When we interact with others, we’re actually playing games—from power games to sexual games and competitive games. Most of these games are destructive and are being played unconsciously. By understanding and recognizing the games we play, we can start to take control of our responses and develop more fulfilling and secure relationships. Published in 1964, this was one of the first books to examine what happens during daily social interactions. It’s like a basic handbook of Transactional Analysis (TA), and Eric Berne’s insights are still being used by psychotherapists and counselors in therapy and clinical practice today. In this free Games People Play summary, we’ll explain the psychology of human relationships, give an overview of Transactional Analysis and the types of games people play.
Overview of Transactional Analysis (TA)
The Role of Social Intercourse
Humans need physical, emotional and/or sensory stimuli to survive, without which our brain and body will degenerate, just like when we have no food. In short, you can actually starve from a lack of stimuli. Since physical contact isn’t always available, we seek “strokes” from others (e.g. a face-to-face greeting or a written compliment). An exchange of strokes forms a transaction, and Transactional Analysis (TA) is basically a study of the dynamics of social interaction.
We’ll now briefly outline some concepts of TA. For more details on the psychological role of social interactions and the types of interactions we engage, check out our full 14-page version of Games People Play summary.
The 3 Ego States: Parent, Adult and Child (PAC)
Every human being has 3 key ego states, i.e. systems of emotions and related behavioral patterns: Parent, Adult and Child.
• Parent: We all grew up with parents or parental figures, and inevitably pick up some of their beliefs, gestures, vocab, emotional responses etc. We continue to carry a set of these Parental ego states throughout our lives.
• Adult: All of us also have the ability to autonomously and objectively process data and assess reality. This capability resides even in children or mentally-ill individuals.
• Child: Part of the little boy or girl you once were still lives in you. The Child ego state does not mean childishness or immaturity; it’s simply the creative, intuitive and spontaneous part of who you are.
In our complete Games People Play summary, we elaborate more on (i) the direct/indirect Parent states and our adapted/natural Child states, and (ii) how the 3 ego states above relate to social, material and individual programming that are vital for us to survive and thrive.
Analyzing Social Interactions
Every social intercourse can be broken down into a series of transactions with (i) a stimulus (when 1 party acknowledges the other party), and (ii) a response (when the other party reacts to the stimulus). Transactional analysis / TA is about the diagnosing the ego state behind each stimulus and response.
Complementary transactions happen when the response is appropriate and expected, e.g. you have a complementary logical Adult-Adult discussion. Crossed transactions happen when response is unexpected or out of context, e.g. you speak to someone as an Adult (expecting an Adult reaction), but they rebuke as a Parent. Generally, complementary transactions are smooth and sustainable, while crossed transactions lead to communications break-down.
Basically, games are different from other social activities because they involve (i) ulterior motives and (ii) more complex outcomes. It’s typically triggered by a snare, followed by a series of transactions that seem straightforward at the social level but involve hidden motives at the psychological level. The game becomes explicit when the players start to change roles, creating crossed transactions, confusion and racket feelings. Such games are usually played repeatedly, without conscious thought.
Types of Games People Play
In his book, Eric Berne provided a list of games and analyzed them in varying level of detail. The games are categorized according to the contexts in which they typically occur—life, marital, party, sexual, underworld, consulting room and good games—though each game can be found in multiple contexts.
We’ll briefly outline a few games in this article. To get a more complete list of these games, check out our complete 14-page pdf summary of Games People Play.
These games tend to have a lifelong impact and may involve other innocent bystanders. For example, in the game “Kick Me”, the player acts in a defensive or paranoid way, as if he’s holding a sign that says “please don’t kick me”. This only provokes people to kick him, and in the process, he (i) gets stroked (even if they’re negative) and (ii) reinforces his internal story that the world is out to get him. To end the game, point out that the provocation is unnecessary and refuse to deal/work with the player.
Other Life Games you can find in our complete Games People Play summary include:
• Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch (NIGYSOB)
• See What You Made Me Do (SWYMD)
Couples play games all the time. In “Sweetheart” (a game usually played in public), the husband Tim says something that puts his wife Mary in a bad light, but he adds at the end, “Am I right, sweetheart?” Mary is upset but the word “sweetheart” makes it hard for her to rebuke directly. So, she has 3 options: (i) tell Tim not to end derogatory stories of her with “sweetheart”, (ii) to reply with “Yes, honey”, or (iii) tell a similar story of Tim and end with “Am I right, honey?”
Other examples of Marital Games covered in our full Games People Play summary include:
• Frigid Wife/Woman
• If It Weren’t For You (IWFY)
• Look How Hard I’ve Tried (LHWIT)
As our relationship with acquaintances deepen, we also move from simple pastimes and rituals into more complex games, covered in our full summary of Games People Play. They include:
• Ain’t it Awful
• Why Don’t you…Yes, But (YDYB)
These games are almost always played in private, to avoid or exploit sexual impulses.
• Let You and Him Fight (LYAHF)
• The Stocking Game
These are common games played in and out of prison, covered in more details in our Games People Play summary:
• Cops and Robbers
• How Do You Get Out of Here?
• Let’s Pull a Fast One on Joey.
Consulting Room Games
These are games played in professional or therapeutic situations. Example is “I’m Only Trying to Help You (ITHY). Unlike people offering genuine professional help, the ITHY player is driven by a hidden motive—to prove that people are disappointing and ungrateful. The player offers advice to a patient or client, but it doesn’t work. So, he keeps offering his help over and over until he tosses his hands up and blames the failed rescue attempt on the other party’s failure to reciprocate.
Other consulting room games include:
• Wooden Leg
Although all games are exploitative to some degree, they can still be good if the positive outcomes outweigh the costs of the maneuvers, especially if the player is aware of and accepts his underlying motives. For example, in “Cavalier”, the players still flirt, but not under sexual pressure. When done with good taste and within acceptable boundaries, it can actually unlock energy and creativity.
Other examples of good games include:
• Happy to Help
• Busman’s Holiday
• They’ll Be Glad They Knew Me
• Homely Sage
Going Beyond Games
Most games are destructive, yet we continue to play them because (i) we’re unaware of our own games, (ii) we’re trying to enforce certain beliefs or avoid certain issues, and/or (iii) we use games to avoid getting too intimate or hurt. Such games get passed on to our children, who continue to play them generation after generation. To develop games-free relationships that are truly joyful and secure, we need 3 key elements: Awareness, Spontaneity and Intimacy.
Other Details in “Games People Play“
This is an extremely technical book with many psychoanalytical terms and references. For several of the games outlined above, Eric Berne also zoomed in on details including the thesis, roles, moves, PAC variants, advantage, antithesis, and comments for clinical practice.
(i) Specific examples/illustrations on complementary vs crossed transactions;
(ii) An overview of the various types of social activities (including procedures, rituals and pastimes);
(iii) An elaboration on the key phases/components of games;
(iv) Deeper insights into why we play games; and
(v) Different degrees of games people play.
About the Author of Games People Play
Games People Play: The Psychology Of Human Relationships was written by Eric Berne—a Canadian-born psychiatrist and the founder of transactional analysis, a theory of social interactions to explain human behavior. His theory was built on Freudian principles, but differentiated by how he analyzed patients’ social transactions for insights. Berne was the first psychiatrist to apply game theory to the field of psychiatry. Berne became an American citizen in 1939. In 1949, he was admitted as a Fellow in the American Psychiatric Association.
Games People Play Quotes
“The essential characteristic of human play is not that the emotions are spurious, but that they are regulated.”
“People pick as friends, associates and intimates other people who play the same games.”
“Many games are played most intensely by disturbed people; generally speaking, the more disturbed they are, the harder they play.”
“A game is played from a position, but a position or its corresponding attitude is not a game.”
“There seem to be two distinctive types of habitual criminals: those who are in crime primarily for profit, and those who are in it primarily for the game.”
“Awareness requires living in the here and now, and not in the elsewhere, the past or the future.”