Eric Bernie’s Games People Play (1964) compares human behaviour and relationships to games. It dissects the psychological, manipulative behaviours people unconsciously play with each other and end up alienating close ones. It shows how to escape these self-destructive behaviours and find real intimacy from amidst the bizarre psychological games.

To understand why people indulge in such behaviour, it is imperative to understand the basics of human psychology. Fist to understand oneself, it is important to know that behaviours have recurring patterns. After conducting thousands of observations, the author found that the three ego states – The Parent, The Child and The Adult influence behaviour.

The Parent, The Child, And The Adult

The Parent, The Child, and The Adult are the three ego states that are a system of feelings, behavior, and thoughts that develop as we go through life. Past experiences as well the present situation of a person decide which state influences the current actions of a person.

For example, children are known to emulate their caretakers. This imitation gives birth to the Parent Ego. Therefore, if a child grows up with parents who shout in anger when the child does something wrong, the child unconsciously emulates this behavior when they grow up. While the parent ego state isn’t always negative, it is an unconscious reproduction of one’s parents’ behaviors.

The Adult state is the basis of rational thinking, information processing, and talking issues by applying logical thinking. The adult ego state develops when one reflects on childhood experiences and uses the learning to make present decisions. For example, the behavior a person exhibits when their car breaks down and they analyze the engine to figure out how to fix the issue.

The third ego state – The Child – reflects the natural, instinctive, and spontaneous behavior we are born with. The child ego state brings out our creativity, emotions, and intimacy. While the child state can, over time, get buried beneath the parent and the adult states, it can be coaxed out, or brought out by spontaneous actions. For example, it is the child state that dominates sexual actions, because it is a spontaneous behavior that is not learned or taught by parents.

Eric Bernie’s Games People Play (1964)
Eric Bernie’s Games People Play (1964)

The Games People Play

When the author says ‘games’, he actually means the behaviors that people exhibit. These games are actually predictable interactions between the ego states. For example, when a wife scolds her husband for throwing worn clothes on the couch, we see an exhibition of the Parent-Child ego interaction. On the other hand, when a group of friends is planning a party, we see the Adult ego state in play. In both these examples, the ego states and the goals are clearly visible. However, there are interactions that we see often, where neither the ego states nor the goals are clear. That is when the games are in play.

Let’s take an example of a man and a woman flirting with each other at a party. He invites the lady to see his record collection. The lady in turn says that she loves records. While on the surface we can see two Adult states having an innocent conversation, beneath the surface two Child states are at play. The goal of sexual intercourse is disguised by the goal of showing and seeing the record collection.

Here, both, the man and the lady know the game that is in play, however, in many cases people don’t know that they’re playing a game, or part of a game, or even why they are playing it!

These games, conscious or unconscious, can lead to serious, detrimental circumstances, and thus it is important to be able to understand these real-life relationship games.

Games That Last A Lifetime

Real-life games aren’t always like a Monopoly board game that gets over in an hour. Some real-life games last a lifetime and can be deadly serious.

  1. The Game of Alcoholism – Alcoholism (if considered a game) has a specific goal and many hidden motives. Alcoholic behavior is complex. For example, when an alcoholic seeks help, it can is viewed as Adult behavior. However, beneath the surface, the alcoholic is challenging loved ones to try and stop the alcoholism, the underlying work of the Rebellious Child ego state. On the other hand, the loved ones of the alcoholic, though appearing to e in the Adult state reasoning, are actually in the Parent state scolding the Child.
  1. Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of A Bitch – In this game, the main player pounces on even the smallest injustice due to years of underlying, suppressed rage and anger. Even a small incident of getting accidentally overcharged at a grocer will send the person into a fit of anger. Underneath this rage, the person feels secretly delighted for a chance at unleashing the suppressed anger. The grocer in his own game of life could be stuck in his own narrative of unhappiness – that of always being a scapegoat for unfairness. Here, the grocer’s Child ego comes into play making him behave like the naughty child getting scolded every time for a mistake.

The Games Of Marital Life

Marriage means compromise. Couples need to find ways to fulfill their conflicting needs within this bubble of compromise, thus becoming a veritable battleground for ego states. The games people play in marital life can destroy even the most solid relationships. Let us look at the marital games people play once the honeymoon period in a marriage is over.

  1. Courtroom – Courtroom is a game that is often played when a marital couple visits a therapist. While on the surface one can see three Adult states in conversation, in actuality it is a Child spouse complaining about the partner. The therapist plays the role of the Parent, condoning the other partner’s behavior and giving the Child-spouse a Parent who validates its complaints.
  1. Frigid Wife – This game is played is often seen among couples, where the wife sexually rouses the husband with certain behaviors (such as walking in the room in lingerie) but rebuffs her husband’s sexual advances accusing him of being obsessed. She plays on the prejudice that all that men want is sex. Here the wife’s Parent ego, and not Adult ego, is at play. When the husband’s Child-ego responds to her sexual advances, the Parent chides the Child.

Social Games

We see behavioral games at play in social gatherings or parties. While the more common games such as charades are essentially harmless, there are others that can prove to be devious.

  1. Schlemiel – This game is seen when a guest tries to force forgiveness out of the host by ‘accidentally’ breaking a vase or spilling wine, etc. Here, the guest (Schlemiel) is actually forcing the Parent state of the host to show self-control. Thus the irresponsible Child state of the guest continues to make ‘accidents’ happen and challenges the Parent.
  1. Why Don’t You-Yes But – We often see the situation at a party, where one person seeks an opinion or advice on a problem from the group, but keeps dismissing the solutions given. The group, in this case, aren’t conversing in the Adult state, but are actually, Parent states conversing with a persistent burdened Child who keeps telling them that they can’t help.

Dangerous Games In The Bedroom

Many couples indulge in games in the bedroom to enhance their sex lives and have fun. However, some games played within the confines of the bedroom are often psychological, have nothing related to either sex or fun. These games played consciously or unconsciously can end up harming the basic construct of married life.

Rapo – Rapo is a game that gets played to use sex as a means of exacting revenge. In Rapo, the player, often the female, incites sexual acts and then accuses the partner of assault. The confrontation that follows is perceived as taking place between Adults, however, the interaction is actually taking place between two Child egos. While at first, one Adult seeks compensation for the assault and the second apologizes for going too far in the act, in reality, the violator secretly likes the feeling of being irresistible whereas the accuser feels that their prejudices about the bestial nature of sex are being confirmed.

The game works on the fundamentals of guilty pleasures, wherein, the accuser gets to have sex guilt-free by placing the blame and responsibility of sex on the violator.

Uproar – In this game, a fight is used as the premise to diffuse the uncomfortable sexual tension between two people. Take an example of a couple sharing an apartment with a friend. If there is any unwanted sexual tension between one of the partners and the friend, especially if the second is a Frigid Wife, the friend and the partner start a fight to diffuse the sexual tension between them.  When one leaves the house in anger, the aim to be away from each other is achieved.

Rule-Breaking Games

Sometimes, people with a tendency to lead a life full of rule-breaking indulge in such games. If we see movies about thieves, criminals, con men, etc., we often feel attracted to their characters, simply due to the dangerous lives they seem to lead.

  1. Cops And Robbers – In Cops and Robbers, the protagonist seems to an Adult ego scheming to live a more luxurious life. However, actually, the goal is to not get caught for the crimes committed. Such people actually want the cops to catch up with them. Thus they leave accidental clues or exhibit arrogant behavior when caught. This confirms their perception of themselves as losers in the game of life.
  1. Want Out – Want Out is a game that is often played by a criminal who does get caught. These criminals sham behavior that shows they want to get out of jail. However, they actually want to stay longer. They tend to take dangerous risks in situations where they know they will get caught. Their Adult behavior that appears to want freedom, is actually the disguised child that prefers to avoid the unpredictability of the outside world.

Games In Psychotherapy

With so many games people play in life, one gets the feeling that everyone needs psychotherapy to understand and avoid these games. However, even the field of psychotherapy has many games that are played by the therapists themselves.

  1. Indigence – Often, people visit psychotherapists to fix whatever is wrong in their lives. They discuss a problem and seek ways to fix them, exhibiting Adult behaviors of trying to rationally discuss the issue. However, in actuality, neither, the psychotherapist nor the client wants the psychotherapy to stop. The therapist likes to be the Parent caring for the client’s incompetent Child ego.
  1. I’m Only Trying To Help You – The relationship between a therapist and his client is often about the Parent-Child ego. The Parent (therapist) gives the Child (the client) a solution that they know will not work. When the Child comes back unsuccessful, the Parent takes pleasure in condemning the Child’s incompetence, reinforcing the therapist’s image as a Parent in a world full of incompetent Children.

A Life Without Games

Imagine a world where no one played games with each other. How would that world be?

We know that the games people play make their lives miserable. Therefore why do people continue to play these games?

To begin with, most people are not aware that they play games. Most of the games develop over a period of time and are invented and played long before we are born. Additionally, every culture, every family, and every relationship has its own set of games played. This is the bane of human psychological intricacies that are extremely complex.

Moreover, these games have an important function. They help people interact with each other without the need for getting too intimate within relationships. They are used as a means to hide one’s true self by playing different roles. It also allows people to be social without making themselves vulnerable to others. 

On the flip side though, true human connection relies on intimacy and vulnerability. Therefore, to make true relationships, people need to learn the different games played and drop their masks, exposing their vulnerabilities to others. Paying attention to the minor details in interactions with people can help in developing more honest and meaningful relationships.

To be ahead in the game of life, it is important to understand that people have an inherent fear of intimacy, and the first step is to lose that fear. By showing others our vulnerable selves, one can help them in dropping their own masks, thereby creating closer relationships and more meaningful connections.