Mind Games Forever

Image after Andy Warhol, Eggs, 1982

Eric Berne’s Games People Play offers a blueprint for making passive-aggressive manipulation into compulsive fun 

We are accustomed to thinking of gamification as a matter of making incentives overt where they are hidden, inventing rewards to stimulate competition in otherwise noncompetitive work, or imposing quantification on tasks so that workers can be coaxed into doing more. But the essence of a game hasn't always been understood in relation to the joys of scorekeeping. In Games People Play, psychologist Eric Berne’s unlikely 1964 best seller, what defines a game is not incentives but ulterior motives. For Berne, a game is “a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or ‘gimmick.’?” Games are not about fun, he insisted. A game, he writes, “is basically dishonest, and the outcome has a dramatic, as distinct from merely exciting, quality.” In the absence of enveloping and stabilizing intimacy, we crave drama more than pleasure, he argued, and we fall into a variety of passive-aggressive routines to create it.

Why were Americans so eager to believe this? Today, we are less likely to think of the manipulative scheming Berne describes when we hear the phrase social game and far more likely to think of something like Words With Friends, but in the 1960s, the steady-selling Games People Play turned the idea of people playing emotional games into an inescapable cultural cliché. There have since been three separate pop hits called “Games People Play” (one by Joe South, one by the Spinners, one by the Alan Parsons Project), as well as John Lennon’s “Mind Games,” Foreigner’s “Head Games,” and Charles Manson’s would-be hit “Look at Your Game, Girl.”

Before he managed to get Games People Play into print, Berne was an obscure Canadian psychologist practicing in California. He had already written a technical manual about Transactional Analysis, the therapeutic approach he credits himself with inventing, but he hoped to popularize it with a concise schematization aimed at a general audience. Games People Play’s unexpected success would go on to remake the self-help genre, which had been previously dominated by prosperity-oriented motivational tracts like Think and Grow Rich and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Berne’s book infused self-help with pop psychology, implicitly redefining success as being not so much rich as well-adjusted.

Grove Press, the book’s publisher, had been better known for its countercultural cachet and for challenging censorship restrictions than for self-help books (one hopes readers didn’t take Tropic of Cancer to be life advice), but in retrospect it seems an appropriate fit. The rise of self-help psychologizing was one of the ways the counterculture was domesticated and commercialized over the course of the 1960s, redirecting the revolutionary impulses aroused by contempt for the system at one’s own personality, which, in the end, was far easier to try to remake than corrupt institutions. The apolitical implication is that if everyone would take on their own interpersonal hang-ups, society (­nothing more than the sum of all these interactions) would find itself automatically fixed. Collective ­action — who needs the plastic hassle? “There is no hope for the human race,” ­Berne grimly speculates, so go ahead and shelve those Utopian schemes. However, he concedes that “there is hope for certain members of it.” Those “certain fortunate people” who have the psychic wherewithal to forgo the time-killing comfort of games, who can reject the “advantages derived from one’s immediate social circle” and the “demands of contemporary society at large,” can aspire to perfect individual autonomy, the only true liberation. “All the classes of behavior … except maybe dreams, become free choices subject only to his will.”

In keeping with the general Grove Press m.o., Games People Play purports to expose as a tenuous façade the protocols of bourgeois respectability, which might seem the source of the class’s power, if not its misery. But ­Berne is plainly writing for middle-class readers, not their critics. His efforts to radicalize those readers stops at the promise of inside information on how people “really” work in social situations, detailed in pitilessly blunt language. He pointedly eschews psychological terminology in favor of “colloquialisms,” a veritable term of art for him denoting what he sees as the therapeutic efficacy of his whimsically bullying phraseology. “A whole page of learned polysyllables may not convey as much as the statement that a certain woman is a bitch, or that a certain man is a jerk,” he writes. Much of Games People Play is staked on the fantasy that insulting people with cynical descriptions of their behavior will jolt them into change. To merely accuse someone of playing “Stupid” or “Beat Me, Daddy” is meant to be enough to expose their act as a tired routine, not an idiosyncratic expression of their unique problems.

Berne’s confrontational plain-­spokenness was regarded as genuinely controversial: A 1967 New York Times essay by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles condemned Games People Play as “racy, vulgar, slangy,” and its games — including “Kick Me,” “Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch,” and “Look How Hard I’ve Tried” — as full of “masochism,” “sly sexual innuendo,” and “bizarre vengeance.” Much of the book is taken up with a catalog of these and other piquantly named scenarios, which prompted Kurt Vonnegut to proclaim in a 1965 Life magazine review that the book “has provided story lines that hacks will not exhaust in the next 10,000 years.”

But as boorish and tedious as Berne’s colloquialisms frequently are, they seem less bothersome now than the voguish nomenclature he freely appropriated from economics, computer science, and, of course, game theory, just then coming into its own in the Cold War era. In our incessant quest for “strokes,” or attention, we fill our time with “programming” (a.k.a. social activity), including games, a subset of programming that involves scheming covertly for emotional “payoffs.” Games, like all programming, are composed of series of “transactions,” in which participants inhabit one of three “ego states,” Child, Parent, or Adult (corresponding to Freud’s id, superego, and ego). Transactional analysis unveils what happens when various ego states collide under different “stimuli.”

Such jargon may have been intended to give Berne’s system a scientific veneer, but the aura of expertise it may have once evoked has faded with its novelty. Now the economistic language mainly conveys a crude utilitarian view of the mind. Dispensing with the possibility that our psyche might be split against itself with contradictory desires, Berne proceeds as though human behavior is entirely governed by a straightforward reward system, with “strokes” serving as its currency. Our insatiable need for strokes supposedly stems from the helplessness of infancy, when being noticed is tantamount to survival — “If you are not stroked,” Berne sums up in an anatomically confused metaphor, “your spinal cord will shrivel up” — but he reduces the ebb and flow of an individual’s need for social recognition and care to a quantitative demand for attention that can be measured in identical units that can be parceled out and squabbled over. “The goal of each member of the aggregation is to obtain as many satisfactions as possible from his transactions with other members,” he explains. And it turns out that no attention is bad attention: Berne notes that “any social intercourse whatever has a biological advantage over no intercourse at all,” pointing to a study in which “gentle handling and painful electric shocks were equally effective in promoting the health of the animals.”

Individuals cycle through ego states and unconsciously adopt different “ulterior” strategies to maximize their total strokes, as in the schema of conventional game theory. “The only problem at issue” for those compelled to play games, “is whether the games played ... offer the best yield for him.” Berne posits that a simple exchange of greetings involves “careful intuitive computations by both parties.” Consider this example, in which the computation blossoms into a full-blown emotional balance sheet:

Mr. C goes on a month’s vacation. The day after he returns, he encounters Mr. D as usual. If on this occasion Mr. D merely says “Hi!” and no more, Mr. C will be offended, “his spinal cord will shrivel slightly.” By his calculations, Mr. D and he owe each other about thirty strokes. These can be compressed into a few transactions, if those transactions are emphatic enough. Mr. D’s side properly runs something like this (where each unit of “intensity” or “interest” is equivalent to a stroke):

1D: “Hi!” (1 unit.) 

2D: “Haven’t seen you around lately.” (2 units.) 

3D: “Oh, have you! Where did you go?” (5 units.) 

4D: “Say, that’s interesting. How was it?” (7 units.) 

5D: “Well, you’re sure looking fine.” (4 units.) “Did your family go along?” (4 units.) 

6D: “Well, glad to see you back.” (4 units.) 

7D: “So long.” (1 unit.) 

This gives Mr. D a total of 28 units. Both he and Mr. C know that he will make up the missing units the following day, so the account is now, for all practical purposes, squared.

The accounting here seems more than a little bit arbitrary — what is “intense” or “interesting” to me may be less so to you, and one can only imagine what sort of  cortical plethysmography Berne has in mind for measuring “slight” shriveling of the spine — but more troubling are the assumptions about reciprocity. Strokes can’t be shared; we can only trade them back and forth and owe them to one another. There’s no unit for the sort of mutual emotionality that exists between people and belongs to neither. Someone is always giving and someone is always taking. It makes game-theoretical sense to give only if it’s a clever “ulterior” way of taking.

“Strokes” sound a lot like social media’s “likes,” right down to the dubious one-­dimensional quantification of a quality and the apparent default positivity (not to mention the awkward pressing of what is commonly a verb into noun service). But whereas “likes” are meant to encourage the behavior the term is used to describe, painting it as laudable, prosocial exchange among social-media users, Berne’s use of “strokes” is meant to achieve the opposite, to convey how petty and preening our attention pleas are. He writes that “?‘stroking’ may be employed colloquially” — i.e. pejoratively, confrontationally, in his schema — “to denote any act implying recognition of another’s presence.” The emphasis on presence is significant: The demanding presence of the other is what disrupts the perfect self-regarding autonomy we are supposed to be striving for, and it’s also what is specifically obviated in social media.

For Berne, presence is the key to “the real living of real intimacy,” as he roots the “real” in physical contact: motherly love for infants, sexual intercourse for adults. We resort to games only when the sense of wholeness that presence is supposed to provide somehow becomes defective — as when a ­mother “­deserts” a child for her own reasons and turns the child into a “Sulk.” The hunger for strokes reflects not a healthy desire for sociality but a residual weakness that we can never quite overcome — we clamor for strokes in order to feel as though we are truly situated where we are, to feel a sense of presence that intimacy would allow us to take for granted. “The rewards of game-free intimacy,” Berne explains, “which is or should be the most perfect form of human living, are so great that even precariously balanced personalities can safely and joyfully relinquish their games if an appropriate partner can be found for the better relationship.” Otherwise, we are doomed to game-playing and the inferior consolation it offers — the greedy counting up of net strokes as we desperately try to become emotionally solvent.

Social media invert this formula, presenting quantification not as a sad substitute for “real intimacy” but a useful externalization of the incentives already driving us. They serve as a elaborate gaming system, playable on ­demand, that allows us to try our luck at getting some strokes whenever our inner child cries out for them (which is always) —­Facebook as MMO. This is not to be regarded manipulative or pathological but as the essence of optimized sociality. Making our social gestures quantifiable instances of mediated “sharing” disconnects the benefits of attention from their supposed roots in physical intimacy. Attention is not necessarily a clumsy or insufficient proxy for physical touch but an autonomous source of pleasure we experience as we watch how what we share circulates. On social media, togetherness is made asynchronous. We can “stroke” one another whenever it’s convenient. Co-presence and reciprocity no longer serve as preconditions. We don’t even need a specific audience; any player will eventually do.

No longer intrinsically disruptive, the ­drama-seeking, game-playing behavior — once so widely felt to be intrusive, aberrant, and manipulative that Berne could become famous for simply diagnosing it — has in social media a safe arena in which it can be indulged and encouraged, stimulated. Quantification and metrics are foregrounded by social media precisely to prompt games, which intensify engagement with their sites. For social-media companies, game-playing is not a wasteful and divisive way of killing time; it is an efficient mode of communicative production.

Gamification in social media turns out to be no different from Berne’s head games. Both use quantification to generate incentives that can supplant the receding master motive of intimacy. But Berne, and the generation of readers that bought into him, believed that all the games had to go if we were ever going to face up to ourselves. Today, the social-media game lets us push one another to more and more self-expression, as though info dumps were an approach to truth. Our demands for attention are no longer tactfully oblique; they are explicitly instrumental. On social ­media passive aggressiveness can show itself as open and honest aggression. At last, we can do away with the inconvenient codes of etiquette. Grove Press’s valiant crusade against censorship hasn’t been for naught.

Social media are a broad refinement of the self-help scam, offering not just texts but an entire interactive apparatus that can incite anxiety about the self while pretending to assuage it. Games People Play, like all self-help books, lets us pretend that our problems (which stem from having to relate to others) are generic and thus readily fixable with off-the-shelf solutions, while our virtues (all our own sole responsibility) are totally unique, not imbricated with our vices at all. Social media carry this further: By replacing presence with networking, and spontaneous interaction with preformatted expression, they purport to resolve the generic problems that beset us in social life, leaving us with a space in which we can’t help but elaborate our best self, in as much detail as we can muster. What is supposed to be special about us is precisely that which doesn’t admit the influence of others but that we can impose on others without shame or restraint. In practice, what that means is there is nothing special about us, and we can never shut up about it.