Book Review – Games People Play

Games People Play
The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis
By Eric Berne, M.D.
Grove Press, 1964

First published in 1964, “Games People Play” has sold over 5 million copies and continues to spark a great deal of discussion, both by psychologists and lay people, about the nature of human communication and how even routine conversations reveal much about the underlying complexities of the human psyche. It’s one of the most influential books on human development ever written.

Berne’s premise is simple enough: life can be seen as a series of “transactions” between individuals and groups played out as games, with the stakes being what has become popularly termed “positive strokes.”

There are literally dozens of games people play with one another. In Berne’s use of the term, a “game” is neither good nor bad, fun or bothersome (though most of the games described do produce problematic or dysfunctional results). It is simply a model for understanding what we already intuitively know: that human communication is amazingly intricate and often rife with subtle reflections of our internal programming.

Berne’s own definition:

“A game is an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively, it is a recurring set of transactions… with a concealed motivation… or gimmick.”

The more we can develop an understanding of the covert meanings behind these games, according to Berne, the better equipped we are to play healthier games, rather than those that keep us stuck in dysfunction.

“Games People Play” has its basis in a psychoanalytic theory developed earlier by Berne called Transactional Analysis. “TA,” as it’s commonly called, is a refined, though perhaps even more pragmatic, version of Freud’s triadic composition of the “Id,” “Ego,” and “Superego,” using instead three ego states called “The Parent,” “The Adult,” and “The Child.” The dynamics of communication are diagrammed in TA according to the various possible configurations. For example, in certain circumstances, Bob’s “Parent” may be communicating to Jim’s “Child.” Or, Mary’s “Adult” may be attempting to communicate to Carol’s “Parent.” The theory itself is far more sophisticated than can be described here, but it serves as a solid backbone for the ideas presented in “Games People Play.”

Roughly the first third of “Games People Play” is devoted to an introduction to Transactional Analysis and other aspects that serve as a backdrop to understanding how these games work. The remainder of the book focuses on the games themselves, over thirty of them, and on a deeper analysis of the significance of the games and those who play them. (It should be mentioned that while a thorough understanding of TA is not completely necessary to understand the meanings of the games, Berne does present each game within the context of the TA model.)

With allowances for the rather dated language of the book, Berne communicates his ideas lucidly, and most readers will find the material easy to read and digest. Games are presented with social scenarios as examples of how each one plays out.

Reading the descriptions of the games is not only fascinating, but for many readers, challenging, as virtually everyone will notice various renditions of games they’ve managed to become good at playing in their own lives; games that may cause one to become sharply aware that their seemingly direct communication style really harbors a world of information about their internal agendas, programming, and even their upbringing. So although “Games People Play” is not a true “self-help” book by most conventional standards, it can serve as a powerful tool (or mirror) in the hands of those willing to explore their own relationships and sense of self through the games Berne presents.

An example of one of the games Berne discusses is “I Am Only Trying To Help You.” This game is sometimes played between a therapist and client (but can be applied to other kinds of transactions as well). With “I Am Only Trying To Help You,” the underlying belief of the therapist is that people are ultimately ungrateful or disappointing. So as he or she offers advice or suggestions, the client returns with the news that the feedback was unhelpful or failed to result in the desired outcome. The therapist may offer another suggestion (while holding to the underlying belief), with the same result. As the therapist recognizes his or her own frustration and bewilderment arising (the “payoff,” according to Berne) the game is completed with the spoken or unspoken idea that, “I am only trying to help you.”

Berne has been criticized on occasion for presenting what, on the surface, might look like a rather cynical view of the human condition. That all our “transactions” are ultimately nothing more than clever attempts at manipulating or controlling circumstances, often at the expense of others, makes for an unsavory picture of who we really are and are striving to be. But Berne’s message allows for optimism:

“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 that games, and that is intimacy.”

Readers will find “Games People Play” to be an original, insightful, and eye-opening discourse on the deeper dynamics of human communication. A must-read for any student of human nature.


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