Summary: Games People Play

Last updated: Jan 20, 2021

Summary of Games People Play, By Eric Berne, M.D. (1964)

This book was referenced by Rob Henderson in a tweet, and the title immediately caught my eye. My freshman year in college I wrote an essay called ‘Game Theory,’ where I attempted to understand why so many people enjoyed playing games that no one would talk about. This was probably a response to the attempted re-inventions of self that all of my dorm-mates were engaging in, oftentimes successfully. Of course, I should have known that I was merely trying to articulate something that better thinkers than I had already investigated.

Games People Play is a quick read, and especially interesting for a few reasons. First, the theoretical framework is simple but useful for categorizing different types of social interactions. Second, the case studies (not included in this post) are a great showcase of the fact that basic human nature does not change. This book was written almost 60 years ago, but many of the conversations and behaviors are exactly the same today.

Emotional and sensory deprivation lead to degenerative physical changes in the brain and body. We can therefore compare stimulus-hunger and recognition-hunger, which aim to avoid that deprivation, to food-hunger. The stimulus begins as physical but transitions to social as we age.

Stroke: any act implying recognition of another’s presence. Can be used as the fundamental unit of social action. An exchange of strokes is a transaction, the unit of social intercourse. Any social intercourse is better for us than none at all.

After stimulus-hunger and recognition-hunger is structure-hunger - how do we spend our time? In 3 ways: material (external reality) which is work, social which is good manners and pastimes (very localized), individual which are games. The essential characteristic of games is not fun but regulation. Pastimes and games are substitutes for the real living of real intimacy - the only satisfying answer to the hungers.

The Model of Structural Analysis

We have 3 ego states (coherent systems of feelings matched with operational coherent behavior patterns):

  1. Parent: you are in the same state of mind as one of your parents (or a parental substitute) used to be, and you are responding as they would. Enables actual parenting that is necessary for survival of human race. Makes responses automatic, which conserves energy - “this is just how it’s done.”
  2. Adult: you are making autonomous, objective appraisals of the situations. Necessary for survival, regulates the activities of the Parent and Child.
  3. Child: the manner and intent of your reaction is the same as if you were a little boy or girl. This is the most valuable part of the personality, because it contributes charm, pleasure and creativity (to life as a child does to a family). Here reside intuition, spontaneous drive and enjoyment

In this system, there are no immature persons, only times when one ego state overreaches.


Can be complementary or crossed, simple or ulterior (which can be angular or duplex).

Alignment: complementary transactions (since crossed transactions will result in breaking off communication).


Ulterior transactions involve more than two ego states at once. This is the basis for games.


Structural Analysis

Every transaction can be classified by these agents:

  • Child-Child: “how do you deal with recalcitrant parents”
  • Adult-adult: popular among well-read young mothers, or “Juvenile Delinquency” among older more dogmatic people
  • Parent-child: “tell them dear” for wife introducing precocious child-husband, or classic “look ma no hands”


Are based on careful intuitive computations by two parties: how many and how often are strokes to be exchanged?


Typically played at parties or during the waiting period before a formal group meeting. For example, a large cocktail party often functions as a kind of gallery for the exhibition of pastimes. Used for social-selection processes. At the end of the party, each person will have selected certain players to see more of, and completely discard others. The selected are most likely candidates for more complex relationships (games). The sorting system is largely unconscious and intuitive (unless there is some scheming, such as a salesman looking for their next customer).

Past times have an aspect of exclusivity (certain kinds of talk don’t mix), so someone moving around at a cocktail party must either join in the new pastime or switch the whole proceeding. A good hostess will say, “we were just playing [Pastime]. What do you think?” or “come now, you all have been playing [Pastime] long enough. Mr. X here is Y, and I’m sure he’d like to play [Pastime]. Wouldn’t you, Mr. X?”


  • “General Motors” (comparing cars)
  • “Who Won” (sports)
  • “Grocery”
  • “Kitchen”
  • “Wardrobe”
  • “Making Out” - adolescent
  • “Balance Sheet” - onset of middle age
  • “How To” (go about doing something) - an easy filler for short airplane trips
  • “How much” (does it cost) - a favorite in middle-class bars
  • “Ever Been” (to some nostalgic place) - a middle class game for “old hands” like salesmen
  • “Do You Know” (so-and-so) for lonely ones
  • “What Became” (of good old Joe) - often played by economic successes and failures
  • “Morning After” (What a hangover)
  • “Why Don’t They” (do something about it) - favorite among housewives who don’t want to be emancipated.
  • “Then We’ll” - classic Child-Child
  • “Let’s Find” (something to do) - played by juvenile delinquents or mischievous grownups.
  • “Martini” (I know a better way) - typical of a certain kind of ambitious young person


A game is a series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Every game is basically dishonest, and the outcome is dramatic (more than just exciting). The most complex game that ever existed was “courtier,” which was deadly serious. The grimmest of all, of course, is war.

The general advantages of a game consist in its stabilizing functions - biologically through stroking, and psychologically through confirming one’s position. Games make up most of the time of serious social life, and they are both necessary and desirable. People pick as friends, associates, and intimates other people who play the same games. Games serve as a stopgap for intimacy, which some people are psychologically unable to achieve, and an escape from the boredom of pastimes. However, the perfect form of human living is game-free intimacy.

Good games are ones where the social contribution outweighs the complexity of its motivations. Games studied in this book are biased because destructive games are more likely to be analyzed by therapists.


Games are passed down from generation to generation.

Raising a child is basically the educational process of teaching them what games to play and how to play (also procedures, rituals, and pastimes, but less relevant). The child’s knowledge of and skill in procedures, rituals, and pastimes determines what opportunities are available, other things being equal. But the games determine how the child will make use of those opportunities, and what outcomes they will be eligible for. The child’s favored games will determine their ultimate destiny: the payoffs of marriage and career, and the circumstances surrounding their death.

If a parent reinforces a game, then it becomes part of that person’s character. For example, take a child who was jealous of a privilege granted to a competitor. If he pleaded illness in order to get privileges himself, the ulterior transaction is: “I don’t feel well” (social level) and “you must grant me privileges” (psychological level).

A spectrum of violence

In mentally disturbed people, there are stages of gentle to violent:

  1. First-degree game is socially acceptable in the agent’s circle
  2. Second-degree game is one where no permanent, irremediable damage arises, but which the players would rather conceal from the public
  3. Third-degree game is one which is played for keeps, and which ends in the surgery, courtroom, or morgue

Miscellaneous but Interesting

Hopefulness, enthusiasm or a lively interest in one’s surroundings is the opposite of depression; laughter is the opposite of despair.

Debt provides a sense of purpose in life. The big celebration, the wedding or housewarming, takes place not when debt is discharged, but when it is undertaken. What is emphasized on TV is not the middle-aged man who has finally paid off his mortgage, but the young man who moves into his new home with his family, proudly waving the papers he has just signed and which will bind him for most of his productive years. For most young Americans, obligations such as a mortgage keep them going in bad economic situations - maybe even preventing them from committing suicide.

There seem to be two kinds of habitual criminals: those who do it for profit, and those who are in it for the game (and a large group who do both). In the same way, there are two kinds of professional gamblers. To study these groups well, you have to treat the two kinds as distinct. This is why so much research has been inconclusive. But straight professionals are caught less often, and thus studied less often.

Experienced con men are scared of marks who laugh after they have been taken.