Monday, May 23, 2005

Book — Games People Play — Eric Berne, MD


The book presents an empirical model of human intractions, starting from the notion that humans are social animals, and that our interactions are a necessary part of our psychology. Very few conversations are actually concerned with the business of transferring information — more usually they are akin to mutual grooming amongst other primates. Of the various styles of such interaction, the term “game” is used to indicate that class in which the surface and the subtext are at odds with one another.

The model used looks at first sight to be a variation on the Freudian id/ego/superego, as Child, Adult and Parent, as types of role that an individual can play, and play to, in an interaction, with natural dialogues being either homogeneous or Parent-to-Child. Games take place when the hidden conversation is between the actors in different roles.

The book then provides a compendium of games across the spectrum of human life, not all of them destructive to the participants.


The book has to be taken in the context of its time, over forty years ago, so some of the emphases, general background knowledge, and social assumptions have changed in the interim — the comments in the book anent homosexuality are a clear example. It is thus necessary to deconvolve the substance of the book from the accidents of place and time. Such accidents may include the frequency with which various of the games arise, and their most frequently manifested form.

It has been said that the book was written in order to present a plain-speaking approach to psychology, or perhaps psycho analysis, and in choosing a model with Child, Adult, and Parent as aspects rejects the Latin encrustations that later workers in the field had placed over Freud's original Ich, Über-Ich and Es. However, this Basic English approach is not carried through the entire work — outside the works of Gene Wolfe, I had not previously encountered any use of the word “apotropaic”. It is also written to be free-standing from Berne's earlier work on transactional analysis, but achieves this at the cost of much forward reference from the overview into the games section.

The tripartite model is where I found the analysis most ad hoc. The Child partakes of both the Freudian id, and is also the Adam Qadmon, the uncorrupted man that is the mindstate to be aspired to; the Parent is severally the position of authority, a repository of canned responses which free the Adult from having to evaluate a situation, and that parental influence summed up most memorably by Larkin in This be the Verse.


The book provides another way of looking at human behaviour, which, as more modern research has shown, is primarily pre-conscious, so for that is another tool for modelling with. The texture of each reader's life may well determine how often any of the classic games are made plain to be seen.

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