Games People Play: The Revolutionary 1964 Model of Human Relationships That Changed How We (Mis)Understand Ourselves and Each Other

The hardest thing in life isn’t getting what we want but knowing what we want, for it requires the whole blooming buzzing confusion of knowing who and what we are — the great question we are always answering with our lives for as long as we live. Most of our psychological suffering and most of the pain we inflict on others stem from our confusion about what we want and all the consequent clumsiness with which we go after it, like a child fumbling with a toy before she has learned how to operate her own body or what the toy does.

In the late 1950s, the Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne (May 10, 1910–July 15, 1970) gave that confused clumsiness a name: games.

A decade before Adrienne Rich made her haunting observation that “an honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Berne set out to map the ways in which, overwhelmed by the process, we shy away from telling the raw and vulnerable truth of who we are and what we want. He called the map “transactional analysis” — the interpretation of social interactions through the lens of our ego states, often opaque to us, yet governing and goading the way we engage with each other.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme

Sensing that his model would help people in unexpected ways, Berne pooled his savings and borrowed money from friends to pay a publisher to publish his handbook on human relationships. Games People Play (public library) — uncommonly insightful, unfussy, deeply humane — not only changed the landscape of psychology but forever stamped the body of popular culture with its parlance. When Kurt Vonnegut reviewed the book in LIFE Magazine in 1965, he exulted in its “brilliant, amusing, and clear catalog of the psychological theatricals that human beings play over and over again,” slaking our “anguished need for simple clues as to what is really going on,” outlining archetypal interactions full of themes “all sadly or sweetly or cruelly familiar.”

Like anything original and widely resonant, Berne’s model was flattened and commodified. In the miniature industry of pop psychology that has mushroomed from the mycelium of his ideas, warping them beyond recognition in various representations and interpretations. But read in the original, even with its dated language and its ready reminders that even the farthest seers are still a product of their time, Games People Play remains a rich and surprising handbook for that most difficult of human tasks: understanding ourselves, so we can cease misunderstanding and mistreating each other.

Art by Zooey Abbott from Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble

At the heart of Berne’s model are three ego states that live in each of us: the Child (the most natural, vulnerable, and spontaneous part of our personality, keeper of our creative vitality and our most unalloyed capacity for pleasure); the Parent (the part of us that unconsciously mimics the psychological responses of our parents as we observed them in childhood); and the Adult (the competent and self-possessed part of us capable of making sound decisions in our best interest). All three coexist within us, and all three play into our social interactions. Berne writes:

The first rule of communication is that communication will proceed smoothly as long as transactions are complementary; and its corollary is that as long as transactions are complementary, communication can, in principle, proceed indefinitely.

But beyond the simplest and most complementary exchange — one Adult issuing the stimulus, another Adult giving the response — most of social transactions are a chaos of mismatched and ever-switching ego states. The confusion — the wounding — happens when the lines of communication cross and the interaction becomes not between two people in parallel and consistent ego states, but between one part of one person and a different part of the other: Child-Adult, Adult-Parent, Parent-Child, and all the other possible non-equivalences. This basic pattern, a diagram of which became the book’s cover, is what defines a game — “an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome” — a patterned, self-defeating psychological interchange, in which one ego state issues a stimulus concealing the emotional need of another ego-state, then receives a response to the hidden message and reacts negatively to it, frustrating both parties and garbling communication in a way that injures intimacy.

Art by Maurice Sendak from The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

All games are played so that the players may receive what Berne terms strokes — the affirmations and recognitions we give each other that feel so very pleasing to receive, as vital to our psychological wellbeing as physical stroking is to a young child’s survival. Berne writes:

A stroke may be used as the fundamental unit of social action. An exchange of strokes constitutes a transaction, which is the unit of social intercourse.

In our adult lives, he argues, our strokes are aimed at three primary needs: structure (a way to organize our days and hours in a meaningful way), stimulus (those vitalizing nuggets of experience that awaken us from the trance of near-living to light life up with meaning), and recognition (the affirmation of our fellow human beings that what we are doing with our days and hours matters to the world). All the strokes we play for are variations on these three primal hungers.

And yet strokes are inherently transient and superficial, feeding not the soul but the self, and games are dysfunctional ways of obtaining them in the first place — for they trade in insincerity and perpetrate a betrayal of ourselves, the other person, or both.

Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle , a wordless exploration of human relationships
Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle, a wordless exploration of human relationships

We play games, Berne argues, in order to obtain the strokes we were accustomed to in childhood, extorting them from others in our adult life — something he terms racketeering. Consequently, what we end up obtaining are affirmations of our existing beliefs about ourselves, laid down in our formative years, reinforcing our basic existential stance in a way that trades in victimhood rather than agency. Unable to ask for what we really need — because it is too vulnerable-making and demands too much trust — we end up playing for strokes that are invariably compromises on what we most hunger for, simulacra of the deepest satisfaction: real intimacy.

Berne writes:

As the complexities of compromise increase, each person becomes more and more individual in his quest for recognition, and it is these differentia which lend variety to social intercourse and which determine the individual’s destiny. A movie actor may require hundreds of strokes each week from anonymous and undifferentiated admirers to keep his spinal cord from shriveling, while a scientist may keep physically and mentally healthy on one stroke a year from a respected master.

The basic mutual betrayal of the game always follows the same pattern: One person gives an overt message from one ego state that contains a hidden message by another ego state and when the other person responds to the hidden message, the originator snaps back with surprise bad feelings — feelings that pre-exist the situation, for they stem from the person’s foundational existential position.

One of Maurice Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for William Blake’s Song of Innocence

When all the games fall away, the highest prize of human relationships — which is also the hardest and most terrifying — is not some particular stroke but intimacy. Emerson captured this as his only truly intimate relationship made him shudder with the recognition that “there is no terror like that of being known.”

Berne captures the plain truth of it all, which can feel so beyond reach:

Intimacy begins when individual (usually instinctual) programing becomes more intense, and both social patterning and ulterior restrictions and motives begin to give way. It is the only completely satisfying answer to stimulus-hunger, recognition-hunger and structure-hunger.

His great and then-radical insight was that true intimacy requires room for spontaneity, without the freedom of which we fall back on pretense and control, and back into games. Spontaneity, he observed, can only spring from unalloyed awareness, or what contemporary pop psychology calls “presence.”

Art from Before I Grew Up

Echoing E.E. Cummings’s admonition that we often mistake other people’s knowledge and beliefs for the raw reality of what we feel, Berne considers what awareness really means:

Awareness means the capacity to see a coffeepot and hear the birds sing in one’s own way, and not the way one was taught… A few people, however, can still see and hear in the old way. But most of the members of the human race have lost the capacity to be painters, poets or musicians, and are not left the option of seeing and hearing directly even if they can afford to; they must get it secondhand. The recovery of this ability is called here “awareness.”

[…]

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.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

The twin roots of our awareness, Berne argues, are spontaneity and intimacy:

For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programing 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.

[…]

Spontaneity means option, the freedom to choose and express one’s feelings from the assortment available (Parent feelings, Adult feelings and Child feelings). It means liberation, liberation from the compulsion to play games and have only the feelings one was taught to have.

Intimacy means the spontaneous, game-free candidness of an aware person, the liberation of the eidetically perceptive, uncorrupted Child in all its naiveté living in the here and now.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme

One consequence of how fundamental these psychological patterns are — patterns that make for great literature and heartbreaking love — is that every relationship is in some sense and to some extent a game, or reliant on games for its endurance. But although games are inherently dishonest, even in the morally forgivable way of being played by people simply opaque to themselves, there are degrees of integrity with which we can play them. In one of the loveliest passages in the book, Berne writes:

“Beautiful friendships” are often based on the fact that the players complement each other with great economy and satisfaction, so that there is a maximum yield with a minimum effort from the games they play with each other. Certain intermediate, precautionary or concessional moves can be elided, giving a high degree of elegance to the relationship. The effort saved on defensive maneuvers can be devoted to ornamental flourishes instead, to the delight of both parties.

Because real intimacy is such a hard-won glory and demands so much of us — including, often, the overriding of our primal patterns — we habitually lean on games as our default self-soothing and self-regulation mechanisms. With his boundless humanistic sympathy for our predicament and his native optimism, Berne writes:

Because there is so little opportunity for intimacy in daily life, and because some forms of intimacy (especially if intense) are psychologically impossible for most people, the bulk of the time in serious social life is taken up with playing games. Hence games are both necessary and desirable, and the only problem at issue is whether the games played by an individual offer the best yield for him.

[…]

Fortunately, the rewards of game-free intimacy, which is or should be the most perfect form of human living, are so great that even precariously balanced personalities can safely and joyfully relinquish their games if an appropriate partner can be found for the better relationship.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme

In the remainder of Games People Play, Berne goes on to outline the structure of the most common games, shining a sidewise gleam on what game-free intimacy would look like in each of these cases and how that illuminates the fundaments of healthy, satisfying, mutually nourishing relationships. Complement it with his contemporary and compatriot in the kingdom of humanistic psychology Erich Fromm on the art of loving and what is keeping us from mastering it and Milan Kundera on the central ambivalences of knowing what we want, then leap a hemisphere and an epoch for an Eastern perspective with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s handbook on how to love.


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