Kurt Vonnegut Review of Games People Play

The following review was written by the noted author Kurt Vonnegut Jr.   It reviewed the original Grove Press edition of Games People PlayThis review first appeared in the June 11, 1965 issue of Life Magazine and is included in the 40th anniversary edition of Games People Play published in September 2004.

The name of this game is “Uproar“: “Father comes home from work and finds fault with daughter, who answers impudently; or daughter may make the first move by being impudent, whereupon father finds fault. Their voices rise, and the clash becomes more acute. The outcome depends on who has the initiative. There are three possibilities: a) father retires to his bedroom and slams the door; b) daughter retires to her bedroom and slams the door; c) both retire to their respective bedrooms and slam the doors. In any case, the end of a game of Uproar is marked by a slamming door. Uproar offers a distressing but effective solution to the sexual problems that arise between fathers and teen-age daughters in certain households. Often they can only live in the same house together if they are angry at each other, and the slamming doors emphasize for each the fact that they have separate bedrooms.”

So writes Dr. Eric Berne, a 55-year-old San Francisco psychoanalyst, in a thin scientific volume entitled Games People Play.  Dr. Berne, whose favorite magazines are Science and Mad and favorite books are The Kuzzilbash and Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge, has visited mental institutions in 30 countries paying his way with poker winnings. His Games People Play was smuggled into print last August with a cautious first run of 3,000 copies.

Since then 41,000 copies have sold by word of mouth, and no wonder (Webmasters note: the 41,000 copies sold refers to the number sold in early 1965.  Since then, over 5 million copies have been sold, with huge sales in the past few years). The book is a brilliant, amusing, and clear catalogue of the psychological theatricals that human beings play over and over again. When someone creates a commonplace social disturbance in order to gain some secret relief or satisfaction, Dr. Berne calls it a game.

In the opening move in a game of “Try and Collect,” for instance, a player runs up a big bill, which he is very slow to pay. (This is a game, incidentally, which the author says children usually learn from their parents.) The middle moves are the low-comedy threats and chases which deadbeats find delicious. The end, when the creditor either collects the money or gives up, often leads to a harrowing round of another game, such as “Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch,” or “Why Does This Always Happen to Me?”

Dr. Berne sketches 101 games in 186 pages, which makes him as efficient as Hoyle indeed. Such economy is possible because the themes are all sadly or sweetly or cruelly familiar, and because the doctor gives them jazzy names that come close to telling all: “Kick Me,” “If It Weren’t for You,” “I’m Only Trying To Help You,” “You’re Uncommonly Perceptive,” “Wooden Leg,” “Schlemiel,“Let’s Play a Fast One on Joey.” He punctiliously pays homage to Stephen Potter (Gamesmanship, Lifesmanship, etc.) as a pioneer in the field. But he puts aside Potter-ish whimsicality to request that games be treated with the respect due, say, a time bomb in need of defusing. Possible endings for some include divorce, murder and suicide.

This is an important book—if not to scientists, then to laymen in their anguished need for simple clues as to what is really going on. It also fricassees the canard that a novelist or playwright, with his magic intuition, can reveal more about life than any physician could ever know. The good Doctor, meaning only to add his insights to the healing arts, has provided story lines that hacks will not exhaust in the next 10,000 years.

A book as intelligent as this about games could not have been written by a man who wasn’t incorrigibly playful, so the theory parts sound playful too. But consider the lighthearted diagram the doctor gives us of a meeting between two persons. Every mature person, he says, has in his personality three parts: a child-like part, and adult part, and a part that imitates parents. At any given moment the person can respond as a Parent (P), and Adult (A) and a Child (C).

There are nine different combinations (P-P, P-A,P-C, etc.) in which these two can communicate, some pleasing, some maddening, some useful, some not. The Doctor does not recommend an A-A relationship at all times. Each of the nine combinations is appropriate to some occasion. C-C is appropriate to love. Oversimplified? Certainly, but isn’t it refreshing after all that stuff about Oedipus?

Descriptions of games don’t make up the bulk of the book, or even the richest part of it. Most people read the games first, I suspect, skipping the body of theory Dr. Berne carefully builds before them. Without doubt, it is the games that sell the book, for they have the queer “There’s-Aunt-Louise!” charm of Abner Dean cartoons. But then one discovers all the solidly nourishing stuff up front and the book doubles in value.