Understanding Relationships:The Games People Play

The Game of Kick Me
Imagine this. Jack and Jane meet and end up dating. They go together for several months and all is well. They decide that they will move in together. They do, and for some time things are going fine. As time progresses Jack becomes less attentive to Jane and stops doing a lot of the considerate things he used to do for her that she enjoyed. Slowly, he starts engaging in behavior that Jane does not approve of, such as staying out in the evenings with his friends instead of coming home after work. His behavior toward her changes at home, and he begins yelling at her and being rude. She is at a loss as to what is going on.

As his behavior changes, Jane tries to justify it and continues on with the relationship. She may even believe that his behavior has something to do with her and so it is "her fault." She may try to fix herself somehow to solve the problem. Soon, she will probably find out that this does not work and Jack's behavior continues to get worse.

After putting up with him and trying all sorts of things to "fix" it, she gives up. One day Jack comes home and finds that she has left him. He is devastated. He hunts Jane down and pleads with her to come back to him. She refuses.

Jack has had a series of relationships that follow this same pattern. They start out fine and "the next thing he knows" the woman is leaving him. He always vows "never again," but finds another woman and ends up with the relationship ending the same way. What Jack is doing in Transactional Analysis terms is playing a game called Kick Me.
The Game of Now I Got You...
Jane is also playing a game. If you look at her track record with men you would see that she continually picks men who treat her just like Jack. Things start out fine and then slowly go down the toilet with the man treating her worse and worse, and her putting up with it for a while. She tries to fix it to no avail, and finally gets disgusted and leaves. She too vows never again. When she finally stands up to the guy and leaves, she knows he will more than likely come begging and pleading to her to take him back. When he does, she will gladly say no and break it off. She will enjoy this victory to equal up the playing field she has endured with him for so long. Her game is known as Now I Got You .... Jean has picked men throughout her life who have treated her like Jack, and in the end, she has taken the exact same position with each one and "got them" in the end.
The Game of Ain't It Awful
Another game that you hear many people play is called Ain't it Awful. The title pretty much sums it up. In playing this game you find two or more people who interact by complaining. Everything is bad. Nothing is good. The world is coming to an end and the sky is falling. Their conversation is simply talking about how bad it is. That is their goal and objective. If you would bring someone else in to the conversation and they pointed out something positive, or you decided to say something positive, the game would be derailed and the person who wanted to add a positive point would be excluded. This game is popular among those who love to complain.
The Game of Hear My Problem

There are also people who may come to you and ask for your help in a situation. They appear to truly want your input on a problem. When you start giving them suggestions they dismiss your ideas as not a working possibility. For example, let's say your friend wants to figure out how to balance work, school, her family, and a new relationship. You suggest that she take one night just for herself to do what she really wants to do. Her answer would be something like, "Well, that would be nice BUT I can't," for whatever reason she gives. You will find that each suggestion you give will be met with a "yes, but" answer as to why it won't work. This game continues until you run out of ideas and give up. The conversation ends and the person goes on with her problem still unresolved. Her point in engaging you was not to solve the problem in the first place, but to engage in a game -- perhaps not consciously realized -- and walk off. There was an energetic exchange with you, and she still has "the problem." She enjoys talking about it.

It has been said that some people who play this game just enjoy "having the problem" and engaging others to talk about it. They have no intention of solving it. Some people who play it do so because they don't like to be told what to do, and enjoy turning down your suggestions.
The Sweatshirt Game

There are many different types of games that are played by people on a regular basis and in many different social settings. Some people engage in what is called a Sweatshirt game. This is where if each person to the transaction were wearing a sweatshirt there would be a message. The players don't actually wear sweatshirts but the message is given psychologically. On the front of our "sweatshirt" we display the message we want others to see. For example, in the situation with Jack and Jane the front of her sweatshirt would probably say " I am patient and long-suffering", while the secret message on the back of it would be "Just wait until I get you." The message on the back is the psychological secret message and is the one that really helps us determine who we choose to play our games with. Jane will search out men who will treat her poorly so she can be the victim and then switch and "get them."

There are different degrees of games. They range from the moderate level of social situation games, to the same game upped until the stakes are so high that someone ends up in a hospital or jail. Folks play games and may decide that the level at which they are playing them is no longer satisfying; so they up the ante, so to speak, and play the game more dangerously. The highest and most dangerous level of game playing is called Third Degree games. Prisons and cemeteries are filled with many Third Degree game players.


Games can be said to be interactions between people that end up with both parties ending the exchange feeling unhappy and unsuccessful. Many times people will leave an exchange and ask themselves:

"How does this keep happening to me?"

"How on earth did that happen AGAIN?"

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Healthy Relationships course?
"I thought he/she was different, but I guess not."

Features Common in Games

1) Games are repetitive. People play whatever game they are drawn to over and over again, with the same results. The only difference may be that the people and circumstances may be different, but the outcome is the same.

2) Games are played without Adult awareness. This means that when people are playing a game, their Adult Ego state is not involved. They play the game and don't realize they are setting it up to happen again -- until it may be ending, and then they may say, "How did that happen again?"

3) Games end up with similar feelings. The players experience a feeling they have had before. Disappointment. Sadness. Victimization. Vindication. There are a wide variety of feelings.

4) Games are played out at two levels. The first level is the psychological level; the second is the social level.

In the example where a friend comes to ask you for advice: On the surface, or social, level, it appears she really wants assistance and your intention is to help her. On the psychological level, you realize from past history that you and your friend both know the problem won't be solved. Your friend is asking for your advice, when both you and she know at this level it won't be taken. The game is played, nevertheless.

5) Games include a moment of surprise or confusion. At some point it seems that the parties have changed roles, or something unexpected has happened.

The Drama Triangle

The Drama Triangle was developed by Stephen Karpman and it is used to analyze games. According to Karpman, when people play games they are stepping into one of three roles: The Victim, The Persecutor, or The Rescuer. In a game situation, these titles explain the role.

A person can be the victim of someone, the persecutor or the person who rescues. Many times the roles change in a transaction. In our example of Jack and Jane, Jack started out as the persecutor of Jane and Jane was the victim. As time went on the roles switched. Jane stood up for herself and got rid of Jack. Jack became the victim and Jane the persecutor.

There are other situations where you have more than just two people. Perhaps Jack and Jane have a mutual friend, Sally. Let's say the facts are the same, and Sally comes in and decides she needs to help Jane get out of this situation with Jack. Sally would be the rescuer and at the beginning, Jack is still the persecutor of Jane, and Jane is the victim.

Sally convinces Jane to leave Jack, and she does. After Sally rescues Jane, Jack pursues Jane and tells her all sorts of things about Sally and professes his undying love and devotion. Jane decides that Jack is her true love and goes back to him. They unite and Jane decides that Sally was wrong and just trying to hurt Jack. Sally is now the persecutor and Jane and Jack are the victims and are united together against Sally.

There are many people who love to rescue others, and you will see how they seek people out who will allow them to do just that.

Positive and Negative Interactions Through Strokes
A handshake, a wave, and a smile are a few examples of a unit of social exchange between people that is referred to as a "stroke." A stroke is some form of acknowledgment. Perhaps you compliment someone, or simply acknowledge their presence; that is a positive stroke.

Strokes can also be negative, though they may not appear that way. For example, someone compliments your hair and says. "Your hair looks nice today." The message, be it sincere or not, is that you look nice today, but implies you don't look nice on other days. This is what is termed a negative stroke. "You are very smart -- typically," could be another. There is something tagged on to the statement that first appears positive, but is not.

Conditional positive strokes mean, "I will say positive things about you until you do not conform to my beliefs. Then I will withdraw."

How many times have we met people who gush on and on and tell us how great we look, how thin, how young etc., but we know these comments are superficial. These people appear to be giving Positive Strokes, but we don't believe them. These kinds of phony strokes are called "marshmallows." When people give them to you, it is often said they are throwing marshmallows.

Human transactions can be defined and understood in terms of the tools and skills provided by Transactional Analysis. Using these tools can help us navigate our relationships and understand people better. They also can make our relationships flow.