Manny's Reviews > Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships

Games People Play by Eric Berne
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Oct 28, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: linguistics-and-philosophy
Read in January, 2006

In this book, Berne argues that a lot of the behaviour you see around you every day can best be understood as different kinds of "games". A game is a pattern of behaviour usually involving two or perhaps three people. There is a series of interactions, followed by an emotional payoff.

One of the things I found most interesting is that the classification has two dimensions. First, there's the game itself. Second, there's the question of how seriously you're playing: he divides this into First Degree, Second Degree and Third Degree. First Degree is just playing for fun. Second Degree means people's feelings can be badly hurt. Third Degree means that the game ends up "in the courts, the hospital or the morgue."

So let me give you an example. There's this game he calls RAPO (one of the most appealing aspects of the book is the witty labels he's made up for the different games). First Degree RAPO is a game you can see being played at almost any party. The first person, most often a woman, flirts with the second person, most often a man, until he expresses some concrete sexual interest. Then she frowns and moves on, leaving him feeling like a bit of a jerk. Her payoff is satisfaction that she's managed to discomfit him and reassurance that she has sexual power, but it's basically harmless.

In Second Degree RAPO, the first party leads the second party on until, again, he's made some kind of advances. Then she gets openly indignant. Maybe she tells him loudly to keep his hands off her, or she phones her friends and says that he's such a lecherous creep. Second Degree RAPO is a pretty nasty game, because it is of course impossible for third parties to know whether the accusations are true or not. Maybe the guy is just a lecherous creep.

In Third Degree RAPO, the first party may get as far as having consensual sex with the second party. She then calls the police and formally accuses him of rape. Third Degree RAPO is, fortunately, not that common. It's clear that it can easily destroy people's lives.

I thought it was insightful to point out that all of these are essentially the same thing: the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. I don't buy his analysis completely. But if he doesn't succeed in alerting you to a least a couple of games you're playing without realising it, then I really envy your ability to understand yourself and the things that motivate you.

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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Robert (new)

Robert Is this Berne's own theory or an explanation of some standard psychological model? I've heard about it before, somewhere, sometime.


Manny I think he originated a lot of these ideas. He's credited as "the founder of transactional analysis".


message 3: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Manny wrote: "I think he originated a lot of these ideas. He's credited as "the founder of transactional analysis"."

It presumes his particular model of what it means to be human. That works for him. Bit like Marx analysing the economic development of society and the optimal allocation of resources - he neglected to include himself in the equation.


Manny It presumes his particular model of what it means to be human. That works for him. Bit like Marx analysing the economic development of society and the optimal allocation of resources - he neglected to include himself in the equation.

Well, I don't think he's found the answer to Life, The Universe And Everything. But I would say that his claim that many of the things we do can be thought of as ritualised exchanges with an emotional payoff makes sense, and I recognise many of the games he describes.

I'm not totally convinced by the way he describes communication as being between our inner Child, Parent and Adult personas. It seems a bit too simplistic. But, even so, you sometimes think he's got a good point. So, in the game ADDICT, you have one person who's playing the addict, and another playing the role of the person who's trying to control the Addict's addiction. He says the addict is focussing on their inner Child and the other person on their inner Parent. This is exactly how it's described in Emilie n'aime pas quand sa mère boit trop , which I read last week. The thing that shocks Lili, and the reader, is that Emilie and her mother have swapped roles, so that Emilie is the mom and her mom is the child. I bet the author had read Berne.

And I think he does include himself in the equation, in the chapter on positive games! In writing the book, he may well be playing THEY'LL BE GLAD THEY KNEW ME. Though now I'm perplexed about our roles. Is he the Parent and the reader the Child, or are we both Adults? Maybe you can read the book in different ways :)


message 5: by Jen (new) - added it

Jen Knox Manny wrote: "It presumes his particular model of what it means to be human. That works for him. Bit like Marx analysing the economic development of society and the optimal allocation of resources - he neglected..."

A good book, I think, can always be read in at least two ways. I'm intrigued. The theory actually sounds a bit like existentialism, too, the whole make the best of an absurd reality: play your hand in the game thinking... it seems more philosophical than scientific, but then I think this way about a lot of psychology.

I look forward to reading this one. I am, however, a bit disappointed that he doesn't tell us the meaning of life. I've been rather curious about that, too :)


Manny Hi Jen!

Hm, maybe you can link it to existentialism! That's creative. I'm curious to see what you think once you've read it... it's less than 200 pages and doesn't take long to get through.

I am, however, a bit disappointed that he doesn't tell us the meaning of life. I've been rather curious about that, too :)

Have you ever read Thomas Disch's wonderful story Ingmar Bergman Meets God? If I'm remembering correctly, God's revelation to Bergman is "Exercise regularly and eat plenty of vitamin C".

"Is that it, Lord?" asks Bergman, disappointed.

"Well, yes," says God apologetically. "You know, I've always been really big on dietary advice."


message 7: by Scribble (last edited Oct 28, 2010 04:58AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Manny wrote: "So, in the game ADDICT, you have one person who's playing the addict, and another playing the role of the person who's trying to control the Addict's addiction. He says the addict is focussing on their inner Child and the other person on their inner Parent."

Perhaps it's the connotation of play that makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Or that a person is focussing on a particular definition of a state of being ie child or adult. Both 'play' and 'focus' assume choice. If recent research is accurate, addictive behaviour is hardwired at an age when we have no choice in our responses to given situations, and at later stages of development we respond in an addictive manner because of the hardwiring, not because of any emotional payoff. In most cases, the pay-off is destructive, but reassuring because it's a pattern dating from a period of which we have no conscious memory.

This isn't meant to intend that hardwired patterns of behaviour cannot be 're-wired', and that we are chained to the behaviours we encountered during childhood as the impetus for responding to or motivating us in any given situation. It may even dove-tail with what Berne means, but my gut feel is that Berne ignores the unconscious patterns absorbed during the first interactions of an emerging ego with others already formed.

As for the answer to Life, Universe and Everything - isn't that 42? :D


Manny He is careful to explain that he isn't using the word "game" in its everyday sense. It's just the most natural term for the concept he wants to get across.

And about addiction: okay, you may well be right about the hardwiring. But that doesn't mean Berne can't be right too. As you see in the Emilie book, this is indeed a very common behavioural pattern that addicts can drift into, whatever the reasons.

If you're interested in these issues, you definitely ought to check out Infinite Jest!


message 9: by Scribble (last edited Oct 28, 2010 05:18AM) (new)

Scribble Orca As you see in the Emilie book, this is indeed a very common behavioural pattern that addicts can drift into, whatever the reasons.....you definitely ought to check out Infinite Jest!

And that series about Lili, by the sound of it! :)


Manny And that series about Lili, by the sound of it! :)

Oh the Max and Lili books are terrific! I just can't recommend them highly enough! If you have any French at all, just get a couple and see what you think. My wife has taken to reading one every evening, using a dictionary when necessary, and she cheerfully admits to being the worst French-speaker in the known world.


message 11: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca ...she cheerfully admits to being the worst French-speaker in the known world."

She hasn't met me...then again, I'm not exactly located in the known world!

Next time we're in FNAC....


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