partner B gets to enjoy the experience of being wanted sexually.
Ultimately, this game focuses on misplaced guilt. A gets to blame the sexual act on B, so they don't have to feel guilty about committing it.
Another game similar to “Rapo” is “The Stocking Game.” Here, a person joins a group of people. Then, after a short while, they will make a provocative move that could seem innocent in nature if it weren’t for the poor timing.
Their goal is to arouse their desired partners sexually and generate jealousy in others around them. Any comments thrown their way will be met with protests of innocence or accusations. Their goal is to prove that other people have lustful thoughts.
In this situation, their mind is that of a Child committing an inappropriate act at the wrong time. But their judgment of others is their Parent state, which will ignore both their provocation and the poor timing.
Actions to take
There Are Games for Rule-Breakers
“Their crimes, at the Adult level, are games played for the material rewards, the take; but at the Child level, it is the thrill of the chase: the gateway and the cool-off.”
Have you ever played Cops and Robbers as a kid? It’s a variation of hide-and-seek, where kids are put into two groups: the Cops and the Robbers. The Robbers must steal or touch a specific item while evading and hiding from the Cops.
When playing “Cops and Robbers,” or hide-and-seek for that matter, there’s nothing worse than being found early. It takes the fun out of the game. Why? Because the enjoyment of the game comes from the suspense you feel while hiding.
In the psychological game of “Cops and Robbers,” professional thieves appear to be in their Adult state when they steal something. It seems like a rational thought: “if I steal this, it’s an easy way to achieve the lifestyle I want.” But the goal in this game isn’t actually obtaining luxury items or more money; the goal is to get caught. Some criminals will even leave “accidental” clues that lead the cops right to them.
Why do they do this? Because when they’re caught, it confirms their beliefs about themselves: that they’re “compulsive losers.”
In conjunction with “Cops and Robbers,” criminals will then start a new game once caught, tried, and imprisoned. This game is called “How Do You Get Out Of Here?”
This game isn’t for inmates who want to be free, complying with authorities so that they will be released as early as possible; rather, it’s for the inmates whose Child state doesn’t actually want to get out.
While playing the game, the inmate will often appear to be on their best behavior until their Child acts out again. They sabotage themselves so that they aren’t released. This is because the Child is afraid of returning to the world due to its unpredictability.
Actions to take
There’s Room for Games in Psychotherapy
“Games that are tenaciously played in the therapeutic situation are the most important ones for the professional game analyst to be aware of.”
You may think a good therapy session is the key to avoiding these games. Unfortunately, there are also many games at play in psychotherapy.
One of these games is “I’m Only Trying to Help You.” In this game, a patient visits a therapist with a problem. As expected, the therapist solves it, and the patient goes on their way.
This seems like a typical Parent and Child conversation when there’s more at play. But here, the therapist offers the patient a solution they know won’t work. Why would they do this?
Because when the patient comes back a week later and says their problem isn’t solved, the therapist can label them as incompetent, ungrateful, and disappointing. This fuels the therapist’s ego and reaffirms their idea that they are the competent Parent that must care for the incompetent Child.
Another reason a therapist would play this game is that success in the client would threaten the therapist’s position. Presenting poor solutions to sabotage their client means they must keep coming back for help.
Similar to this is a game called “Indigence.” This is a game played between a therapist and a patient where they work together to keep things from improving or changing.
This might seem odd, considering people go to therapy to solve a problem. But in this case, both the therapist and patient get what they want. The therapist keeps their patient, continuing to act as a caring Parent. The client then gets to be the Child who’s cared for. They don’t have to leave the safety of their sessions to venture into the world.
Actions to take
There Are Good Games Too
“This is, a ‘good’ game’ would be one which contributes both to the well-being of the other players and to the unfolding of the one who is ‘it.’”
Most of the games we’ve looked at seem to make life miserable, but there are good games we play too. Ultimately, if the game is played where the social contribution outweighs the motivation, it’s a good game.
One example of this is the game “Happy to Help.” Here, the main character is consistently helpful to other people, although they may have an ulterior motive. Whether they’re doing penance for past wicked deeds or are hoping to gain something from the person they’re helping, they must still be given credit for their actions.
While they may not be helping someone from the goodness of their heart, they are still actively seeking to aid those around them. This means that the contribution they’re making outweighs whatever their motivations might be.
Actions to take
Is There Such a Thing as a Life Without Games?
“The attainment of autonomy is manifested by the release or recovery of three capacities: awareness, spontaneity, and intimacy.”
While playing a good game is challenging, it’s a wonder why we continue to play games at all.
The biggest issue is that most of the games we play are unconscious. We don’t decide to play them; they just begin. These games develop over time; some are even passed down to us by our parents and grandparents.
Different cultures have different games too. The range of games and moves we can make within those games are hard to catch when they evolve and expand as quickly as they do.
Our subconscious also tends to play these games to protect us from vulnerability. We often start a game to interact with people without getting intimate. Everyone has secrets and flaws they want to keep hidden, and games let us do that.
Games create routines we can fall into to feel comfortable navigating the world. Our ego states create roles we can step into to be social creatures without getting vulnerable.
So, is there a way to stop playing these games?
There definitely is. To achieve a true connection with people and avoid playing unnecessary games, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It may be difficult and terrifying to show parts of ourselves we like to keep hidden, but it’s the only way to give up our games.