Games People Play – Original art work by Dyre TiderCredit: Original art work by Dyre Tider

The psychological games people play are similar to board or card games played at any social gathering; they all have a set of rules, a beginning and a concluding payoff.  However, psychological games have an ulterior purpose. 

Eric Berne defines a psychological game as “a recurring set of transactions, often repetitive, superficially rational, with a concealed motivation; or more colloquially, as a series of transactions with a gimmick.” (Berne, 1967).  Some games are limited to the language used; others such as life games depend on the actions of the players. 

The Elements of a Psychological Game 

According to James and Jongeward (1973) there are three specific elements that must be present to define a transaction as a game. These are:

  • An ongoing series of complementary transactions that are socially plausible
  • An ulterior transaction which is the underlying message of the game
  • A predictable payoff that concludes the game and is the real purpose for playing 

Games prevent honest communication and are barriers to intimate and open relationships.  However, games are played as a way to provoke attention and to reinforce early opinions of self and others; a self-fulfilling prophecy about destiny of self.  

Therapists who analyze games generally classify them into categories based on the factors such as the number of players, currency used (e.g. words, money), clinical types, zonal, psychodynamic, or instinctual. (Berne, 1967).  There are additional variables that are considered:

  •  the flexibility of the game
  •  the tenacity of the players
  • and the intensity of the game.

These variables indicate whether or not a game is gentle or becomes violent.   In mentally ill people there is a progression of the variables into distinct stages.

  • First –Degree Games are socially acceptable in the participant’s circle.
  • Second-Degree Games result in no permanent irremediable damage, but which the players want to keep out of the public eye.
  • Third-Degree ‘Games are played for keeps and end up in the hospital, the courtroom or the morgue.  (Berne, 1967). 

Payoffs of Games Played 

All games have a psychological payoff that is determined by the life scripts of the participants.   In the game “Now I’ve got you, you S.O.B.” the internal goal of the game is justification or vindication.  

The most common game is the “why don’t you-Yes but” game.  This game shows up in many realms, including marital interactions, social gatherings and therapy groups.  This game involves an exchange where one person throws out a problem and the second person offers a solution.  The first person proceeds to shoot the suggestion down with a “yes, but,” reason.  Subsequent suggestions are met with the same rejection until the exchange reaches a silence.  The silence is eventually broken by a third person making a sweeping generalization.   Often the underlying implication of this game is a need for reassurance. 

Significance of Games 

The historical significance of games is that games are handed down through the generations in families. Therapists can trace the games of their clients back through the family history. 

Cultural significance is found in that in raising their children, parents teach their children the games in which the family engages. Different cultures and social classes tend to play different types of games and families will play variations of these games. 

Social significance of games is evident in that people are hesitant to expose themselves to intimacy and generally fill their time with social interactions by the less threatening activity of game playing. 

Personal significance of games is that people generally pick friends, associates and intimates who play the same games.  When someone in their circle tries to change the game, that person tends to be excluded and will seek a social circle elsewhere that will welcome the new game. 

Therapists Role in Game Playing 

Games are played most intensely by people with some mental illness.  Therapists identify these players as “sulks” and “jerks” or “squares.”  The sulk is angry at the parent of the opposite gender.  It is deliberate and can be reversed at any period of life. (Berne, 1967).  For the sulk, there must be a way of saving face, an offering of something to take the place of the sulking.  The jerk is overly sensitive to parental ego state influences.  According to Berne, “…his Adult data processing and Child spontaneity are likely to be interfered with at critical moments, resulting in inappropriate or clumsy behavior.” 

The art of game playing takes a skilled therapist to recognize and guide the participants to more healthy communication and life actions.  Therapists interrupt the flow of the game; address the underlying aim of the game. The goal is the attainment of autonomy;  to become aware; live in the here and now; to have spontaneity, the freedom to choose and express feelings; and intimacy, the naïveté of a child. 



Berne, Eric, M.D. (1967). Games People Play The Psychology of Human Relationships. New York, NY: Grove Press, Inc. 

James & Jongeward (1973). Born to Win: Transactional Analysis with Gestalt Experiments. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 



The copyright of the article “Psychological Games People Play” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.