Drama Part 2: Games

In the first post in this series we looked at Karpman’s Triangle and how drama often leads to games. In this post we’ll talk about games as defined in Transactional Analysis (TA). TA, again, was developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1950s and 60s, and popularized by his 1964 bestseller, Games People Play.

Berne’s theory is that we each of us continually shift between a variety of ego states in our interactions with one another. These can, Berne argues, roughly be lumped into three buckets: Parent, Adult, and Child. This is called the “PAC” for short, shown as three circles.

The Parent is when we think, feel, and behave in ways learned from parental-type figures patterned when younger, including, of course, our own parents. The Adult is when we strive for rational appraisal, a detached or “objective” assessment and response. The Child is when we think, feel, and behave like we did when we were children, using the same strategies and games that worked for us then.

We primarily engage in interactions to get “strokes,” similar to a baby crying to be held. This isn’t meant in the pejorative—we need strokes to be healthy, functioning people. We need stimulus and recognition from others. The trouble is how we often go about getting the attention we crave.

In TA, an interaction between two people shows two PACs, with the person initiating the interaction (Person A) shown on the left. Below, A is in the Parent ego state, and wants to engage in some disapproving gossip.

What happens next depends on the how the person on the right (Person B) responds. If B responds in kind, accepting the invitation to gossip, the result is a “complimentary transaction.” Complimentary transactions are exchanges in which the ego states are in harmony. Such interactions can continue indefinitely.

Another possibility is B responds from the Adult (shown below). This is a “crossed transaction,” an exchange in which the lines will intersect. The ego states are in conflict and the transaction will not continue smoothly. Here, that was the aim. B is declining the invitation to gossip. He isn’t being rude—he’s being an Adult. B can then redirect the conversation and smoothly take it in a more fruitful or appropriate direction.

Now let’s look at a game. In TA, games are given formal names. In this post we’ll examine the game, “Why Don’t You—Yes But.” It starts with Person A saying something to the effect of, “I have this situation…,” and explaining a little about what it is. B responds, “Why don’t you try…,” and offers some advice. To a third party, it sounds like an Adult-Adult interaction…but it isn’t. And this is where the concept of games comes in.

The purple lines show what a third party would hear, the Ss (stimulus social) and Rs (response social). The pink dotted lines show what’s going on under the surface, the Sp (stimulus psychological) and Rp (response psychological). This is a “game” because someone playing “Why Don’t You—Yes But” isn’t really seeking help to solve a problem. In fact, the real goal is not to solve the problem at all. The aim is to obtain justification for not having solved the problem, hence the game’s name.

This shows us the first defining characteristic of games: They always have an ulterior motive. Person A engages B with an ulterior motive (the con), and B responds because of her own ulterior need (the gimmick). (B then is not an innocent victim.) This together, the con + the gimmick, results in the response.

But this is still not a game! After the con + gimmick produces the response, Person A will switch ego states on B, which causes confusion (the crossup), and both parties then get to feel certain feelings (the payoff), which was the real reason they engaged in the game in the first place.

In the book, What Do You Say After You Say Hello?, Berne (1972) describes this as “Formula G.” This highlights that games are, fundamentally, “bait-and-switches” performed for a psychological payoff.

As Berne (1972) puts it, “…the transactions must be ulterior so that there is a con, and the con must be followed by a switch, a crossup, and a payoff…. Whatever fits this formula is a game, and whatever does not fit it is not a game” (pp. 23-24). The con + the gimmick is what hooks the “mark” into playing, and the switch is necessary for the payoff. Adding the switch, “Why Don’t You—Yes But” might look like this, with A suddenly switching from playing the Adult to a critical Parent, now shifting blame to B for not adequately solving the problem.

If you read Part 1 in this series, then this next bit will help you connect the dots even more. Another way to say the above is that after the con + gimmick (producing the response), Person A switches roles from Victim to Persecutor (and B will then switch from Rescuer to Victim). In other words, the “role switch” in Karpman’s Triangle is the same as the “switch” in Formula G. Using Karpman’s Triangle, “Why Don’t You—Yes But” looks like the diagram below. The purple lines show the initial roles. The pink lines shown the switches.

Using Karpman’s lingo instead of Berne’s, the Victim wants a Rescuer to provide the secondary gain of justifying his inaction. On the flipside, the Rescuer needs Victims to council in order to feel important, valued, indispensable, or whatever. It’s less helping than a form of codependence. After the Victim repeatedly shoots down the Rescuer’s attempts to “help,” the switch happens, and the Victim becomes the Persecutor and blame shifts.

If you’re in an interaction that suddenly feels a little off, like someone is trying to bait you, like there’s an ulterior motive, then maybe instead of doubting your gut you’ll consider whether it’s a con fishing for a gimmick, trying to hook you. Games, after all, are going on all the time. Berne argues we primarily fill unstructured time in only four ways, with activities, pastimes, rituals, and games. Though some games are positive, most we’d be better off without.   

In the next post in this series we’ll look at some ways to shut games down. Even just being aware of the concept of games, however, goes a long way in helping you avoid them.



Berne, E. (1972). What do you say after you say hello? The psychology of human destiny. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

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