Dr. James Allen on the Impact of Games People Play

Dr. James Allen, MD, is the past president of the International Transactional Analysis Association.  He wrote this piece in preparation for the 40th anniversary edition of Games People Play.  The following appeared in The Script, the near monthly publication about Transactional Analysis published by the ITAA.

On a cold winter Quebec morning 40 years ago, my supervisor gave me a copy of Games People Play (Berne, 1964), remarking that, despite the book’s strange title, its author had given psychiatry the wheel. I was a first-year psychiatry resident at McGill University at the time, and my supervisor, Heinz Lehman, M.D., was then arguably the most influential psychiatrist in North America. A few years before, he had introduced the use of Thorazine (Largactil) into North America for the treatment of schizophrenia, a step that revolutionized the treatment of the seriously mentally ill.

I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago when Eric Berne’s son Terry called and asked me to write a prologue to the 40th anniversary edition of Games People Play, which will be published by Random House this coming August. And so, after many years, I read the book once again, and once again I was struck by the usefulness of Berne’s intuitive hunches and the acumen of his clinical observations. It is as if suddenly a new door swings open before us.

Berne expected game analysis to be improved as further knowledge accumulated, but he laid out the elements: thesis, aim, roles, transactions, paradigm, moves, six types of advantages, and payoff. He was not always clear about the differences between games, pastimes, and scripts in 1964, but it is exciting to watch his mind in action and to follow what others have done with his basic ideas.

Later, Berne (1972) was to present us with the game formula, and the Gouldings (1979) were to give us a clearer (to me, at least) way to analyze and name games (after the conclusion the initiators make or the feelings they end with). Karpman (1968) extended Berne’s work on game roles and gave us the drama triangle. Schiff and her followers (1975) described how it takes both players to energize all three ego states and how games begin with a discount, as well as the phenomenon Bollas (1984/1987) was later to call “extractive introjection.” Erskine and Zalcman (1979) expanded the idea of the game payoff and its uses in their delineation of the racket system, while English (1977) pointed out how one game and the existential position it reinforces may cover another game and another existential position. Steiner has emphasized that games are an important source of strokes when strokes are scarce, and so an important task for the transactional analysts is to help people get them. More recently still, Sills (2003) has shown how people who repeatedly play the same game in a group may be expressing some basic human dilemma that the group has not been addressing. Yes, game analysis has indeed been extended worldwide, and there are now more than 10,000 people who consider themselves transactional analysts as well as one international, four multinational, and many regional transactional analysis groups!

One of the most important things about this seminal book, however, was that it gave members of the public a sense that they and others could be understood—and, more importantly, that they could change. Today we could describe this as providing permissions and tools to enhance their psychological mindedness and to increase their experiences of positive emotions. These two themes alone, if publicized, could assure the approach’s popularity for the next 40 years. However we understand the effects, Games People Play became a runaway best-seller.

Today transactional analysis still has the ability to excite people. Berne presented quite complicated ideas in simple, evocative, and even colloquial terms and metaphors. A person does not need to understand the complexities of neural networks to understand Parent, Adult, and Child or the differences between implicit and explicit memory systems to understand early organizing principles, whether we call them relational schemata or existential positions. Some of the most generative of Berne’s innovative terms, however, seem to have been dropped in many areas of the world. I believe they are worth bringing back.

For example, although not used in Games People Play, the term “trading stamps” is still a useful metaphor for feelings that are collected, treasured, and then turned in for script “prizes.” “Sweatshirts” gives a memorable picture of people who reinforce two existential positions: A person may wear the slogan “Please love me” on the front and “Not you, stupid” on the back. “Streetcar” is a useful way of describing people who travel together but get off at different (script) stops. All these terms give a piercing glimpse of what is, and they do so in the basic tradition of transactional analysis.

All this brings me to the subject of the ITAA as an organization. We really seem to have three different, overlapping groups of constituents, although most of us participate to varying degrees in all three.

First are the people who delight in the approach and have found it useful. These are our Regular Members, our supporters, and potential new members in the general public. They are our base. The Script newsletter and the Internet Forum discussion group are especially meaningful to them. Second are the scholars, researchers, and theoretical innovators who delight in extending the theory and its applications. These are the kind of people who, because of their research, have been responsible for the strength of the interface between cognitive behavior therapy and transactional analysis in some parts of the world and, because of their scholarship, responsible for the survival of psychoanalysis in difficult times. Hopefully, they will also be progressively more involved in introducing transactional analysis into non-transactional analysis journals and conferences. Third are the practical entrepreneurs who see transactional analysis as a brand to be marketed. They are to be found teaching in the training institutes and serving on the Training and Certification Council, which is also our means of quality control. They have been active in getting transactional analysis incorporated into various training programs throughout the world and in selling various products.

If transactional analysis is to flourish, we need all three groups to work in synergy: Weakness or neglect of any one will weaken the others. It was Benjamin Franklin, I believe, who famously remarked to the American colonists rebelling against the forces of George III that they would either hang together or they would surely hang separately!

Over the next few years, we will be examining whom and what the ITAA serves, as well as whom and what you think it should serve and how best to do this. Now is the time to open a dialogue about these subjects, for the ITAA is our joint organization. Where should the ITAA streetcar go and in which areas should it stop? What are the slogans on our sweatshirts—and do the fronts and backs read the same?

Albert Camus somewhere commented that each generation must breathe new life into the old myths. So, taking the Parsifal legend as an example, what is it going to be for us?

Are we going to go on the creative soul’s quest and consciously live that myth or let some other story live us?

Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. New York: Grove Press.
Berne, E. (1972). What do you say after you say hello?: The psychology of human destiny. New York: Grove Press.
Bollas, C. (1987). Extractive introjection. In C. Bollas, The shadow of the object: Psychoanalysis of the unthought known (pp. 157-173). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1984)
English, F. (1977). Racket and racketeering as the root of games. In R. N. Blakeney (Ed.), Current issues in transactional analysis: The first international transactional analysis association European conference. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Erskine, R. G., & Zalcman, M. J. (1979). The racket system: A model for racket analysis. Transactional Analysis Journal, 9, 51-59.
Karpman, S. B. (1968). Fairy tales and script drama analysis. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 26(1), 39-43.
Goulding, M. M., & Goulding, R. L. (1979). Changing lives through redecision therapy. New York: Grove Press.
Schiff, J. L., with Schiff, A. W., Mellor, K., Schiff, E., Schiff, S., Richman, D., Fishman, J., Wolz, L., Fishman, C., & Momb, D. (1975). Cathexis reader: Transactional analysis treatment of psychosis. New York: Harper & Row.
Sills, C. (2003). Role lock: When the whole group plays a game. Transactional Analysis Journal, 33, 282-287.