Eric Berne: Games People Play

Games People PlayA seminal, very useful book is turning 50 this coming year. Published in 1964, and the best selling non-fiction book of the 1960s, Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne introduced Transactional Analysis, which looked closely at human relationships. He opted to study interaction as transaction, since he said we communicate to get something out of it.
For example, if one person says hello, and the other person doesn’t respond, the first person feels cheated or irritated, since he or she expected to get something out of saying hello.

Berne said we communicate in three ego states, as the parent, the child and the adult. Everybody has these three people inside their head, which explains the mental cacophony we sometimes experience. When we are emotional, we are the child. Supportive or exerting power over others, we are the parent. Acting rationally, and focusing on the objective problems at hand, we are the adult. And the obvious way to go is to be the adult. This still comes across as fresh to me. It’s good, solid, everyday advice, the very basis of Emotional Intelligence, i.e. applying reason to how we engage in social situations with others.

Berne identified six different ways in which people communicate:

  • withdrawal (disengagement)
  • rituals (highly standardized exchanges)
  • pastimes (predictable conversations, polite exchanges of opinions)
  • activities (eg doing math or building something together)
  • games (underhanded, exploiting others)
  • intimacy (a game-free relationship)

The games we play, he says, like “If it weren’t for you”, are all rackets. Anger is one of those rackets, he says. It makes you feel righteous for a while, but doesn’t solve anything. Instead  he says we have to decide to look at what is making us angry and think about why the other person is doing it. That means not letting the other person win the game by allowing ourselves to get angry. It’s an interesting and engaging challenge, and one that can actually improve the situation.

Every game has three parts:

  • the con – the way of cheating used
  • the gimmick – the weakness that makes the other person play the game
  • the payoff – the feeling that people get from playing the game

Among the aspects Berne identified as worthy of therapy are scripts that he said we develop and follow early in life, and can for instance recognize in fairy tales.

Below is a wonderful 1966 NET Science broadcast special on the book. The reporter interviews Dr. Berne at his home in Carmel where the author explains the theory behind Transactional Analysis. The camera then follows the two of them along the gorgeous Carmel coast – where incidentally Helmut and I spent almost a week last summer. And finally we see Dr. Berne in with other California psychologists, Swinging Sixties style. Watch these four short videos for an exquisite introduction to the theory, and take an evocative journey into the epoch when Transactional Analysis was still new.

Eric Berne passed away in 1970. A website dedicated to him contains selected games he identified. See if any of them ring a bell with you. They did with me. ‘Uproar’, with slamming doors, is a game I used to play a lot with my dad when I was a trouble-making teen. And I find it quite sobering to recognize that I still like to indulge the Child in me.

On this note: I want a sun umbrella just like Dr. Bearne’s.

The economy of gaming

Jesse Schell, professor at Carnegie Mellon University, presented “Design Outside the Box” at the DICE Summit 2010, held February 17-19, hosted by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. I found it through Ze Frank.

First Schell explains how the new generation of online games work. He explains how surprised game designers are that non-traditional gamers want to play these new social games, each of which has some element that meets a need, as Schell details. People are actually more than happy to buy into the initially free games to raise their score and beat their friends.

Schell suggests that the gaming model of playing for bonus points could become an essential driver for social, economic and political participation. One teacher he presents uses the gaming levels system instead of grades for progression, which certainly gets him points for coolness. But Schell goes on to develop a Brave New World scenario in which RFID chips will be embedded in everything, and where the points you win will be added to your account, sponsored by institutions and companies who will later reward you for buying into the game. Very unnerving.  Is this where we are going, letting corporate marketing get inside our relationships, inside our lives? Where does all of this leave data protection and privacy?

This talk moved me to write a grammar exercise a while ago. The exercise part is purely descriptive, just to practice verb expressions with -ing forms, to-infinitives and bare infinitives.

Zap targets bullying among boys and girls

Zapdramatic is an interactive roleplaying game series for practicing and discussing communicative behavior. Michael Gibson, the mastermind behind the series, is planning a slow reveal of his relaunched Zap site. He wrote to me that they are “looking for new users to help support our new projects.” I’m a member of Zapdramatic because it gets me a lot of games, which I use in my business English classes, for 35 Candian dollars a year. But you can do many of the games for free: The Zapdramatic negotiation games for adults include The Raise, The Print Shop and Interview with a Vagabond.

The new game I’ve really been looking forward to is Sir Basel Pike Public School. It targets bullying among boys and girls age 10-14 and won’t be launched until 1 October. Part one of the game is already at You’ll find it includes playing tennis and doing math; if you’re good at sports and cool-headed in class, you enjoy more respect and independence and can afford to make more unpopular choices. These parts make the game both “gamier” and more realistic.

Check it out yourself. Show it to your kids and their friends and let Michael ( know what you think.

First heard about Zap a few years ago from Mark Powell, a great trainer of Business English trainers. See his interview with the organizers of Sprachen und Beruf 2009.

Lost on games or just sold on Zapdramatic?

All you need to feel like an old fart is to spend a few hours spread over a few days trying to imagine what learners of English could get out of playing online games. This is really quite hard for me,  just learning to move around and react to virtual surroundings makes me feel like an utter fool. (I’m the dead one, or the one standing in the fire, or the one with the strange hair.) Anything you learn is hard. But other hard things, like learning to play the keyboard or straining on my mountain bike, make me happy. Multiplayer environments, on the other hand, give me nothing that text based communication doesn’t do much, much better … for me.

I keep thinking hard about Negroponte’s remark that we humans weren’t designed to write, and that learning simply can’t remain text-based. I loved his example of the boy who was able to show him how the computers in the lab work even though he “couldn’t read or write”. There are so many kinds of intelligence and learning:

  • reading the water and the sky to know what the weather is doing
  • tasting food to see if it has the right amount of salt and spice for everyone at your table
  • giving someone just the right kind of smile to establish your relationship.
  • finding just the right words to make someone feel better about him- or herself
  • being able to create the release of dissonance without forgetting harmony

Knowledge is so … subtle. I’m looking forward to Zapdramatic’s relaunch in April, including a new game for teens called “Sir Basil Pike Public School”on the dynamics of bullying. I really like Michael Gibson’s “Choose your own adventure” approach, perhaps because deciding which skript to follow is just a bit smarter even than anything newer that I’ve been seeing. I wrote about this series of games here last year, following up on the tip from Mark Powell, and my Moodle platform to host a forum is still there, and now there is even twitter so one could run a Zapdramatic game “course” using that … So you see I still want to get more of my learners interested in expanding their language and communication skills this way.

Blogwichtl aka Secret Santa

I found the following very charming “Secret Santa” or “Wichtel” in my in-box. Thank you so much, Unknown Wordler and Help-Shift-Happener (and thank you, Hollemann, for running the show):

Liebe Anne, or should I say
dear Anne?

Your lovely Blogwichtel war ja schon ein bisschen estonished, als mir Dein Blog – I have to admit I didn’t know it bis dato – zugelost wurde.

Doch frei nach dem Motto der kommenden re:publica dachte ich mir “Shift happens” und löste das Sprachproblem kurzerhand mixing the languages. Nicht ohne errors in der einen oder other language einzubauen, what your heart as an english teacher sicherlich höher schlagen lässt, as you can count the Fehler an kreid them to me on.

From the first moment, als ich mich in dieses mir unbekannte Blog einlass, I knew that yo are a very nice person. Du hast Dir sogar die Mühe gemacht, den Blogwichtel, also mich, mit einem eigenen Blogartikel zu begrüßen. (O that was a long part in german, I will compensate that with a nearly egual long english part, but please don’t put this on the Goldwaage). Back to what I wanted to say: Nett von Dir, Dich in die Situation des Blogwichtels (also in meine) hineinzudenken. Mit Deinen Worten hast Du genau das getroffen, was in mir vorging, als ich auf ein englischsprachiges Blog stieß:

If a blogwichtel kommt daher and reads this blog and thinks “o, jemine, o graus, das ist ja ois änglisch” please don’t worry, I can also read German.

Doch frei nach dem Motto, don’t use a joke for too long, verlasse ich nach diesem Satz auch schon wieder den intercultural language mix, denn man kann’s ja auch übertreiben and it’s never good to ride too long on a joke. Abschließend möchte ich Dir aber noch ein kleines Geschenk machen, das Dir Dein Blog so vor Augen führen soll, wie Du es vielleicht bis jetzt noch nicht gesehen hast, nämlich als Wortwolke, sozusagen als Wichtel-Wordle:

So sehen sie aus die Worte, die Du mehrheitlich – die einen mehr, die anderen weniger – seit etwas mehr als vier Monaten, seit August 2008, in Dein Blog geschrieben hast. Vier Monate “The Island Weekly” in eine Wichtel-Wordle-Wolke (WWW) verwandelt. Dies ist die handgearbeitete Version mit dem Text Deiner Artikel (bei Wordle auch in groß zu sehen!), und jenes ist der eher schnöde eingewordlete Feed, der viel weniger aussagt. Kein Vergleich, deine Wichtel-Wordle-Wolke ist doch viel aussagekräftiger, oder was meinst Du? 😉

Dein unbekannter Blogwichtel

P.S. Versuche gar nicht erst herauszubekommen, wer Dich bewichtelt hat, das kriegst Du – zumindest nicht ohne den Hollemann zu bestechen – nie raus. Ich hoffe aber, Du und Deine Leser haben ein bisschen Freude mit diesem Blogwichtel-Artikel.

Dear Blogwichtel,

Ein großes Dankeschön for your lovely and gracious blog entry, dear Blogwichtel. And yes, the handmade version (and I do love handmade things) is far more meaningful. It proves that you need to go into detail if you want to get the big picture.

Warm regards and season’s greetings,


Looking for online game plugins: Hangman and crossword

Hello, game builder. I’m looking for two very nice open source plugins for games to build into our CMS. I’ve seen Crossword Compiler, which would be perfect (fresh look, a pdf printout version and a user-friendly interface) if it didn’t cost €1500. Can anyone provide or recommend games for less (like: much less), at least up front? How about a funny Hangman for a change – why are they all so damn serious? (Poor Teddy.)

I like Charles Kelly’s stuff at, nice mix of EFL exercises and games in Japan.