Speaking Volumes: Games People Play

January 9, 1998

Michael Webster on Eric Berne's Games People Play .

Just as there are tunes that can never be driven permanently out of the head, there are ideas that survive in the memory long after their attraction, insight or utility for us has expired. Long ago, at what was then the Further Education Staff College, a stately pile that is about to become a care home, health farm or similar, I took part in a series of short courses designed to help uppity chalk-jockeys grow into big-league paper-hustlers. That is where I first encountered Eric Berne and his Games People Play. To this day, I cannot shake off the vivid images it created for me or lose the irritating mental habit of surreptitiously classifying the actions of family, colleagues and public figures according to Berne's alarming typology.

Psychology and its cousins were not and are not areas of particular interest for me. I had but little prior knowledge of transactional analysis and less of Berne and have done nothing since then to remedy the deficiency. Though the book is still in print, I do not know to what extent it cuts any ice with today's social scientists. What I do know is that the concept of people continually acting out classic internal scripts and games, each stuck in a behavioural loop like a goldfish endlessly figure-of-eighting in its bowl, struck a chord in me. I still find myself collecting minor quirks of manipulative social interaction, soundbites of dialogue, snapshots of posture and pasting them into my mental scrapbook, to await classification later. Was Julian's harrowing description of his recent messy divorce (as we met in the corridor a week before his annual appraisal) no more than a brief personal reminiscence in a normal workplace encounter? Or do I remember him telling me about his painful arthritic shoulder last year around the same time? Perhaps I have encountered yet another example of "Wooden Leg" - the game in which inability to achieve is always excused by afflictions beyond the player's control.

Berne reveals a veritable Olympics, interpersonal games in great number and variety, all fascinating, some frightening to watch. But the observer is expected to do more than just watch. The whole point of all this is that the game player needs a payoff. He wants audience participation to satisfy his need for sympathy, understanding, forgiveness, admiration or whatever emotion he seeks to arouse. As spectator, whether conscious or not that a well-rehearsed performance is taking place, you have the choice of gratifying or denying that need. If you are familiar with the games concept, you will know that the abject figure (drunkard, junkie, philanderer, chocaholic) cowering before you to confess yet another piece of all-too-familiar backsliding, yet another demonstration of characteristic weakness, is really playing "Alcoholic" or one of its variants, for which the desired payoff is suffering or scolding, underpinned by exasperated affection. Whatever the game, (with the possible exception of "Rapo", which is well past its sociopolitical sell-by date) you can oblige and deliver the emotional goodies on schedule, refuse to play or play a counter-game of your own, such as "Look What You've Done To Me".

So there it is, the pop psychology alternative to Travel Scrabble I have unwillingly carried round in my head for 20 years. It is not a useful conceptual framework for making sense of most of the social interactions in which I am involved. It is not a pleasant way to connect and encapsulate the minor foibles of my friends, loved ones, workmates. Nor is it a way of confronting and tackling dysfunctional behaviour, of helping the sad and deluded (and God knows there are plenty of those in my line of work). It is just a tweak of the human tail by a sharp observer, a social scientist's joke at the expense of those of us sad acts who need no encouragement to analyse and categorise obsessively what normal people see as the healthy chaos and colour of daily life. Thanks, Eric.

Michael Webster is principal, Perth College.

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