Games People Play

Games People Play is one of the most popular psychology books ever written. The 1964 book was very influential and has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide since its publication.  Its author, Dr. Eric Berne, talks about healthy and unhealthy ways that people interact with each other.

He uses something called transactional analysis to shed light on the underlying human desires for power, dominance, love, and recognition that color our daily relations with other people.  We try to achieve these things by playing ‘games’ with others.  A game, as Berne describes it, is a set of interactions with a hidden or unstated motive.  It has a predictable ending that leads to the satisfaction of these goals.

In each game or transaction, the players will take on one of three roles or “ego states”.  This can be the Parent, Child, or Adult.  The roles that we take on helps to determine the way others will react.  For example, a teacher who takes on the “parent” role in the classroom by being very strict towards students will elicit a “child” role from the students. Subsequently, their reactions to the teacher will be child-like.  A teacher whose tone and actions are measured and calm like an “adult” will more likely draw a similar “adult” role response from the students, who will be more likely to take on responsibilities as learners.

The book also describes several “mind games” that people play with each other.  For example, one common games is called “Ain’t it Awful”, where people will gather together to complain about a certain situation.  The hidden purpose of the game is to elicit sympathy from others while at the same time taking comfort in their seeming inability to change the situation.  The result is that the “player” earns certain advantages from claiming the status of a victim while at the same time avoiding responsibility.  In order to play this game, a person takes on the role of Child.  The other player may try to help the Child by taking on the Parent role. Alternately, they may take on the role of Adult and encourage the other player to take a more realistic view of their situation.

Berne’s objective for writing the book was to make human relationships healthier.  He hoped that writing the book would help people stop playing games and try to satisfy their human needs in a more honest and open way.  Some readers of the book have argued that it has changed their lives for the better.  Berne’s idea of transactional analysis also helped to further inspire examinations of daily social interactions.