Saturday, September 16, 2017

Games People Play by Eric Berne, M.D.

Occasionally, I’ll pick up an old psychology book from a used bookstore on the strength of its title. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships is one such book. I knew nothing else about it. One of its preliminary pages says it was copyrighted in 1964 and, at least at the time of the edition I had picked up, it had already gone through forty printings.

And even at no more than 192 pages, it was a tough read.

The premise seems sound. Berne defines his “games” like this:

A game is an on-going series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively it is a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or “gimmick.” Games are clearly differentiated from procedures, rituals, and pastimes by two chief characteristics: (1) their ulterior quality and (2) the payoff. Procedures may be successful, rituals effective, and pastimes profitable, but all of them are by definition candid; they may involve contest, but no conflict, and the ending may be sensational, but it is not dramatic. Every game, on the other hand, is basically dishonest, and the outcome has a dramatic, as distinct from merely exciting, quality.

And, more specifically, he claims his study will focus on one particularly unique set of games.

What we are concerned with here, however, are the unconscious games played by innocent people engaged in duplex transactions of which they are not fully aware, and which form the most important aspect of social life all over the world.

And that all sounds great to me. An analysis of the unconscious games that people play, the social transactions that they unknowingly and repeatedly engage in, in order to achieve the dramatic outcomes they secretly covet, and around which much of our understanding of human psychology can be based? That sounds like a very interesting read.

But things quickly go south.

A large cocktail party often functions as a kind of gallery for the exhibition of pastimes. In one corner of the room a few people are playing “PTA,” another corner is the forum for “Psychiatry,” a third is the theater for “Ever Been” or “What Became,” the fourth is engaged for “General Motors,” and the buffet is reserved for women who want to play “Kitchen” or “Wardrobe.” The proceedings at such a gathering may be almost identical, with a change of names here and there, with the proceedings at a dozen similar parties taking place simultaneously in the area. At another dozen in a different social stratum, a different assortment of pastimes is underway.

Pastimes may be classified in different ways. The external determinants are sociological (sex, age, marital status, cultural, racial or economic). “General Motors” (comparing cars) and “Who Won” (sports) are both “Man Talk.” “Grocery,” “Kitchen,” and “Wardrobe” are all “Lady Talk” -- or, as practised in the South Seas, “Mary Talk.” “Making Out” is adolescent, while the onset of middle age is marked by a shift to “Balance Sheet.” Other species of this class, which are all variations of “Small Talk,” are: “How To” (go about doing something), and easy filler for short airplane trips; “How Much” (does it cost), a favorite in lower middle-class bars; “Ever Been” (to some nostalgic place), a middle-class game for “old hands” such as salesmen; “Do You Know” (so-and-so) for lonely ones; “What Became” (of good old Joe), often played by economic successes and failures; “Morning After” (what a hangover) and “Martini” (I know a better way), typical of a certain kind of ambitious young person.

The structural-transactional classification is a more personal one. Thus “PTA” may be played at three levels. At the Child-Child level it takes the form of “How Do You Deal with Recalcitrant Parents”; its Adult-Adult form, “PTA” proper, is popular among well-read young mothers; with older people it tends to take the dogmatic Parent-Parent form of “Juvenile Delinquency.” Some married couples play “Tell Them Dear,” in which the wife is Parental and the husband comes through like a precocious child. “Look Ma No Hands” is similarly a Child-Parent pastime suitable for people of any age, sometimes diffidently adapted into “Aw Shucks Fellows.”

I know he’s talking about “pastimes” here, and not “games,” but frankly, despite all his protestations to the obvious differences, I can’t really tell the difference. The Child-Child and Child-Parent stuff is part of his overarching theory, that people adopt different roles in different games -- roles that align roughly with our common concepts of Child, Adult and Parent -- and that they do this regardless of their actual age or station in life. But the way he classifies every common human interaction as a game, pastime, ritual, or procedure -- assuming throughout that the distinctions between those terms have either been clearly differentiated in his text or are self-evidently obvious to the reader -- left me questioning and doubting the soundness of his very premise.

And besides, how can anyone read something like that without drowning in the cynical whirlpool that it creates? Perhaps I am just “Complaining,” seeking someone of like mind to “Trash Talk” with, or to play “Gosh, I’m Smart.”

There are some interesting tidbits. For example, it was fun to stumble across the following paragraph, having just read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.

Thus the young man in New Guinea with an old wrist watch dangling from his ear to ensure success, and the young man in America with a new wrist watch wrapped around his arm to ensure success, both feel that they have a “purpose” in life. The big celebration, the wedding or housewarming, takes place not when the debt is discharged, but when it is undertaken. What is emphasized on TV, for example, is not the middle-aged man who has finally paid off his mortgage, but the young man who moves into his new home with his family, proudly waving the papers he has just signed and which will bind him for most of his productive years. After he had paid his debts -- the mortgage, the college expenses for his children and his insurance -- he is regarded as a problem, a “senior citizen” for whom society must provide not only material comforts but a new “purpose.” As in New Guinea, if he is very shrewd, he may become a big creditor instead of a big debtor, but this happens relatively rarely.

Here is Becker’s vital lie, and the function that society plays -- American or New Guinean -- in providing it as an acceptable purpose through which its citizens dedicate themselves. All of it in replacement of the existential terror that people in all times and societies are doomed to face and desperate to avoid.

But more frequently, the surprises come when Berne’s analysis manages to straddle the dangerous territory between cynicism and sexism. Perhaps you got a sense of that above with his references to “Man Talk” and “Lady Talk.” It gets worse. Here he describes how the game of “Rapo” is played. For clinical purposes, I suppose, he has by now adopted a terminology of “White” and “Black” to “objectively” portray the adversaries in each game.

Third-Degree “Rapo” is a vicious game which ends in murder, suicide or the courtroom. Here White leads Black into compromising physical contact and then claims that he had made a criminal assault or had done her irreparable damage. In its most cynical form White may actually allow him to complete the sexual act so that she gets that enjoyment before confronting him. The confrontation may be immediate, as in the illegitimate cry of rape, or it may be long delayed, as in suicide or homicide following a prolonged love affair. If she choose to play it as a criminal assault, she may have no difficulty in finding mercenary or morbidly interested allies, such as the press, the police, counselors and relatives. Sometimes, however, these outsiders may cynically turn on her, so that she loses the initiative and becomes a tool in their games.

One has to wonder when the vernacular understanding of the word “game” begins to work against Berne’s thesis. “Rapo” is a game? Really? Berne, sexist as his phraseology is, may have been better served by choosing another word to describe such diabolical machinations.

At the end of the book, in a very short, final chapter, Berne seems to recognize what he has spent the previous 183 pages doing.

Chapter Eighteen

After Games, What?

The somber picture presented in Parts I and II of this book, in which human life is mainly a process of filling in time until the arrival of death, or Santa Claus, with very little choice, if any, of what kind of business one is going to transact during the long wait, is a commonplace but not the final answer. For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programming of the past, and that is spontaneity; and something that is more rewarding than games, and that is intimacy. But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as “togetherness.” This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it.

Wow. I think this should have been the first chapter. I might’ve had an easier time with what followed if this had been the context stated up front. He does say early on that games are played unconsciously, but an understanding that awareness, spontaneity and intimacy are the tonic one needs to avoid these patterns of behavior is the most useful piece of information in the entire book.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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