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What is a Game?

 

Explanations > Behaviors > Games > What is a Game?

Rules | Scripts and Rituals | Players | Repetition | Finite | Positive and Negative | So what?

  

The word 'game' sounds like play, which has recreational and non-serious connotations. Yet there are attributes of games that appear in serious and everyday behaviors of most people.

Berne's (1964) defined a game as:

An ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome.

More specific and general aspects of games are described below.

Rules

They may not be written down, but all games have rules. Rules shape the play of the game, telling you who can or must do what at any one time.
There may be strict sequences and protocols, such as in the games of greeting other people. There may be multiple options, such as in buying and selling games.

If both parties know the rules, then everything will progress to plan. If, however, one person strays off the prescribed path, then there may be some confusion whilst they are guided back on track. If they still refuse, then the game ends and other games start, such as of recrimination or victimhood.

Scripts and rituals

Many games have closely defined scripts, where words and actions are pre-written. These can appear as lightly useful, such as comments about the weather, or meaningless rituals, such as in various greeting games (just watch some street kids shaking hands -- secret handshakes are just not in it!).

Games can also have a range of options from which a suitable choice may be selected in order to meet a known objective, such as in the teenage game of 'rebel'.

Players

The players in a game may all have equal positions, but more often have tightly-defined roles, such as persecutor or victim. Games are frequently two-player, with other actors being brought in for cameos or other special roles. Players can also band together in teams (e.g. us vs. them) and large-scale games can be played with multiple players, all with different agendas and scripts.

Repetition

Games often play out repeatedly, which is a key source of learning the rules for new players, who may start as observers or bit-part players. Thus, for example, children learn family games from their parents and then replay them out in their own adulthood. In this way games propagate themselves down through generations.

The necessary learnability and repeatability of games ensures that many are, at least in their early forms, simple and short. Complexity may be added later in the guise of sub-games and extensions

Finite

Games are usually finite, in that they have a beginning, a middle and an end.
They are started in various ways, from a single word to an accumulation of events, although the final trigger is almost always small - the 'last straw' that sets the game going.
They end when certain conditions are met, such as the script running out or one person capitulating.

And in between, the game runs its predictable and finite course, which can last from seconds to days to sometimes even years, although long games usually contain repeating sub-games, held together by a higher-level storyline.

Positive and negative

Games are often framed in negative light, but may be positive or negative for either or both parties, and can have both positives and negatives for either person at the same time.
In fact all games arguably have positive benefits for both players - after all, why else play? Even in destructive games, such as the Drama Triangle, the 'victim' gets feelings of hope and then relief as they are rescued. At the very least, all parties get comfortable feelings of familiarity as the pattern predictably repeats itself.

So what?

When you see patterns of behavior that repeat themselves or seem meaningless and destructive, then you may well be witnessing a game in play. You may even be playing a part yourself. Learn the rules, consciously and then decide how you want to continue the game.

You can also watch other people and see the games they play, and then either join the game or trigger them as appropriate. You can also help break destructive games by constantly interrupting them. If a person cannot play the game, they will get frustrated at first, but my in the end give up the habit.

See also

Status Game

 

Eric Berne, (1964), Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, Balantine Books

Paul Watzlawick (1983), The Situation Is Hopeless, But Not Serious, NY: Norton

 

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