Games People Play: The Revolutionary 1964 Model of Human Relationships That Changed How We (Mis)Understand Ourselves and Each Other

“Because there is so little opportunity for intimacy in daily life, and because some forms of intimacy (especially if intense) are psychologically impossible for most people, the bulk of the time in serious social life is taken up with playing games.”

Games People Play: The Revolutionary 1964 Model of Human Relationships That Changed How We (Mis)Understand Ourselves and Each Other

The hardest thing in life isn’t getting what we want but knowing what we want, for it requires the whole blooming buzzing confusion of knowing who and what we are — the great question we are always answering with our lives for as long as we live. Our confusion over what we want, and the resulting clumsiness in pursuing it are the main causes of most psychological pain and the majority of the suffering we cause others. It’s like a little girl who isn’t sure how to use her body or the purpose of the toy.

The Canadian psychiatrist was established in the 1950s. Eric Berne (May 10, 1910–July 15, 1970) gave that confused clumsiness a name: games.

A decade before Adrienne Rich made her haunting observation that “an honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Berne set out to map the ways in which, overwhelmed by the process, we shy away from telling the raw and vulnerable truth of who we are and what we want. He called the map “transactional analysis” — the interpretation of social interactions through the lens of our ego states, often opaque to us, yet governing and goading the way we engage with each other.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme

Berne realized that the model would be beneficial to people and he borrowed money from his friends in order to purchase a book on human relations. Games People Play (public library) — uncommonly insightful, unfussy, deeply humane — not only changed the landscape of psychology but forever stamped the body of popular culture with its parlance. Kurt Vonnegut read the book and reviewed it in LIFE Magazine in 1965, he exulted in its “brilliant, amusing, and clear catalog of the psychological theatricals that human beings play over and over again,” slaking our “anguished need for simple clues as to what is really going on,” outlining archetypal interactions full of themes “all sadly or sweetly or cruelly familiar.”

Like anything original and widely resonant, Berne’s model was flattened and commodified. Pop psychology has exploded from his mycelium, transforming them into a miniature industry. But it is still worth reading the original, despite its outdated language and reminders that even farsighted seers were a product of the times. People Love to Play GamesThis book is a surprising and useful guide for the most complex human task: to understand ourselves so that we don’t misunderstand and treat each other cruelly.

Art by Zooey Abbott from Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble

At the heart of Berne’s model are three ego states that live in each of us: the Child (the most natural, vulnerable, and spontaneous part of our personality, keeper of our creative vitality and our most unalloyed capacity for pleasure); the Parent (the part of us that unconsciously mimics the psychological responses of our parents as we observed them in childhood); and the Adult (the competent and self-possessed part of us capable of making sound decisions in our best interest). Each of these ego states coexists within us. They also play into social interaction. Berne writes:

Communication is a process that flows smoothly when transactions complement each other. The second rule is communication’s first rule: communication can proceed indefinitely as long transactions are complementary.

But beyond the simplest and most complementary exchange — one Adult issuing the stimulus, another Adult giving the response — most of social transactions are a chaos of mismatched and ever-switching ego states. The confusion — the wounding — happens when the lines of communication cross and the interaction becomes not between two people in parallel and consistent ego states, but between one part of one person and a different part of the other: Child-Adult, Adult-Parent, Parent-Child, and all the other possible non-equivalences. This basic pattern, a diagram of which became the book’s cover, is what defines a game — “an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome” — a patterned, self-defeating psychological interchange, in which one ego state issues a stimulus concealing the emotional need of another ego-state, then receives a response to the hidden message and reacts negatively to it, frustrating both parties and garbling communication in a way that injures intimacy.

Maurice Sendak, art by Robert Graves from The Big Green Book

Every game is played in a way that Berne terms may be accepted by the players Steps — the affirmations and recognitions we give each other that feel so very pleasing to receive, as vital to our psychological wellbeing as physical stroking is to a young child’s survival. Berne writes:

One stroke can be considered the basic unit of social interaction. The unit of social intercourse is a transaction which is the exchange of strokes.

He argues that our adult life’s strokes aim at three main needs. Structure (a way for us to plan our day and time in an organized way), stimulation (those essential nuggets that give us the spark to live a purposeful and meaningful existence) and recognition (the acceptance by our peers that our actions and decisions matter to the rest of the world). These three primary hungers are the basis of all strokes.

And yet strokes are inherently transient and superficial, feeding not the soul but the self, and games are dysfunctional ways of obtaining them in the first place — for they trade in insincerity and perpetrate a betrayal of ourselves, the other person, or both.

Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle , a wordless exploration of human relationships
Marion Fayolle presents Art from in Pieces: A wordless exploration into human relationships

We play games, Berne argues, in order to obtain the strokes we were accustomed to in childhood, extorting them from others in our adult life — something he terms racketeering. What we actually end up getting are confirmations of the beliefs that were formed in childhood. This reinforces our existential stance and makes us more dependent on victimhood than agency. Unable to ask for what we really need — because it is too vulnerable-making and demands too much trust — we end up playing for strokes that are invariably compromises on what we most hunger for, simulacra of the deepest satisfaction: real intimacy.

Berne writes:

As the complexities of compromise increase, each person becomes more and more individual in his quest for recognition, and it is these differentia which lend variety to social intercourse and which determine the individual’s destiny. An actor in a movie may need hundreds of strokes per week from undifferentiated admirers to prevent his spine from shrinking, while scientists may only require one stroke per year from a trusted master.

The basic mutual betrayal of the game always follows the same pattern: One person gives an overt message from one ego state that contains a hidden message by another ego state and when the other person responds to the hidden message, the originator snaps back with surprise bad feelings — feelings that pre-exist the situation, for they stem from the person’s foundational existential position.

One of Maurice Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for William Blake’s Song of Innocence

When all the games fall away, the highest prize of human relationships — which is also the hardest and most terrifying — is not some particular stroke but intimacy. Emerson captured this as his only truly intimate relationship made him shudder with the recognition that “there is no terror like that of being known.”

Berne captures it all in its plain truth. It can be so overwhelming.

Individual (usually instinctual), programing begins to become more intense. Social patterning, ulterior motivations, and social patterns begin to let go. Intimacy is when an individual’s intimacies start. This is the best solution to structure-hunger, recognition hunger and stimulus-hunger.

The great insight of his was spontaneity is the key to true intimacy. We can’t have it without control or pretense. Spontaneity, he observed, can only spring from unalloyed awareness, or what contemporary pop psychology calls “presence.”

Art before I Grew up

E.E. Cummings’s admonition that we often mistake other people’s knowledge and beliefs for the raw reality of what we feel, Berne considers what awareness really means:

Awareness means the capacity to see a coffeepot and hear the birds sing in one’s own way, and not the way one was taught… A few people, however, can still see and hear in the old way. However, most members of our species have lost the ability to create art, poetry, or music. This means that they are not able to view and hear the world directly even if it is expensive. The recovery of this ability is called here “awareness.”


The aware person is alive because he* knows how he feels, where he is and when it is. Although he knows trees will remain after his death but won’t be able look again at them, he still wants to take in as many poignant images as possible.

Arthur Rackham’s art for the 1917 Brothers Grimm edition of fairy tales. Available as a printed copy.

Berne asserts that spontaneity is the twin root of awareness.

Certain people are fortunate enough to experience something beyond the usual classifications of behavior. It is awareness. This is an ability that rises above programing and is called spontaneity. Intimacy is something more satisfying than games. All three can be dangerous and perilous for the unprepared.


Spontaneity means option, the freedom to choose and express one’s feelings from the assortment available (Parent feelings, Adult feelings and Child feelings). This is freedom from the need to be controlled by others and to only have the emotions one has been taught.

Intimacy means the spontaneous, game-free candidness of an aware person, the liberation of the eidetically perceptive, uncorrupted Child in all its naiveté living in the here and now.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme

One consequence of how fundamental these psychological patterns are — patterns that make for great literature and heartbreaking love — is that every relationship is in some sense and to some extent a game, or reliant on games for its endurance. Yet, games have a tendency to be untrue, even when played in a morally forgivable manner by those who are not transparent, but there are ways we can still play them with some integrity. Berne’s beautiful and touching passage is:

“Beautiful friendships” are often based on the fact that the players complement each other with great economy and satisfaction, so that there is a maximum yield with a minimum effort from the games they play with each other. You can avoid certain intermediate, cautionary, or concessional moves, which adds elegance and sophistication to your relationship. Both parties will enjoy the ornamental touches and save effort on defense maneuvers.

Because real intimacy is such a hard-won glory and demands so much of us — including, often, the overriding of our primal patterns — we habitually lean on games as our default self-soothing and self-regulation mechanisms. Berne wrote this with his unending humanistic empathy for our situation and his natural optimism:

There is very little time for intimacy and some types of intimacy, especially if they are intense, can be difficult for many people. This is why most of our social lives consist of games. Therefore, games can be both desirable and necessary. However, the question here is whether the individual’s games provide the highest return for them.


The rewards of intimacy that is free from games, which should or could be the best form of human life, are great. Even precariously balanced people can happily and safely give up their games when the right partner is available.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme

Berne continues Games People Play by describing the basic structure of most games. He also gives a glimpse at what game-free intimacy might look like in each case and how it illuminates the foundations of fulfilling, healthy, mutually rewarding relationships. Complement it with his contemporary and compatriot in the kingdom of humanistic psychology Erich Fromm on the art of loving and what is keeping us from mastering it and Milan Kundera on the central ambivalences of knowing what we want, then leap a hemisphere and an epoch for an Eastern perspective with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s handbook on how to love.

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