Transactional Analysis – ‘Games People Play’ by Dr. Eric Berne

22 01 2013


We think we’re relating to other people–but actually we’re all playing games.

Forty years ago, Games People Play revolutionized our understanding of what really goes on during our most basic social interactions. More than five million copies later, Dr. Eric Berne’s classic is as astonishing–and revealing–as it was on the day it was first published. This anniversary edition features a new introduction by Dr. James R. Allen, president of the International Transactional Analysis Association, and Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant Life magazine review from 1965.

We play games all the time–sexual games, marital games, power games with our bosses, and competitive games with our friends. Detailing status contests like “Martini” (I know a better way), to lethal couples combat like “If It Weren’t For You” and “Uproar,” to flirtation favorites like “The Stocking Game” and “Let’s You and Him Fight,” Dr. Berne exposes the secret ploys and unconscious maneuvers that rule our intimate lives.

Explosive when it first appeared, 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.

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 hear 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.



Thesaurus of Games

Kick Me
Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch
See What You Made Me Do

Frigid Woman
If It Weren’t for You
Look How Hard I’ve Tried

Ain’t It Awful
Why Don’t You–Yes But

Let’s You and Him Fight
The Stocking Game

Cops and Robbers
How Do You Get Out of Here
Let’s Pull a Fast One on Joey

I’m Only Trying to Help You
Wooden Leg

Busman’s Holiday
Happy to Help
Homely Sage
They’ll Be Glad They Knew Me

Dr. Eric Berne (1910-1970) was a prominent psychiatrist and bestselling author. He grew up in Montreal, Canada, and received his MD degree from McGill University in 1935. He completed his psychiatry training in the United States and then entered the US Army as a psychiatrist.

After the war, Berne moved to Carmel, California. He continued his work as a psychiatrist, but felt increasingly frustrated with the psychoanalytic approaches at the time. As a result, he began developing a new and revolutionary theory, which he called Transactional Analysis. In 1958, he published the paper “Transactional Analysis: A New and Effective Method of Group Therapy” where he outlined this new approach.

After creating Transactional Analysis, Berne continued to develop and apply this new methodology. This led him to publish Games People Play and to found the International Transactional Analysis Association. He led an active life and continued his psychotherapist and writing duties up until his death in 1970. He left a remarkable legacy, including the creation of Transactional Analysis, Games People Play and 30+ other books and articles, and the founding of the International Transactional Analysis Association.

The Theory part 1

The Theory part 2




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