Games People Play is the bestselling book by Psychiatrist Dr. Eric Berne which uncovered the dynamics of human relationships. In Games, Berne introduced his theory of Transactional Analysis to the population at large. Since the publication of Games People Play in 1964 to the updated 40th anniversary edition in 2004, over 5 million copies have been sold worldwide in nearly 20 languages. Games was the best selling non-fiction book of the 1960s and spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. Today, the book remains immensely popular and continues to sell tens of thousands of copies per year.
Games People Play represents many things to many people. One modern critic said:
“Games People Play is now widely recognized as the most original and influential popular psychology book of our time. It’s as powerful and eye-opening as ever.”
The famous author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said in the famous 1965 Life Magazine review of Games People Play:
“An important book . . . a brilliant, amusing, and clear catalogue of the psychological theatricals that human beings play over and over again. The good Doctor has provided story lines that hacks will not exhaust in the next 10,000 years”
Influence of Games People Play on Others
Games People Play had a tremendous impact both of readers worldwide as well as students of Dr. Berne. By the time Games was published in 1964, Berne’s theory of Transactional Analysis was already six years old and had developed loyal following. Students of Dr. Berne used Games People Play as a springboard to publish their own works, such as Dr. Thomas A. Harris, author of I’m OK, You’re OK, and Claude Steiner, author of Scripts People Live. These individuals, as well as others inspired by Dr. Berne, used Transactional Analysis and the ideas within Games People Play to further uncover the dynamics of human relationships.
But to many others, the ideas presented within Games People Play provided a deeper understanding of their own social interactions as well as their motives in these transactions. One reader wrote:
“Many times in my life, I was placed in social situations that left me feeling so depleted afterwards and I could not exactly grasp why this was happening. When I read Games People Play, I started to understand how many people play these games that end up making me feel used and hopeless. After a year or so, I also began realizing that I play some of these games myself… This is when I really decided to change my life. I began living with a new awareness of the behaviors of not only others but my own as well!”
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Games People Play is the story listed above. With over 5 million copies sold, millions of individuals and couples across the world have used Berne’s techniques to unlock the mysteries of their relationships.
What are the games in Games People Play?
Berne defined games as:
“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.”
To re-state Berne’s definition, one can think of a game as a series of interactions (words, body language, facial expressions, etc.) between two or more people that follow a predictable pattern. The interactions ultimately progress to an outcome in which one individual obtains a “payoff” or “goal.” In most cases, the participants of the games are unaware that they are “playing.”
The first game that Berne introduces in Games People Play is “If It Weren’t For You” or IWFY. Berne uses this game as an example to explain all types of games. Berne writes:
Mrs. White complained that her husband severely restricted her social activities, so that she had never learned to dance. Due to changes in her attitude brought about psychiatric treatment, her husband became less sure of himself and more indulgent. Mrs. White was then free to enlarge the scope of her activities. She signed up for dancing classes, and then discovered to her despair that she had a morbid fear of dance floors and had to abandon this project.
This unfortunate adventure, along with similar ones, laid out some important aspects of her marriage. Out of her many suitors, she had picked a domineering man for a husband. She was then in a position to complain that she could do all sorts of things “it if weren’t for you.” Many of her woman friends had domineering husbands, and when they met for their morning coffee, they spent a good deal of time playing “If It Weren’t For Him.”
As it turned out, however, contrary to her complaints, her husband was performing a very real service for her by forbidding her to do something she was deeply afraid of, and by preventing her, in fact, from even becoming aware of her fears. This was one reason… [she] had chosen such a husband.
His prohibitions and her complaints frequently led to quarrels, so that their sex life was seriously impaired. She and her husband had little in common besides their household worries and the children, so that their quarrels stood out as important events.
Berne goes on to devote nearly ten more pages to IWFY in Games People Play. For the sake of brevity, only the most relevant points will be discussed here. Berne’s complete analysis of IWFY and many other games can be found in Games People Play.
Both Mr. and Mrs. White are participating in a game; they are not consciously aware of their active participation. As with any game, at least one party must achieve a “payoff” for the game to proceed. In this game, Mrs. White, and to a lesser degree Mr. White achieve their respective payoffs. In Mr. White’s case, by restricting Mrs. White’s activities, he can retain the role of domineering husband, which provides him comfort when things do not necessarily go his way.
Mrs. White obtains her payoff at many levels. On the psychological level, the restrictions imposed by Mr. White prevent Mrs. White from experiencing neurotic fears or being placed in phobic situations. By having Mr. White prevent her from being placed in these situations, Mrs. White does not have to acknowledge (or even be aware of) her fears. On the social level, Mrs. White’s payoff is that she can say “if it weren’t for you.” This helps to structure the time she must spend with her husband, as well as the time spent without him. In addition, it allows her to say “if it weren’t for him” with friends.
As with any game, it comes to an abrupt end when one player decides (usually unconsciously) to stop playing. If instead, Mr. White said “Go ahead” instead of “Don’t you dare”, Mrs. White loses her payoff. She can no longer say “if it weren’t for you” and then must go out and confront her fears. By continuing to play this game, each participant receives his or her payoff, but the price is a marriage with serious problems.
IWFY, like most other games, when perpetuated, can lead to adverse effects. Identification of the game is the first step. Once the player(s) recognize they are playing a game, efforts can be made to improve upon the problem. This is the basis of Transactional Analysis Therapy.
Related Material on Games People Play
- The famous 1965 review of Games by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. This was published in Life Magazine in June 1965 and is printed in the U.S. paperback copy of Games.
- An important essay by past ITAA President Dr. James Allen on the impact of Games People Play. This was published for the 40th anniversary of Games in 2004.
- A 2004 essay from the New York Times arguing that Games People Play was the first “self-help” book published, and that today’s counterparts pale in comparison.
- A 1966 article in the New York Times in which Eric describes games and Transactional Analysis; in it the author describes an interaction with Frank Sinatra.