Games people play, and their implications

By Gordon Rugg

There are regularities in how people behave. There are numerous ways of categorising these regularities, each with assorted advantages and disadvantages.

The approach to categorisation of these regularities that I’ll discuss in this article is Transactional Analysis (TA), developed by Eric Berne and his colleagues. TA is designed to be easily understood by ordinary people, and it prefers to use everyday terms for the regularities it describes.

I find TA fascinating and tantalising. On the plus side, it contains a lot of powerful insights into human behaviour; it contains a lot of clear, rigorous analysis; it has very practical implications. On the negative side, it doesn’t make use of a lot of well-established methods and concepts from other fields that would give it a lot more power. It’s never really taken off, although it has a strong popular following.

An illustrative example of why it’s fallen short of its potential is the name of Berne’s classic book on the topic, Games People Play. When you read the book, the explanation of the name makes perfect sense, and the deadly seriousness of games becomes very apparent. However, if you don’t read the book, and you only look at the title, then it’s easy to assume that the book and the approach it describes are about trivial passtimes, rather than core features of human behaviour.

In this article, I’ll look at some core concepts of Transactional Analysis, and how they give powerful insights into profoundly serious issues in entertainment, in politics, and in science.

The image below shows games at their most deadly serious; Roman gladiatorial combat, where losing could mean death.

By Unknown author –, Public Domain,

Some games that people play

I’ll focus on one part of Transactional Analysis, that deals with how people structure their interactions with each other and with life. It’s summed up neatly in the title of another book by Berne, namely What do you say after you say hello?

Here’s a simple-looking example of how this works.

You’re at the bus stop, alone, and another person arrives at the same bus stop. You’re in a part of the world where it it’s polite to acknowledge the other person’s presence, so you each say hello. Now what?

One option is to make a neutral comment that lets the other person engage in conversation if they wish. In the UK, a traditional safe neutral topic is when the bus is likely to arrive. So, you wonder out loud when the bus will arrive. Now the game gets going.

The other person can draw on a large number of well-established structures for their response. In TA, these have names from everyday life, like Ain’t it awful? and Happy to help.

If the other person wants to play Ain’t it awful they can respond to your neutral opening by saying something like “It will probably be late; they usually are these days”. This tells you the game that they want to play. You now have the option of joining them in that game, or of signalling that you want to play a different game.

So, within three sentences, you each know that the other is interested in interacting, and that the other person wants to complain about life. If you are happy to play the same game as them, you can now have a conversation on shared safe ground.

That’s the basic form. There are more complex forms, but the basic form is that simple. Berne and his colleagues identified about a hundred games; enough to give plenty of options for interactions, but a tractably small number from the viewpoint of analysis. Because TA is a deliberately informal approach, these games aren’t treated as cast in stone; TA practitioners and groups routinely adapt and create their own descriptions of games. Some game labels are widely shared across the TA community; others are less widely used.

In this article, I’ll look at three games in particular, namely General Motors, Ain’t it awful and Look, Ma, no hands. I’ll examine how these help make sense of the entertainment industry, of politics, and of science as social activity.

Games people play, and entertainment

The underlying structure of General Motors is that the players debate the relative merits of different entities from the same field. The example that gives this game its name is people back in the day debating the relative merits of car manufacturers; for example, one person arguing that General Motors is better than Ford, and another person arguing that Ford is better than General Motors, and so on for other manufacturers. A key feature of the game is that it isn’t about reaching an agreed decision or about having winners and losers; instead, it’s a structure for conversation that gives the participants a shared, agreed framework within which they can debate safely for as long as they want.

Once you know what General Motors looks like, you realise that it’s been around for a very long time, and that it’s ubiquitous.

One of the earliest recorded versions of General Motors involves Roman gladiators. Classic Roman gladiatorial combat was highly structured. Each fight involved two gladiators, and a referee. In the image at the start of this article, the referee is the man in the toga with a stick. The combat had rules, which were enforced by the referee. There were also established types of gladiator in classic gladiatorial games, such as the hoplomachus (a heavily armoured fighter) and the retiarius, armed with a net and a trident.

This is where General Motors comes in. The classic types of gladiator were routinely paired against each other in ways that complemented the strengths and weaknesses of each type. For example, the retiarius, who had light armour but a long trident, was usually paired against the secutor, who was heavily armoured, but had a short sword.

This made it very easy for Romans who were keen on gladiatorial combat to play General Motors. There was a tractable number of different types of gladiator, each with iconic, clearly defined, distinguishing features, who fought each other regularly, and gave spectators plenty of examples of what happened when a gladiator of one type fought against another type. The spectators could then argue forever about general principles and about specific matches.

Fast-forwarding to the present: Exactly the same game of General Motors is a central feature of some of the most successful entertainment franchises in the world. Pokemon has the same deep structure; the Marvel universe has the same deep structure. These franchises not only provide spectacle for their audience; they also have a structure that makes it easy for fans to interact with each other in a way that strengthens their allegiance to the franchise and to material relating to their favoured gladiator/pokemon/character.

This isn’t the only TA game that applies to the world of entertainment; there are plenty of others, such as Mine’s better than yours, which is the basis for the whole of competitive sport. It’s a fine, rich territory for exploration. For brevity, though, I won’t try to do an overview; this article is just a taster.

The example of gladiatorial combat makes it very clear that games are not always harmless fun; on the contrary, they can be literally a matter of life and death. Once you get your head round this point, then Berne’s use of the word “game” makes sense, but a different choice of word would probably have strengthened his case. Anyway, on to another deadly serious area where TA gives useful insights.

Games people play, and the dark side of entertainment

A key feature of games in the TA sense is that they’re expressive behaviour; they’re primarily about showing what sort of person you are. This is very different from instrumental behaviour, which is about getting something done. Sometimes, however, behaviour is both expressive and instrumental, often with far-reaching implications. These implications are often unexpected and unintended by the people involved, although those same implications may be very obvious indeed to other people.

First, a brief description of expressive and instrumental behaviour. A given behaviour can be described in terms of how strongly expressive it is, and how strongly instrumental it is. A sneeze is usually neither particularly expressive nor particularly instrumental; it’s a simple reflex action with no intended signals or consequences. Wearing a baseball cap with a political slogan is highly expressive in terms of the slogan, and may be moderately instrumental in terms of keeping the sun out of your eyes. A hard hat is usually highly instrumental, in terms of protecting your head from injury, and usually low on expressive behaviour. A Roman centurion’s helmet is both highly instrumental, in terms of protecting the wearer’s head, and highly expressive, in terms of signalling the wearer’s rank and status.

Returning to TA games: A key point about games like Ain’t it awful and General Motors is that they’re not intended to produce a practical answer to a problem. People playing those games typically react badly if you suggest a way of getting the buses to run on time, or of displaying the pros and cons of cars or gladiator types as a spreadsheet based on data. The games exist to provide an agreed structure for a conversation, where the parties involved enjoy the conversation. Finding a definitive answer would end the conversation, and spoil the fun.

Sometimes, though, TA games collide with practical, instrumental reality. It’s usually a case of “collide” rather than “happily intersect”.

An example from popular culture is the “ancient mysteries” genre in television. This genre enables viewers to play General Motors with their own favoured explanations for the alleged mystery. On the surface, this may look like a democratisation of research, and a chance for ordinary people to contribute new ideas. When you look deeper, however, something murkier is happening.

One key underpinning assumption of “ancient mystery” shows is that there actually is an unsolved mystery in the first place. This in turn usually means an assumption that mainstream experts have failed to find an answer. This in turn means that the show won’t give an accurate overview of the current specialist literature on the topic, since that would destroy the central premise of the show. It also means that since mainstream experts are portrayed as having failed, there is an implicit assumption that their opinions can be discounted, and that viewers’ opinions offer fresh insights that may well be correct.

This wouldn’t be a huge problem if it only affected a handful of alleged “ancient mysteries”. However, that isn’t the case; it’s occurring against a long tradition of resenting and denigrating expertise.

Games people play, and politics

The issue of not wanting to find a real answer can become a serious problem when TA games interact with politics, and when there are misunderstandings about whether someone intends a statement to be expressive or instrumental.

One potential area of interaction is agenda setting in politics, which involves politicians, political commentators and the media choosing the topics where they will focus their attention. TA games such as Ain’t it awful are about a topic; if that topic gets picked up and added to a political agenda, then it can suddenly change from a relatively harmless piece of expressive behaviour into real instrumental behaviour with real world consequences.

Moral panics are a classic example of this. An Ain’t it awful topic gets picked up by somone with a political agenda, and turned into something that can drastically change lives. There’s been a lot of good research into moral panics; their pattern is pretty much constant. They’ve been around since at least ancient Roman times, and probably long before.

A good example is the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s, which started off in the world of evangelical redemption stories. These stories typically take the form of: “I did all these very bad things, but then I was born again, and now I’m saved”. The worse the things, the better the redemption, and the greater the temptation simply to invent very bad past sins to gain more kudos for having a bigger redemption.

That’s relatively harmless when someone is making false claims to have done hard drugs or shoplifted. It’s a completely different game when someone claims to have been part of a Satanic cult that murdered babies. The police can’t simply ignore such claims, so when a book came out in 1980 making these claims, the topic soon became part of the mainstream political agenda.

After a few years, the impossibility of many of the claims, and the significant absence of evidence for others, gradually led to the panic subsiding. However, a lot of people had their lives ruined by false accusations along the way, including some who were imprisoned for decades.

Another potential area of interaction between TA games and politics is when politicians themselves are playing games, such as Look how hard I’m trying. This is more likely to be an issue with idealogues and amateur politicians than with professional politicians. For idealogues and amateur politicians, trying and failing to get a policy made into law can act as a strong signal to the base. As with moral panics, such topics can become a serious problem if they start getting treated seriously by people with power, often as part of a cynical strategy to gather more votes. Usually it becomes clear eventually why those policies had not been treated seriously before, but usually a lot of damage has been done by that point.

Games people play, and science

The examples above involve TA games from the dark side. Some TA games, however, are more healthy. I’ll look briefly at some examples that often occur in research and in education.

The first is Look Ma, no hands (as in riding a bicycle with no hands). There’s a long tradition in research of showing off intellectually by doing something that has never been done before, preferably with as little evidence of effort as possible. Euler, for example, invented graph theory in an afternoon, as a piece of mental exercise. It’s a major area of mathematics which is a core part of how the Internet works and of how satellite navigation systems work, among many other things. Look Ma, no hands can be irritating to those in the vicinity, but it’s a powerful motivator for new discoveries and inventions.

Two games that are usually straightforward ways of making the world a better place are Happy to help and Wise old sage. Both of them are what they sound like.

A lot of key insights in research come from colleagues who make time to help solve a problem, even if there’s nothing in it for them. Players of Happy to help span the academic world from Nobel prize winners to technical support staff. By a fascinating coincidence, they are usually more likely to offer help to people who are reasonably decent human beings, rather than to selfish unpleasant ratbags. Sometimes there is some justice in the world…

Education tends to attract players of Wise old sage, though you encounter them in most walks of life, to varying degree. This game is similar to Happy to help but is not the same.

Usually Happy to help is about specific, clearly identifiable problems or solutions relating to your work. A classic example in research is when you’re trying to make sense of something that looks horribly messy, and then a helpful colleague introduces you to a beautifully simple solution from another field that nobody had ever applied to that problem before. Often, all it takes is a single sentence, like “You could handle that with a faceted taxonomy”. You can then take that solution and run with it.

With Wise old sage the insights are usually less clear cut, and are often about you and how you view the world. There’s a whole genre of Zen-style advice from PhD supervisors to their long-suffering students that takes this form, such as: “Take the obvious and reverse it,” and “Sometimes the question is the answer”. Neither of these is actually from Zen canon; the first is from the film The Halls of Montezuma, and the second from a Barbara Hambly fantasy novel, but that’s a minor detail. The key point is that both of these insights can profoundly change the way that you think about the world. Happy to help is like giving someone a fish; very useful if they need a fish right now. Wise old sage is like teaching someone how to fish; very useful for anyone who needs to deal with fish in the long term.

Closing thoughts

That’s a brief taster of some Transactional Analysis games. They give very useful insights into why people behave in ways that appear irrational and inconsistent, and into the underlying regularities and motivations in those behaviours. Once you know those regularities and motivations, then you’re much more able to handle them. For example, if you’re dealing with customers or clients, then the way that you handle a complaint from an Ain’t it awful player will probably be very different from the way you handle a complaint from someone who isn’t playing that game. Just having that one extra strategy is likely to make a dramatic difference to your customer/client satisfaction ratings.

I’ve blogged here about how you can systematically map out the ways in which you can move an interaction from a given starting point. I’ve blogged here about the directions in which a plot can go; the same framework can be applied to TA life scripts.

Games are just one part of TA. There’s a bigger framework of TA theory beyond the games itself. That framework makes internal sense, and contains a lot of good points, but it would be stronger if it made more use of concepts from other areas. For brevity, I won’t try to describe or discuss the entire framework here, but I will give a couple of examples.

One is that TA games make better sense when combined with the concepts of expressive and instrumental behaviour, which I’ve blogged about here and here and here. Some TA games are purely expressive; others are both expressive and instrumental, in ways that have significant practical implications, as in the examples above from politics. For readers who are already familiar with TA, the concept of instrumental behaviour also meshes well with the TA concept of Adult within the TA division of interaction roles into Parent, Adult and Child.

Another is that a core concept within TA is how a person views themselves and others, with the options being OK and not OK; one of the classic TA books is called “I’m OK – You’re OK”. Although this is a useful insight, it’s limited to a binary choice. A much more powerful way of representing this is to use a two-axis scale, where you can plot how OK someone is on one axis, and how not OK they are on the other axis. We’ve blogged about this approach here and here.

There are plenty of other examples, such as linking TA games explicitly with script theory and schema theory.

So, in summary, Transactional Analysis contains some invaluable concepts and insights which deserve to be more widely known, and which are even more powerful when combined with complementary approaches from other fields.

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about content analysis in my book with Marian Petre on research methods: Gordon Rugg & Marian Petre, A Gentle Guide to Research Methods

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my book Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese.

You might also find our website useful.



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