Games where all players lose.

February 22, 2021


Do you like the sound of games in which all players lose? Would you believe that most people, including you and me, are involved in such games? This phenomenon was made extremely simple to understand by Eric Berne in his game-changing book, “Games People Play”

Here is an example of a game very commonly played. Once you recognise the moves, you may see it being played almost every day in organisations, in families, in social get-togethers and certainly in coaching / psychotherapeutic settings.

This is called Why don’t you, yes but. Berne’s genius is evident as the moves of the game become immediately clear in the title of the game itself

Here is an example of the game being played out between a father and son.
– I’m bored.
– Why don’t you go play football?
– Yes, but the field is too wet.
– Why don’t you watch a movie then?
– Yes, but there are no good movies running.
– Why don’t we play cards?
– Yes, but we never play the game I like.
– Why don’t you choose the game?
– Yes, but then you’ll just complain.

Then the father gives up with a “Oh then you deserve to be bored”. Son storms off.

If this is a game, who has won?

Did you say the son ? Yes, he did. Father couldn’t make him change his mind and had to give up. He proved that he was right and father was wrong. But wait, that was not all. By responding in this manner, he avoided having to actually solve his problem – since he just proved that there was no solution.

Did you say the father? Yes, that is right, the father won, Because now he is convinced that he is “good one”, the caring parent who gave the son plenty of options, and it is the son who is the “difficult one” for not having considered the options. He goes about feeling superior
Berne’s calls these prizes, “payoffs”.

But actually both lost. Because these “payoffs” come packaged with painful feelings – feeling hurt or misunderstood or angry.

No good outcome came out of the conversation. Both blamed the other and felt the distance growing between them. Both felt stuck and helpless and believed that there was nothing further that they could do. Thus both avoided responsibility for making the actual change. This is what makes this a “psychological game”. There is no way to win at these games.

Why does Berne call this a ‘game’?

Because it’s not just a series of innocent remarks, questions and answers. It’s a very well defined pattern where each party plays a specific role. In this game we have 2 players: one who plays the victim with the insurmountable problem while the other plays the rescuer.

It is quite likely that having played this game with the son, the dad will “find” another person “in need of advice” and give plenty of it without being asked and walk away blaming them for not “being open.” The son is likely to make statements that are ambivalent about his needs for help and attract people who jump in to give him advice, who he can then prove are useless. We recognise games because they seem to happen over and over again to us.

The important question is: Why do we play games? Both father and son in the above example want to engage with each other. When the son says I am bored, he knows it will get his father’s attention. What he wants is loving attention, but he doesn’t know how to ask for it. Negative attention is also attention. It is predictable and more easily attainable than positive attention. The father also wants the son to value his advice, and in that manner value him. He needs to be needed to feel good about himself. So at the heart of games are people needs for loving attention – what in transactional analysis we call strokes.

The game needs two players. Both have co-created this. And therefore either party could stop it.

Here is a way the son could stop the game
– I’m bored.
– Why don’t you go play football?
– I will think of something, Dad. Don’t worry. ( And maybe even add, I wanted to generally talk to you or I want you to sit with me and just listen )

Here is how the father could stop the game

– I’m bored.
– What’s going on for you? (And understand that the son wants to talk)

Or

– I’m bored.
– Can I help in some way?

Or
• I am bored
• (Father just smiles).

The possibilities are many. However, stopping games is not easy because it involves taking responsibility for self. It may involve facing and dealing with painful feelings. It is easier to blame others than taking responsibility for self.

All of us play games. Playing games isn’t necessarily bad or negative. It is indicative of a deeper need to engage with people. We need to learn healthy ways to do the same without getting into the drama triangle roles of persecuting, rescuing and being victim.


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