Games People Play Summary and Review

by Eric Berne, M.D.
Has Games People Play by Eric Berne, M.D. been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
Do you consider yourself a game player? Although you might not know it, the answer to this question is most likely yes. After learning more about this book, however, you will have the ability to understand others and yourself a bit better. Drawing inspiration from his invaluable knowledge and experience in the fields of psychology of human relationships, Eric Berne provides insights on how to detect the games that people like to play all the time, in all kinds of different settings. From this book summary, you’ll learn:
  • the relationship games that newlyweds start playing as soon as their honeymoon ends;
  • why people enjoy playing Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch; and
  • how amazing a life without mind games can be.

Games People Play Key Idea #1: We all have three different ego states.

Despite the general chaos created by human behavior, there are certain recurring behavioral patterns that you might have noticed. Eric Berne, M.D. certainly noticed them. After carefully observing and analyzing thousands of patients, Berne posited that most people interact through one of three main ego states Child, Adult, and Parent. These states have intrinsic systems of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and are generally developed throughout the course of a lifetime. Your past and the present moment are important aspects when trying to determine the ego state that you’re acting from at a given moment For instance, while growing up, children imitate their caretakers – and that’s the main source of the Parent ego state. Imagine that you did something wrong and your mom got angry with you. She then expressed her anger by shouting. As a grown-up, you might adopt a similar behavior unconsciously. Consequently, whenever your child misbehaves, you become more likely to raise your voice. Of course, the Parent state doesn’t necessarily have to be negative, as it is more often than not just an unconscious imitation of your caretakers, be them parents, grandparents, teachers, etc. The second ego state is the Adult ego state, which is considered the main source of our rational thinking. Out Adult state develops as we learn how to analyze and reflect on the experiences that we had during childhood. This ego state enables us to make decisions based on the present circumstances. Furthermore, the Adult ego state is also the state that tackles problems with logical, assertive thinking and that processes information. It emerges whenever you ask someone to stop making an annoying sound such as crunching popcorn in the cinema or chewing too loudly. It is also helpful when analyzing broken things, searching for solutions, and deciding what needs to be fixed. And last but not least, the Child ego state is the spontaneous part of our personality, which most people are born with. The Child ego state is where our creativity, emotions, and intimacy originate. But, over time, this innocent ego state can get toppled by the Adult and Parent states. Luckily, there are many different ways to free the Child ego state of these influences and to become sponaneous again. For example, during sex, we tend to act from the Child state, as this is an activity that wasn’t consciously learned or taught to us by someone else.

Games People Play Key Idea #2: The games that people play are nothing more than predictable interactions between two of the aforementioned ego states.

So we’ve already established that people can have three different ego states – now what? Well, in order to be able to detect the different types of games that people play, it’s essential to understand the three ego states. Whenever you interact with someone, you act from one of the three ego states. For instance, when your interlocutor is acting from their Child state, your natural reaction might be to act from your Parent state. Another very common type of interaction occurs when both people are communicating from an Adult state. Sometimes, detecting a person’s ego state can be really easy, like when you’re nagging your partner to take the trash out or to do the dishes (Parent-Child), or when you’re doing your finances with your partner(Adult-Adult). In both cases, the goal and the ego state are obvious. But, in some cases, it might seem as if people are acting from one ego state when they are actually acting from a different one. Consequently, the main goal of the interaction turns out to be different as well. When the ego state is not detectable, it usually means that people are playing games. Take a man who is flirting with a woman for instance. At the end of their date, he says that he would like to show her his extensive record collection. She admits that she loves music and has an interest in records. Even though at first glance, it might sound like a conversation between two Adults, we are actually witnessing to people reacting from their Child ego state and enjoying the spontaneity of flirting. And, of course, seeing the record collection is just an excuse to become intimate. In this case, both persons know that they are playing a game and what the rules of the game are. But this isn’t always the case. A lot of people play games unconsciously, without knowing what they are doing. That’s why it’s only by being able to understand and detect the games people play that we can free ourselves from the ones that negative and harmful. Read on to learn more more about the games we all play.
We read dozens of other great books like Games People Play, and summarised their ideas in this article called Effective communication Check it out here!

Games People Play Key Idea #3: Sometimes, people play games  that last a lifetime. 

When we hear the word “game,” we almost always think of something fleeting or brief, like a tennis match, or a round of Call of Duty. But ego games can last for extensive periods of time and can be extremely serious, too. Consider the game that Alcoholic people play. If you look closely, their behavior is an intricate game, with many hidden motives and very specific goals. When an alcoholic person asks for our help, more often than not, it seems like they are acting as a rational Adult. But, in fact, the person is actually challenging us to try to stop them from drinking. This type of reaction is specific to the Child ego state. And sometimes, when people try to reason with an alcoholic, it seems as they are talking from the Adult ego state when they are actually talking from the Parent ego state. The people playing the alcoholic game manage to get what they want most of the times - the anger and reactions of other people. These reactions allow them to fuel their self-hatred and self-pity, giving them a good excuse for more drinking. Another game that people play throughout their lives is known as Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of A Bitch. The protagonists of this game usually have a past of unexpressed anger that is just waiting to burst out at any moment. To fulfill the need to externalize the rage, they seek out tiny and insignificant injustices and pounce on them. For instance, if someone gets overcharged by accident at a restaurant, they would act infuriated, but would secretly be satisfied. They finally had a chance to unleash their anger and would gladly scream at the poor waiter for hours on end about the unacceptable mistake. The waiter may, in turn, be stuck in his own game, acting like a Child who was naughty and who got caught for doing something bad. This incident will sustain his personal narrative of victimhood – which might be the “reason” behind his unhappiness.

Games People Play Key Idea #4: Couples play games with each other all the time.

Marriages are notorious for ruining even the most loving and solid relationships, especially once the partners exist the honeymoon phase. Couples have to make more compromises than most people in order for their relationship to survive. At the same time, they must also find ways to fulfill their innate need for conflict. It comes as no surprise that most people will start playing games. A common game that couples play is called Courtroom. This game consists of going to a therapist in order to fix their relationship. But there’s more. On the surface, it seems like the therapist and the couple are all acting from their Adult ego states, looking for effective ways to solve their intimate problems. But in reality, one spouse acts from their Child state and complains about their partner to the therapist, who is expected to take on the Parent role. This dynamic allows the spouse who is in a Child-state to get help from a Parent who can validate their complaints, and enables the therapist to have a position of moral superiority. Another game played by a lot of married couples is called the Frigid Wife. In this game, the woman will do sexually provoking things to arouse her husband and to be able to reject all of his advances. For instance, she might walk around the house half naked, but, when the husband has a reaction, she will be able to complain that he is obsessed with sex. So what are the states of this game? First, the wife acts as if she is offering herself sexually from an Adult ego state. Instead, she is actually acting from the Parent ego state saying to her partner  “you can touch me if you want.” The partner then replies enthusiastically from a Child ego state “Yes, please!” – only to be rejected by the wife who was acting as a Parent and be nagged with a reply along the lines of “You only want sex don’t you?” The end result here is a wife who is successfully reinforcing her prejudices against the opposite sex – that only think about sex – and a husband who can never have sex with his wife. In some situations, this game has another twist, men choose wives that are likely to play the Frigid Wife game because they are not looking for sexual intimacy.

Games People Play Key Idea #5: People play more games when they take part in social gatherings.

Social gatherings are the perfect occasion for harmless party games such as Trivia, Catch Phrase, or Charades. Unfortunately, they are also an occasion for people to play more devious and subtle mind games. Take Schlemiel, for example– a game about forcing others to forgive you. In this social game, the protagonist breaks things “accidentally” when he is invited to a party held in someone’s home. He might apologize for breaking a vase, clogging the toilet, or spilling wine on the sofa. On the surface, it seems a normal reaction on the part of the Schlemiel to apologize for the mess that they made and it looks like an Adult reaction. However, the Schlemiel is only trying to get a reaction out of the host and force them to either be extremely nice and forgiving or to assume the Parent role and show disappointment or annoyance. This “accident” gives the Schlemiel an excuse to act as an irresponsible child throughout the event, knowing that the host will accept the behavior no matter what. Another frequently played party game is called Why Don’t You – Yes But. The protagonist starts by sharing a personal problem with a group. For example, he might be having trouble figuring out whether to buy a BMW or a Mercedes. The group then starts offering advice: this model is better for long distances, the Mercedes is worth the higher price, the BMW is more reliable, and so on and so forth. But, for the player, the advice is actually irrelevant, because he will always come up with different reasons to reject each suggestion. Initially, it might look like the protagonist and the members of the group are communicating as Adults, trying to find good and rational solutions to real issues. But, in fact, those who are offering advice are automatically assuming the role of a Parent, attempting to help a Child who always answers: “you can’t help me, no matter what you do”. This dynamic fuels the player’s sense of being a Child who is dealing with unsolvable problems.

Games People Play Key Idea #6: Sexual relationships often serve as a platform for unhealthy games.

The bedroom can be the perfect place for fun and games. However, it can also be a place where people play complex and harmful psychological games that are not remotely fun. A twisted example is the game of Rapo, where people use sex as a means of exacting revenge on someone. In the psychological game of Rapo, the protagonist incites the sexual act, only to be able to later accuses their sexual partner of assault and violence. At first, this confrontation seems to happen between two Adults. The dynamic of Rapo consists of the protagonist seeking compensation for being harmed and the violator apologizing profusely and showing remorse. But it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that the people are not acting as Adults, but as Children: the victim confirms their instinctive prejudices towards the bestiality of the sexual act, while secretly enjoying the thought of being sexually desired. But, on a fundamental level, this game is more often than not about guilt. By placing the burden of the nature of sexuality on the other person, the protagonist gets to have sex without feeling guilty about their behavior. Another interesting sexual game that happens quite often is Uproar. Through the psychological game of Uproar, in order to diffuse some of the sexual tension, the protagonists get into a fight. For instance, a father and his teenage daughter might have natural but unwanted sexual feelings towards each other – especially when the matriarch is playing the role of Frigid Wife. To avoid the evolution of this unwanted sexual attraction, one of the players becomes hostile and starts an argument that can escalate into a serious conflict. As soon as one of the players have had enough, they leave the room and slam the door behind them. This apparently unpleasant outcome, is, in fact, necessary, as it is important for the players to separate themselves emotionally.

Games People Play Key Idea #7: People who have a tendency to break the rules are more likely to play games.

If we think of all the good Hollywood movies about thieves, con men, and drug dealers we notice that people have an innate fascination towards criminals. But have you ever wondered why is it that we are so attracted to dangerous lifestyles? One of the reasons consists of our natural desire to play games like Cops and Robbers.In the psychological game of Cops and Robbers, it seems like the protagonist is acting as an Adult, searching for alternative ways of taking a shortcut to comfort and luxury. But, in fact, the criminal’s desire for a lavish lifestyle is just a front that hides their real objective: to get caught. Criminals who play the game of Cops and Robbers have an intrinsic desire to get caught, as being captured will finally confirm the way in which they see themselves - as losers. This is exactly why so many criminals “accidentally” leave behind clues or, instead of hiding and being discreet, they act arrogantly after having committed a crime: they want the police to finally catch up with them. Once the protagonist has fulfilled his game and he was finally caught, he can start a new came called Want Out. Prisoners who play this game will usually pretend that they want to escape from jail when they actually want to stay longer. In fact, they are fully aware that their escape attempts will probably fail and that when they get caught they will get an extended sentence. Yet, as ridiculous as it might seem, they still take the risk. What might appear as an Adult fighting for their freedom, is actually a Child who is yearning for stability and safety and who doesn’t want to escape at all. So, by trying to escape and getting caught, the prisoner makes sure that they get to stay in prison longer.

Games People Play Key Idea #8: The field of psychotherapy opens the door for numerous psychological games.

Now that you’ve learned so much about these games, you are probably thinking that a good dose of psychotherapy is a great solution. Unfortunately, psychotherapy is a field that can sometimes enable these games. For instance, the game of Indigence consists of the situation in which the client and the therapist work together to ensure that nothing changes. The client starts by presenting a problem to the therapist, such as feeling lonely, being unemployed, etc. They spend their time discussing and analyzing the issue in what it seems like an Adult dynamic, when in fact, neither of them wants things to change. Why? Because both of them have something to gain from the current situation. they both have more to gain from keeping things unchanged. The therapist prefers to keep the client by not solving the problem and the client can perpetuate the role of a Child who can’t solve their own problems. The client also prefers this dynamic, as it allows him to avoid making any big changes and he gets to enjoy his comfort zone. Another game that therapists sometimes play is called I’m Only Trying To Help You. This psychological game stems from the therapist’s inflated ego. When a patient comes with a problem, the therapist will normally offer a solution creating a Child asking help from a Parent dynamic. But when the therapist is playing I’m Only Trying To Help You, he proposes an ineffective solution on purpose. When the patient realizes that the solution doesn’t work and confronts the therapist, the therapist will immediately condemn the patient instead. This allows therapists to reinforce their inflated ego and self-image of being competent Parents in a world populated by incompetent children. We’ve learned that a big part of our daily behavior can be dictated by psychological games. But what happens if we manage to avoid playing them?

Games People Play Key Idea #9: By eliminating psychological games, we get to enjoy closer and healthier relationships.

One thing has become very clear after our journey through the intricacies of the human psyche: playing games can make our life miserable. So, why do people still play these games? First and foremost, people don’t always play games consciously. Psychological games can develop over long periods of time; some even start before our birth and as children, we are taught how to play them by our caretakers. Depending on our culture, our environment, and our family, we learn different games that will later-on account for the bizarre and mind-boggling games we play as adults. Secondly, games have an important role in our society: they allow human interaction without intimacy. It can be uncomfortable for a lot of people to reveal their true selves and by playing games, they get to hide behind a suitable role and avoid leaving their comfort zone. Therefore, it is safe to say that games allow people to be socially active without being vulnerable. But aren’t intimacy and vulnerability necessary in order to achieve genuine human connection. Yes, they are, so as difficult as it might be, in order to have healthy and intimate relationships, we need to avoid playing psychological games. How? First, we need to learn as much as we can about the roles that people assume and the corresponding games. This can only be done by becoming more aware of our own ego state and by paying attention to those around us. In order to disrupt unhealthy games, we need to drop our masks and understand that being vulnerable is necessary and leaving our comfort zone can be beneficial. Giving up on games won’t be easy, but it’s the right thing to do!

In Review: Games People Play Book Summary

What is the key message of this book? People play psychological games with each other on a daily basis. These games are unconscious interactions that serve to hide the true goals and motives of the players. More often than not, games are fuelled by our fear of being vulnerable, of leaving our comfort zone, and of intimacy. Unfortunately, playing psychological games can have a negative impact on our adult lives and on the relationships that we have. But by learning about the different roles and games and their hidden meanings, we can finally create meaningful and honest human connections.Actionable advice:Instead of enabling a friend’s psychological game, help him help himself.When you notice that a friend is always rejecting your suggestions and advice despite having constant problems, you should know that he is playing a game. By understanding that he’s not actively looking for help, but only wants to assume the role of a Child, you are able to disrupt the dynamic and explain to them how you see the situation. Instead of always trying to offer viable solutions, just say that you understand that his problem is difficult and ask him what he wants to do about it. That might help your friend find a solution and abandon the unconscious game that he was playing.
Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Effective communication