Games People Play (1964) Eric Berne

Underconsumed Knowledge
4 min readJan 31, 2023

The seminal work of “Transactional Analysis”

Berne concludes that the path taken by most people in life is avoiding awareness, spontaneity, and intimacy by playing games. Intimacy is when instinctual programming overtakes social programming and restrictions/ulterior motives. It is the only cure for stimulus-hunger, recognition-hunger, and structure hunger (the need to avoid boredom). Games can be played amongst people, and involve transactions between the different roles within the different people: their inner “Parent,” “Adult,” and “Child.” The Child is intuitive, creative, spontaneous, and can enjoy; Adults are necessary for survival, process data, and compute probabilities for dealing with life; Parents free Adults to make better use of their decision skills by imparting a “That’s the way it’s done.” People are taught from a young age how to behave in society, as is necessary for their survival. Games get passed down from parents to children, thus forming cultural habits of a group of people. Not all social interactions are games; some are purely transactional. It may be hard to parse out what is a game, and what is a genuine interaction (a bank robber who wants to play “cops and robbers” as an inner “Child” vs. someone who is robbing a bank because they need money). Many people do things with other intentions thinly (or not so thinly) veiled underneath; they may or may not be aware of the reason driving their actions. When someone is being an adult, and is talking to another adult, no games are being played, and this is the best way to carry forward with an interaction — that is, honestly. People play games to extract “strokes” to the ego (“recognition hunger”) which are necessary to their psychological survival, which are inhibited by social rules and internal rules (programming) preventing their free expression. Any social intercourse has a biological advantage over no intercourse; thus, games are played, and they structure a lot of humanity’s time. If someone’s inner Child comes out in response to an Adult question, the ability to move towards a productive outcome is hindered. Rituals (parentally patterned) and procedures (adult patterned) both typically follow predetermined courses. People become acquaintances due to similar pastimes (drinking, complaining about husbands). A “position” is a statement which influences all of a person’s transactions, thus confirming their “role;” positions are taken and fixed early in life, before the individual is able to make such a commitment. Most people spend their life dealing with their position. In the game of “if it weren’t for him,” telling someone to “go ahead” instead of saying “don’t you dare” causes the game to break down, and someone’s perhaps unconscious reason for not actually wanting to do that thing is exposed; depriving people of games can plunge them into despair. Children play to people’s need for structure hunger (avoiding boredom). “Game free intimacy” is the perfect form of human living. Alcoholics are not psychologically cured if they cannot take a drink without descending into drunkenness; thus, Alcoholics Anonymous is a continuance of their game of being an alcoholic in need of rescue; he is afraid of intimacy. Once someone achieves something, a grand goal, their purpose as they perceive it is gone, and they can become aimless. The game of “why does this always happen to me” happens because you keep setting yourself up for it. The game of “Lunch Bag” gives the husband who brings a bag lunch complete control over the family finances; how would the wife dare spend money frivolously now (this book written nearly 60 years ago). People can play Parental games where they chose the premise; “Real men drive stick shift.” Many games are not played for their purpose on the surface, but rather, to provide reassurance to someone’s inner child that they are doing okay (“Why don’t you do solution X” “Yes, I would, but”). For social workers or some (bad) therapists, the prospect of success is alarming to the inner Parent because then their position is threatened; thus, there can exist an implicit agreement of continuing the tap-dance of helping someone who is not really attempting to get better, but just wants to be “helped” ongoing. People love a “wooden leg” that can provide them with an excuse why they cannot do something; “A literate player has no difficulty in finding authorities to support him.” Some games can be productive, such as the person who performs the good deed with an ulterior motive; to show others how great they are, they perform charity work. It is a game when someone is more interested in the effects on others than in the success or outcome itself. “In order to get away from the ennui of pastimes without exposing themselves to the dangers of intimacy, most people compromise for games.” People tend to pick others as friends who play the same games. A project is a decision; a resolution is a game. Someone who is preoccupied with being on time is dead inside, paying no attention to the world; someone who is preoccupied with collecting excuses is half dead inside, paying attention to the world to collect such excuses; only the person who lives in the now is aware and “alive.” “The aware person is alive because he knows how he feels, where he is and when it is. He knows that after he dies the trees will still be there, but he will not be there to look at them again, so he wants to see them now with as much poignancy as possible.” Spontaneity is liberation from the compulsion to play games and to feel feelings. Intimacy is the spontaneous, game-free candidness of an aware person, the Child living in the here and now, unspoiled by Parental influences, and is loving (the natural state of an infant).

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Underconsumed Knowledge

"For the time being I gave up writing -- there is already too much truth in the world -- an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed!" Otto Rank, 1933