Games people play, Eric Berne M.D. Book Review Essay

Games people play, Eric Berne M.D.

Book Review

Eric Berenstein was born in 1910 in Montreal Canada and was the son of a doctor and a writer.  His own family history may have influenced the mix of science from his father and observation from his mother the writer.  He studies at McGill University in Montréal and at Yale. He became a U.S. citizen in 1939 and in 1943 changed his name from Bernstein to Berne.

Dr. Eric Berne is the developer of the theory of Transactional Analysis.  Transactional Analysis is one of the easiest to understand theories and became quickly popular with the general public as well as with professionals. His book, Games People Play is excellent for anyone looking for an easy and enjoyable read that can explain human interaction. The book focuses on patterns of action that people display over and over again. He refers to these as scripts or games. Some scripts require many people, while others play out with just two. The book doesn’t just describe the games; he gives the reasoning behind them, and what each player gets out of it. There is also and explanation or analysis of the interaction from the point of view of the participants, who act as child, parent, or adult, according to the circumstances. The book has a wide audience as it is interesting to the layperson and written in an easily organized and easy to understand fashion. Though the book is brief, it also provides some depth to the explanation of each game, scenario or human interaction that can be useful to professional.

The book has been very well received since it was originally published in 1964 and still sells well today. One of the more famous book reviews of The Games People Play was written by well known author Kurt Vonnegut Jr .in the 1964. His review points out accurately, that the description of the games, are what hooks the reader on the book. Vonnegut notes that the book is so fun to read that it could only be written by someone who enjoys playing as much as anyone else. He notes that Berne’s favorite magazines at the time were “Science and Mad”. Any reader will be able to recognize themselves and their loved ones in this book. The games or scenarios are fun to read and easy to recognize and relate to as they are common place experiences for the most part. Berne’s explains that when someone creates a commonplace social disturbance in order to gain some secret relief or satisfaction, it’s a game. He follows the game description and scenario with a more detailed explanation and analysis. Some readers probably skip some of that section, or breeze over it quickly as the details will only be of interest to those truly interested in understanding the psychology of behavior. The book is a very interesting and well organized by game, each with a catchy name that gives a hint as to the substance of the chapter. The organization of the book is easy to follow and easy to skip around and return to particular chapters as one might return to a text or a self-help book. You can look up the particular problem situation or game that you’re interested in and just read that chapter. It doesn’t really have to be read from cover to cover in the order presented.

The book includes description of 101 different games which are named to get the reader interested. The names are funny and at times familiar. One has a sense that they know what the chapter will be about just by the name.  For example chapter names include; Kick Me,” “If It Weren’t for You,” “I’m Only Trying to Help You,” and” “Let’s Play a Fast One on Joey. The game, “Try and Collect,” talks about a person running up a big bill and then is reluctant to pay it, or pays it very slowly. There is a series of threats and chases and ultimately a winner. The result can lead to one of the other games such as “Why does this always happen to me?”  The reader can move from one game to another following the non-stop game scenario that can result from these games or interactions. Though everyone will recognize these situations, in real life we don’t generally realize the psychology behind the behavior or that it can be looked at as a game though so the book is eye-opening. It helps to explain each actor’s role in every game. Readers may find it uncomfortable to see themselves in these chapters. Many of the games of course, are very unhealthy. The point of the book is to recognize the unhealthy games and change the interactions and patterns of relating to others.  Because it’s so easy to read and understand, it a very worthwhile book for anyone, professional or layperson. It can offer helpful ideas about relating to others in everyday life and can also offer a professional therapist some insight and ideas on treating clients. This is a book that a therapist could have a client read, either just a particular section or in it’s entirety as it is short.

In addition to the analysis of the interactions between individuals, Transactional Analysis involves the identification of the ego states behind the transaction.  Berne defined an ego state as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behavior.” He calls them Parent, Adult, and Child.

The book gives the layperson an easy understanding and some clues as to why people do the tings they do.  Every mature person, he says, has in his personality three parts: a child-like part, and adult part, and a part that imitates parents. The Parent is the ingrained voice of authority, the things we learned as very young children such as don’t lie, don’t cheat etc. The Child is the internal feeling reaction and the Adult is the ability to think and determine for ourselves. At any given moment the person can respond as a Parent (P), and Adult (A) and a Child (C). There are nine different combinations (P-P, P-A, P-C, etc.) in which these two can communicate, some good, some bad, bust each combination is different.

Beren describe a game as “an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively, it is a recurring set of transactions… with a concealed motivation… or gimmick.” A game then starts with an interaction of any sort, including body language, facial expression etc. and involves two or more people. The interaction is followed by a pattern of interactions until someone get the payoff, which is what the wanted to begin with, it’s in to winning the game.

At the start of the book we read about Mrs. White who complains that her husband restricted her social activities, so that she never learned to dance. After some therapy, the issue is apparently addressed and her husband relaxes his apparent restriction and allows her more freedom. Mrs. White enrolls in dance class and finds that she is fearful of dances and simply unable to participate. The game began when she married a domineering man and she then proceeded to complain a lot about him with “if it weren’t for you” scenarios. As it turned out, however, she and her husband were playing a game. He was forbidding her to do things that she was afraid to do anyway.  Mrs. White gets a payoff in his game. There is likely also a payoff for Mr. White. For Mrs. White, the restrictions imposed by Mr. White prevent her from being placed in situations that will cause her fear. It allows her to explain her lack of social interaction and blame it on her husband rather than facing her own phobias. The basis for Transactional Analysis is recognizing the game and then addressing the interactions and problems. Every chapter follows the same basic format of scenario or story of the game and then the analysis.

Transactional Analysis is based upon a transaction as the fundamental unit of social interaction. A stroke is the unit of interaction. By identifying and defining transactions, Berne provided to the psychotherapeutic sciences a measure that bolstered the scientific analysis of the theory. This is the component that gives the theory a greater degree of validity for professionals. It adds a scientific component to the observation of interactions.  When people encounter each other, sooner or later someone will speak, or give some other indication of acknowledging the presence of the others. This is known as the transactional stimulus.  Then another person will then say or do something which is related to the stimulus, and that is called the transactional response. The unit of analysis is what made this theory attractive to others in the field of psychology as they could easily use the theory in their own practice and observe their clients.  It makes the observations and analysis valid as there is a unit of measurement to observe record and ultimately work to change. As the pattern of interaction changes, the therapist can again observe and record and be able to prove a positive outcome or result. Dr. Thomas Harris stated in I’m OK – You’re OK that in Transactional Analysis, “we have found a new language of psychology.” Therapists could understand the problems people have by observing what they communicated and how they communicated rather than a more traditional style of asking probing question. Transactional Analysis could be used particularly well in group settings where there are many interactions to observe.

Transactional Analysis and the book Games People Play have received some criticism as it can appear to be a somewhat simplistic model, almost obvious, which is what makes it easy to understand and use.  In the 1960’s it became almost a fad, the general population talked about it and had some understanding, different than many theories. Today, the theory is used in a variety of setting and the book can be helpful to teachers, organizations, designers, clergy as well as psychiatrist and therapist. This is a book that can be used by a teacher or therapist or company boss to understand human interaction, and it can also be given to the student, clients and employees as the basis for discussion and improvement in a variety of settings.

            One of the most important things about this book is that it gives the public a sense that they can understand and change problem behaviors and improve relationships. It isn’t necessary to understand all of the complicated biology of the brain that seems to be a part of many more recent theories. This book and theory also seem to be ore focused on experiences in relationships that are not the result of serious mental illness where the understandings of biology and medications would be necessary. This book and the theory are geared toward those problems that are solely based on learned behavior patterns and destructive ways of communicating. It could be useful though, with people and families who are dealing with more serious issues related to mental illness as there are also relational issues to address.

The Games People Play provides is a good book for introductory psychology students as it offers fairly simply insight into relationship issues and how people learn dysfunction. For example, in the scenario “Try and Collect” he suggests that these behaviors, as with many of the relationship interactions in the book are the result of learned behavior and that many people with this issue tend to come from a family situation where the parents had the same issues. This can be useful in understanding the relationships of families and the developmental issues that face children and adolescents in the long term. If they don’t learn health ways of interacting as children and adolescents, they may continue to have childlike relationship, or reactions as adults. The specific example of interactions between what he author terms Parent, Adult and Child is a good basis for recognizing problems in relationships. The one weakness in this phrasing is that it can be confusing, as the definitions are not the ones we typically assign to the words parents, child and adult.

For an introductory student, this book makes it  relatively easy to understand the impact therapy can have on people and how peoples life can be positively impacted as a result if analysis and understanding.  The book was strong in terms of the explanation of the internal problems but somewhat weak on the specifics of correcting such problems. The book makes the process of learning enjoyable and clear. The reader quickly understands the problems, and can probably relate to it as they are real life scenarios. The background and history of the problem developments follows and is clearly laid out, pulling in family dynamics, learned behavior. The student can understand that even bad behavior can serve a purpose and the goal should be to determine the purpose, address the root issue and hopefully improve relationships and functioning for people.


Berne, Eric.  Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy.  Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1961. Page 4.

Dunoff, Alan, Alternative & Complementary Therapies Legal Matters: Dealing with Difficult Patients: Therapeutic and Legal Suggestion, Jun 2005, Vol. 11

Harris, Thomas MD, I’m OK Your OK, Avon 1976

Vonnegut, Kurt Jr., Original Review of Games People Play by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

 Life Magazine, June 11,  1965