- October
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Games People Play, and Social Games Online

I dipped back into Eric Berne yesterday for a while. Berne was a Transactional Analyst, and has insights into the structure of human interaction that would seem obvious to us now. That, for example, interactions provide us with “strokes” of recognition; that we hunger for social contact and stimulus; that our interactions are often wonderfully organized little games whose rules we know without ever having seen them.

I was looking for material on social games, which I am sure involve more than the “gamification” techniques responsible for badges, points, leaderboards, and suchlike. Those are elements but at best substitutes for the kinds of “rewards” we truly seek. And so, as substitutes, may be limited in their appeal. What makes them curious and interesting at first, becomes habit as novelty wears off, and is ultimately an unsustainable “mechanism” of incentivizing participation.

The use of thin incentives and superficially applied game mechanics may capture small numbers of the population, but only that. And I think social products that use game mechanics recognize this. The social they facilitate and build around “gamified” interactions are both artificial and fictional. They provide a tiny amount of entertainment. For they don’t hook into narratives, real games, real outcomes, or real social relationships. We will look back on them and laugh at ourselves for having designed experiences around actions so materially and psychically pointless.

Berne was onto games people play for life. Psychological games, having real psychological costs and benefits, structured into recognizable social pastimes. Games by the name of “woe is me” and “if it weren’t for you” and “look ma, no hands.” I don’t see these as games on which to model social interactions. But I’m interested in the maneuvers that comprise these games, the narratives that identify them, and the outcomes they make probable. For those are aspects (if not the games themselves) of social interaction that do indeed come into play online.

Games are an explanation of what’s going on, of what’s happening and how to do it, that have bearing on mediated interactions. For when we don’t know what’s going on, or how to use a social tool, real life games provide a reference. A reference, mind you, that helps us understand what people are doing — not what the application is.

This gets interesting because clearly we have only scratched the surface when it comes to the social games our social tools might engage. Most of the games Berne canvasses are played across many different types of situations and using many transactional “subroutines.” A foursquare, by contrast, simply takes the cultural tokens and representations of structured games as a means of architecting interactions. There is far more power and stickiness in real life social games than there is in the minimal application of “game mechanics.”

But there are, of course, profound challenges to weaving these larger narratives into social interaction online. The fragmentation and disembedding of interaction from actual situations, for one, brackets out many of the nuances and cues used in games played in real life. Presence is thin, and social feedback is extremely slow, in most mediated environments. (Ironically, enterprise social may thicken relations and task-oriented activities to a degree that some workplace games may be more tangible to employees on social tools.)

The opportunity is there, however, for us to make use of a richer palette of interactions — one that involves deeper and more meaningful strategies and tactics, and more “valuable” outcomes. I’m working on this, but it means identifying ways in which to express real world pastimes in uses of social tools that are not readily visible on the screen or in features and functions. It’s challenging, but fascinating.

“A game is an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively it is a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or “gimmick.” Games are clearly differentiated from procedures, rituals, and pastimes by two chief characteristics: (1) their ulterior quality and (2) the payoff. Procedures may be successful, rituals effective, and pastimes profitable, but all of them are by definition candid; they may involve contest, but not conflict, and the ending may be sensational, but it is not dramatic. Every game, on the other hand, is basically dishonest, and the outcome has a dramatic, as distance from merely exciting, quality.” Eric Berne, Games People Play

“To say that the bulk of social activity consists of playing games does not necessarily mean that it is mostly ‘fun’ or that the parties are not seriously engaged in the relationship…. The essential characteristic of human play is not that the emotions are spurious, but that they are regulated.” Eric Berne, Games People Play


  • This is a great  post, Adrian. 

    I hope that people reading this take the time to read and think deeply about Berne’s incredibly groundbreaking work in order to clearly distinguish, as you do, the different use cases of the word ‘game’. It is a key to understanding how we relate to world by creating situations, sniffing out clues, playing our part and achieving ulterior ends — all without being consciously aware of carefully we orchestrated the outcome.

    It is interesting to note that Berne’s use of the term games connotes a lack of transparency, a fundamentally hidden route to achieve a result that you don’t have the awareness to achieve openly and, that if you did, you would probably choose not to go for it, coming away with a more profound understanding of yourself as a bonus. 

    I guess you would earn a self-awareness badge 😉

  • I like reading Berne through Goffman — where Berne’s focus on the organization of emotional transactions is deep, I’m not on board with the Parent-Adult-Chilld model of ego states. Goffman shows, I think, that the embeddeding of frames within frames is practically limitless — and one might only rely on a loose notion of “sense” to account for game playing competencies. To wit, ulterior motives need not always be in play — and in fact may come up as options only part way into the game. I think Goffman shows, better than Berne, that interaction is engaging simply for its own sake. Berne’s organization of games, however, is nice and simple. 

  • What I really liked about your bringing Berne’s work into a discussion of social games was the way that it challenges your readers to look at the word ‘game’ in a much deeper way. But I think it’s a mistake taking that too far.

    The danger here is confusing the settings by taking Berne’s games from psychology into sociology. His work is about psychoanalysis, of an individual, a couple or even groups. In this context his ego states model is a proven and productive tool, in the right hands, of course. The games he describes are meant to be analyzed in conjunction with a full understanding the individual and unique history of the each person involved in the transaction. In some cases the players can change roles within the same game, change games or invent new flavors of games of their own. The deeper you dig, you find that the games are neither nice nor simple. :-)And that is why I take your point that his model of the ego states doesn’t belong in a discussion of sociology, games and interaction design. And from the very little I know of Goffman, and your comments, his work seems more directly relevant to social game design. 

  • Good points — by no means do I suggest generalizing interaction models from interaction situations that are unique to a particular set of individuals. However, Berne’s TA (and this is extended in Scripts People Live) is both linguistic and structural. There is a linguistic aspect critical to the execution of a transaction in which two levels of meaning are possible — the “conventional” and the ulterior. Berne’s games, structurally, resemble in some cases game theoretical situations. Which is why I do like to move into sociology — I think “frames” are better than “games” as a generalizable model of action, and less hierarchically organized than Berne’s games/pastimes/rituals etc. 

    I think Berne would argue that a person given to a particular game, say “woe is me,” can recognize that game regardless of who plays it. In fact his examples include the hostess who matches up her guests according to the games they play. Which is then illustration that he views games as both general and specific: general in their organization of activity but specific in the player’s preferences and reasons for playing. 

    I can never get to the level of the individual. But in order to preserve user-centricity, I have to generalize somewhat about user motives and interests. Berne provides good heuristic descriptions. If those open up the views and approaches designers take towards designing social, then good enough I think. 

  • I completely agree. Thanks for the stimulation.

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