Games People Play
 -- In A Social Media World --
April 2013             David Skinner

In 1964 the most popular social media device came in any color – as long as it was black. It featured the latest input device . . . a rotary dial. It was mobile, to the length of its cord and featured a single app – making phone calls. 

It also served as a significant instrument for ”games people play”, as did morning coffee klatches, cocktail parties, back fence gossiping and the obligatory workplace encounters and back stabbing. People play games, always have and always will. We’ll explore some right here!

The Book That Started It All!

That same year Dr. Eric Berne, released his bestselling book entitled,  “Games People Play – The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis”. As a leading psychiatrist of his time, he is best known for developing the formulaic psychological approach to understanding human behavior called Transactional Analysis. 

His book written in simple language was accessible by the professional as well as the layperson replete with an explanation of TA and an index of games with purposely provocative names. As Berne explained them, “Games are repetitive social behaviors often accompanied by a gimmick or payoff”. For example the game NIGYSOB was an acronym for “Now I’ve Got You, You SOB”. More on these later in the “Games Glossary”.

Let’s first agree, we have good reason to revisit Dr. Berne’s work and apply his concepts to our current social media lives. When Berne first proposed his breakthrough approach, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame would wait twenty more years to be born (May 14, 1984). It would be some forty years before social media was a platform capable of supporting “games people play” i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, texting, dating sites and popular forums on every subject. As we dust off the basic tenets of TA, please take a self-perspective view as to how we use TA’s principles in our social media world today. You may be surprised!

You will naturally be drawn to the actual game descriptions near the end to recognize your spouse, friends and acquaintances and what games they may be guilty of – you know you will. However, what is most important in Dr. Berne’s theories is the knowledge and acceptance of the roles we play individually. Through recognizing our own ‘glass houses’ we can enjoy the emotional success of game free relationships and life. That is the subtle lesson of Transactional Analysis. 

The Basics of Transactional Analysis

As human beings we yearn for recognition and intimacy. Whether it’s a mother’s ‘baby talk’ accompanied by her loving embrace or the uproarious applause of an appreciative audience, we crave attention from others. Dr. Berne calls this need “stroking”. A stroke is the fundamental unit of social interaction.  

Two or more persons engaged in “stroking behavior” constitute a transaction. The universal purpose of a transaction is to structure time in accompaniment of work or to provide leisure time. There are five types of transactions. Each exhibits different levels of complexity. They are: Activities, Rituals, Pastimes, Games and Intimacy.

Each participant in a transaction wants to come away with some level of satisfaction be it simply “strokes” to otherwise more “fallacious results”. Most involved are willing and knowledgeable participants. They support the others or in the least, abide with some degree of mutual understanding – even when they are on the ‘wrong end of the stick’. 

Structural Analysis and Integration

Through his private practice and group sessions, Berne came to realize that individuals exhibited dynamic and changing frames of feelings accompanied by related sets of behavioral patterns. They seemed to be induced by a variety of social stimuli. He called these unique systems “Ego States”. 

There were primarily three that everyone possessed. Depending on the person’s role and objective in a transaction, they exhibited what Berne came to call the form of Parent (P), Adult (A) or Child (C). Each ego state is a part of a legitimate whole and healthy person’s life when aligned in the proper perspective and function. It’s when they act out of ‘order’, ‘whack’ or ‘bounds’ that problems arise. 

The Ego States


  • Resembles behaviors and judgmental attitudes often associated with parental and authoritative roles in society.
  • Carries many of the heuristic rules and dogmas inherited from their parents and generations before them.
  • Serves to preserve tradition, rear children and economize on otherwise trivial decisions – “Because I said so!”



  • Autonomously directed towards objective appraisal and reason.
  • Weighs all options and is willing to compromise when necessary.
  • Focused on survival, facing the facts and computes probabilities. – “It’s likely to be  . . . “.



  • Exhibits active scripts learned at a very early stage of life from Parents and other dominant figures.
  • Shows creativity, intuition and spontaneity.
  • Fulfills the frolicsome childlike nature epitomized by society. – “Let’s go out and play”. 

The Types of Transactions

Transactions as mentioned before occur between two or more persons where there is a recognition exchanged or in this case “stroking”. The common passing-by of a fellow office worker and a resulting salutation is a good example. Each is normally and is fully expected to be responded to in a similar and equal fashion -- a stimulus and a response. This is the most common transaction called a "Ritual" which will be discussed later. Below are examples of some of the many  forms  transactions can exhibit.

Complementary Transactions

Adult 1: “Hi Bob, How you doing?” [stimulus]

Adult 2: “Great Mary, Thanks and congratulations on your promotion!” [response]

Each person is appropriately trading strokes with the other. Should Bob have ignored or responded inappropriately to Mary there would be a tally kept, resentment taken, and revenge another day. While there need be no real information exchanged and there wasn’t, there was recognition of the other and a fair trade of strokes. Most complementary type transactions occur as Adult to Adult or Parent to Child.

            Mother: “I love you my little darling.”

            Child: “I love you so much too Momma.” 

Crossed Transactions

Transactions can be called “Crossed” when as with Bob and Mary, if Bob had responded from his Child state to Mary’s Adult as in: “Mary, Just because you got the promotion you don’t need to talk down to me”. Bob’s crossed response would have been the stimulus for Mary to shift from her Adult to either her Parent and scold Bob or her Child and immediately commence a game of “Uproar”. See “Glossary of  Games”. 

Ulterior Transactions

The even more complex is “Ulterior Transactions” where three ego states are involved and may become the basis for the “classic game”. In his book, Berne even states, “Salesmen are particularly adept at angular transactions” such as these where Salesman’s (A) addresses the Customer’s (A) and duplicitously and simultaneously signals Customer’s (C) that the car certainly ‘Fills the bill’ (A – A), but it may also exceed her budget and perhaps she should look at something more affordable (A – C). The skillful Salesman’s intended response from Customer’s (C) is, “No, I will take the more expensive one”, thusly falling into the Salesman’s ulterior trap – fulfilling the “gimmick” and the game ends! 

Duplex Ulterior Transactions

While less common than the others, the duplex nature may often contain as many as four ego states making for interesting gamesmanship. Here we have two simultaneous transactions Adult – Adult and Child – Child. There are no crossed transactions, but certainly there are connotative-complimentary communications evolved. This form is commonly found in flirtatious games at meet-up bars or dating websites.

Male Suitor: “I enjoy dining out. Choosing the right wine for the entrée is the secret.”

Female Respondent: “Dining out is great, but I always leave it up to the man to choose the wine.”


Activities represent the necessary, often repetitive tasks of daily life. They form a matrix around which we build our Rituals, Pastimes and Games. They may or may not involve others nor provide stroking, but they do structure time.

Such things as reading, housekeeping, school work, shopping and exercise do not require a social component, yet may lead to some future reward.

Activities can also be substituted as a withdrawal or solitude mechanisms when carried to the extreme to avoid social contact with others.

Rituals and Procedures

The most common and simplest social interaction is the ritual. This may take the form of a simple greeting ritual as exemplified earlier by Bob and Mary or extend several layers deep as in an extended ritual of "Water Cooler.

High fives would be a “Ritual” example between two passing teenage boys or be more combative as in playing “Bully” when one is singled out as lesser in stature.

In form they can appear similar, serving the same purpose and can be equal in outcome when positively purposed. The difference between procedures and rituals lies in their origin. “Procedures” are scripted by the Adult and “Rituals” are Parentally programmed even though they may be acted out by the Child as a behavioral extension.


“Pastimes” are usually centered around the structuring of idle time and often begin and end with either a “Procedure” or “Ritual”.

They are typically socially oriented and adaptively programmed so that each individual is fairly compensated. Happy Hour gatherings, neighborhood barbeques and conventions are typical venues for “Pastimes”.

They represent programed and repeated complementary transactions between two or more in a group or large gatherings and may serve to aggregate those of similar interests and game skills. Age, marital status, ethnicity or business interests can tend to attract members to the same intragroup.

“Pastimes” may play out in forms such as General Motors (comparing cars), Super Bowl (sports), Wardrobe (lady talk), Shop Tools (man talk), Recipes (Women talk) and Stock Market, etc.

Besides structuring time and rendering positive stroking, “Pastimes” serve as a sorting mechanism to determine the person or persons one may want to further a relationship with in the future, making friends or possibly -- Hooking-Up.


A “Game”, as Dr. Berne explained it, is an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. They are often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation or some other "snare", "gimmick" or “payoff”’.

They are chiefly differentiated from”Procedures”, “Rituals” and “Pastimes”  by two essential characteristics:

  1. Their ulterior quality and
  2. The payoff.

Every “Game” is basically a dishonest form of communication.

Big time games like the ‘Salesman’ example earlier are always consciously planned with professional precision. They are often accompanied by a practiced troop of accomplices, under the Adult Salesman’s control all sharing in the ulterior duplex motives. The car salesman example, a timeshare sales encounter or high pressured phone sales are often sociopathic in nature and riddled with ulterior motives. The “Bernie Madoff Scam” would be a well publicized example.

Even though the Parent says, “If it sounds too good to be true”, the internal Child still responds to the Salesman’s Adult ulterior offer with the expected excitement and glee – thereby sealing the deal and their fate!

Typical Game Example: NIGYSOB

Dr. Berne devotes 99 pages of game examples in his book. And before that he states, ". . . New games are continually being discovered.” To that end there is a summary following this article where you’ll find a short list and brief discussion of many of the games and a PDF link to download yet others. For a full listing and in depth explanation you are encouraged to pick up a copy of Dr. Berne’s book at  Games People Play

Now, as promised:

NIGYSOB: John is having some engine problems with his pick-up truck. Some clicks and clacks that don’t sound right even to John’s trained ear. Fearing further problems he takes his truck into his nearest mechanic's shop to get his opinion. And it wasn’t necessarily good. “You’re going to need an overhaul on your distributor, points and cap. That usually runs about $35 for your make of truck” the mechanic quoted him. “Sounds good” and John gave his approval saying he’d be back around 4:00 to pick it up.

John returned for his truck and his smooth sounding auto. “Hey John”, the mechanic commented, “When I got into the motor I found you needed a new condenser too. So I took the liberty of installing it. The total cost will be $40.”

Here’s where the game begins. John knows the mechanic went over his bid and was always prepared to stick him even for a  mere $5, all the while - throwing in a game of “Outrage” to boot. “A quote is a quote”, John says. The mechanic knowing, while he did the right thing, he was on the loosing end of the NIGYSOB game and relented. John won, got the condensor and the “payoff”.

Significance of Games      

On a larger scale games are an integral and dynamic component of a person's unconscious life-plan or script. It is learned behavior from parents, handed down by kin and culture, all within a grand historical matrix of structured time. We in turn teach our children and so the archetypal game plays on. To the extent that there is no ulterior or duplicitous “gimmick”, this is not a bad thing. For most -- it is the only thing.

We play out life’s game to its ultimate end hoping for recognition and waiting for a payoff. That is, and unless our “Adult” can attain autonomy and has the strength and fortitude to embrace intimacy.


While we may begin life at an intimate stage, it is not long before we are inculcated by our place in the family, in society, culture and tradition. All this can serve to protect and shield a child through early life to adulthood. If by some rare circumstance, insight, therapy or enlightening moment, the cloak of parental protection is thrown off and the Adult gains its autonomy – then we may attain and live a game free life. 

Intimate once again!

“After Games, What?” – Closing Quote by Eric Berne, M.D. (1964)

“The somber picture presented . . . In which human life is mainly a process of filling in time until the arrival of death . . . With very little choice, if any, of what kind of business one is going to transact during the long wait . . . Is a commonplace but not the final answer. 

  • For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness
  • Something which rises above the programing of the past, and that is spontaneity; and 
  • Something that is more rewarding  than games, and that is intimacy

But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as “togetherness.” This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it.”

Glossary of Games

See how many “Games” you recognize from everyday life, but more importantly realize how after nearly fifty years since the writing of “Games People Play”, little has changed other than the where the “Games” are played – on social media. Activities are playing “Angry Birds”, Rituals are texts among BFFs, Pastimes are endless email jokes with CCs for all. Then there are the angry comments on political blogs and product forums hidden under the cloaks of anonymity, pseudonyms and avatars -- online “Adult” advice and “Child” tantrums can now be done faceless from afar.

  • YDYB: Why Don't You, Yes But. Historically, the first game discovered.
  • IFWY: If It Weren't For You
  • WAHM: Why does this Always Happen to Me? (Setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy)
  • SWYMD: See What You Made Me Do
  • UGMIT: You Got Me Into This
  • LHIT: Look How Hard I've Tried
  • ITHY: I'm Only Trying to Help You (becoming a neglected martyr)
  • LYAHF: Let's You and Him Fight (staging a love triangle)
  • NIGYSOB: Now I've Got You, You Son Of a Bitch (escalating minor disagreements or errors into major interpersonal conflicts)
  • RAPO: A woman falsely cries 'rape' or threatens to; related to Buzz Off Buster, a milder version in which a woman flirts with a man and then rejects his advances

For a PDF Download of even more games - Click Here. (Virus Free)

The Good Doctor's Interview
HAPPY GAMES!  -- David Skinner