Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Games We (all) Play 1



One of the benefits for me of being on holidays is the amount of time I can spend at my two preferred hobbies, namely reading and writing.  It also allows me time to sort through the books I have amassed during the previous year and to put them in some order on my shelves.  It also allows me time to rediscover and reread old favourites.  Hence my title above this entry.  The book that caught my eye this morning was Games People Play (Penguin, 1967) by Eric Berne(1910 – 1970).  I see that I have dated my copy 04/09/'92.  My father's cousin, John Saunders, who was an accountant at a San Francisco hospital knew Berne very well, and it was John who recommended this book to me many years ago.

As a fifty-year old male who has embarked upon what Carl Gustave Jung famously called the search-for-meaning half of life I have become an avid people-watcher.  Coupled with my readings in psychology, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, I find myself becoming more and more aware of the games people play (indeed, of the games I might play myself, that is those I have become conscious of) for the most part unconsciously.  This background of reading, self-analysis and indeed attending my own counsellor for some years has meant that I have become more settled in myself and also a sharper observer of these games humankind is wont to play.  Moreover, I have found that when I have made conscious the games that I used to play, I find that I have ceased to wish to play any of them.  Life is not a game to be won at all costs, I believe.  Rather, if it is a game, it is one we should enjoy playing for playing's sake rather than for winning or losing.  However, I contend that life is not a game, and so to refuse to play those silly games is also an option - indeed this is the option I decidedly choose most of the time.

After Berne's service in the Army Medical Corps during World War II, he resumed his studies under Erik Erikson at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute and practised at Mt. Zion Hospital. Later he became a group therapist attached to several hospitals in San Francisco, in one of which my cousin John worked.  Dr Berne also began to further extend his study into the nature of the Ego State Model.  In 1949 he formally broke from mainline thought and practice when he was rejected for membership in the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute.  Berne then developed his own therapy or therapeutic technique called Transactional Analysis.

Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships (1964) marked the beginning of the popular psychology boom of the late sixties and following decades.  On the one hand this book was different from a mere self-help book with loads of suggestions, work-book exercises or advice, while on the other it was also distinct from academic psychology.  For the first time we had sound psychology popularised.  Hence the term Popular Psychology or Pop Psychology as we know it today.  Every bookseller knows how important it is to their pockets to keep this section of their shop filled with the latest books in this field.  To date his book has sold well over 5 million copies. (Originally Berne had published a similar, though purely academic, book along the same lines which did not sell well.  No wonder, because it was entitled Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (1961).  A change of title with more attractive content focused on real problems for real people in their day-to-day lives really sells.)

Strokes and Transactions:

Years ago when I first entered college at the tender age of 18 - way back in 1976 - I remember we had to do an orientation course as it was then called.  Today we'd probably call this type of course an induction.  Anyway, we had to pair off and get to know as many people as we possibly could in a given amount of time and then write what was termed "positive strokes" on a piece of paper pinned on one another's backs.  At the end we took off the piece of paper and read all our "positive strokes."  I remember as a young boy/man thinking that this game was very American and very wishy-washy. However, I quickly came to realise that this game was a good ice breaker.  Anyway, let's discuss strokes.  This is the way Berne's thought progressed:  A. Infants will develop both mental and physical problems if they are not handled lovingly and with care. B. Sensory deprivation in adults can also lead to neurosis and indeed psychosis.  C. Hence, both adults and children need positive physical contact, but this is not always available or possible. D. Therefore, we compromise by seeking symbolic emotional "strokes" from others.

Examples of Strokes:

A film star or a famous singer may get his or her strokes from all the fan letters they get on a weekly basis.  A good pupil may get his or her strokes from getting good grades in an exam.  A particularly brilliant football player may get his/her strokes from the amount of points scored during the game etc.  A teacher or lecturer may get his/her strokes from the success of their students or from the acknowledgement of fellow teachers or academics.  It is easy to add your own list of strokes to this short list.  I will return here to the base text and let Berne speak for himself:

'Stroking' may be used as a general term for intimate physical contact; in practice it may take various forms.  Some people literally stroke an infant; others hug or pat it, while some people pinch it playfully or flip it with a fingertip.  These all have their analogues in conversation, so that it seems one might predict how an individual would handle a baby by listening to him talk.  By an extension of meaning, 'stroking' may be employed colloquially to denote any act implying the recognition of another's presence.  Hence a stroke may be used as the fundamental unit of social action.  An exchange of strokes constitutes a transaction, which is the unit of social intercourse. (Berne's italicisation) (Berne, op.cit., 14-15)

Definition Summary

1. A Stroke = the fundamental unit of social interaction - any act by one person that recognises the presence of another.

2. A Transaction = an exchange of strokes, and therefore this interchange constitutes the unit of social intercourse.

3. A Game = "an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome."

To be continued.



Above some past pupils playing the game of JUDO. Picture taken November 2004

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