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Games People Play

I was in Rogers Park for the usual dinner gathering of the Wednesday Night Crowd in a mediocre Korean restaurant the inner circle had glommed onto. There was a fairly large group that night - maybe eight in all. One of our number, a single female with a rather jaundiced view of men, started to complain about the hard time her boss had been giving her that day.

The details of the conversation escape me, but the content is irrelevant. What matters is how the discussion proceeded. Each of the men at the table would, in turn, offer a helpful suggestion to Ms. D. She would listen patiently and then reply, "Yes, but I tried that," or "But she'd never agree to that," or "But that's not how we work there" or some other rebuttal. All of the men at the table prided themselves on being exceedingly clever, boasting advanced degrees and advantageously chosen spouses. Nevertheless, after about 20 minutes of "problem-solving," the table fell silent, a cloud of defeat and gloom hanging over the vinyl tablecloth. Perhaps only I noticed the triumphant smirk upon Ms. D's lips. I felt exhilarated! I had just seen a classic game of "Why Don't You, Yes But (YDYB)" played before my very eyes!

This and numerous other games upon which some of the tenets of transactional analysis (TA) are hung are described in the ground-breaking Games People Play by the father of TA, Eric Berne. This book, published in 1964, was an instant sensation. Unlike other instant sensations, which I normally find eye-rolling experiences, Games People Play is a tool I turn to time and again for help negotiating my day-to-day life.

Berne postulated new, more relatable terms for Freud's Id, Ego, and Superego: Child, Adult, and Parent. He suggested that interactions can come from any of these ego states, and that games and their less-sophisticated relations--pastimes, operations, and procedures--help us structure time and satisfy existential needs. People size each other up for the potential to play certain games, which range from somewhat helpful to deadly.

The game Ms. D played - the first one Berne discovered - was designed not to get helpful suggestions, but rather to reject them to prove her Child's adequacy. According to Berne, "The motto of the game is, 'Don't get panicky, the Parent never succeeds.'" The game also is a great time structurer for people who are uncomfortable with awkward silences. The Wednesday Night Crowd, which at that point had been meeting every week for nigh on 20 years, was very prone to awkward silences by virtue of having nothing new to say. Every game can be broken up by forcing an Adult transaction to take place, but this group had no incentive to stop playing.

I thought it might be interesting to apply games to some well-known figures and institutions. We might uncover the reasons why change may not come without major intervention.

Mayor Richard M. Daley
By virtue of being born a winner in Chicago, Mayor Daley should be above games. Alas, he has an early track record as a loser standing in the shadow of his father that has continued to the present. A quote from American City and County sums up his existential dilemma:

"Although he received his law degree in 1968, he failed to pass the bar exam until his third try. In a February 1989 Wall Street Journal interview with Robert Johnson, Daley displayed his pique at a question about the situation. 'So I flunked the bar exam. So what? Maybe I should have committed suicide? If I had passed, they would have said my father fixed it.'"

If Richie hadn't been so connected, he might have attempted to overcome his depressive Child position of "I am no good" by playing "They'll Be Glad They Knew Me" and doing something constructive to feel good about himself. Instead, he is an almost tragic figure forced to play "Blemish" to quell his critics.

In "Blemish," the player turns his feelings of worthlessness against his detractors by assuming the Parental position "They are no good." Daley and a lot of yuppies just like him find the most laughable reasons to reject people. For yuppies moving to outlying subdivisions next to working farms, it is obviously the farmer's blemish that his tractor makes too much noise. In Daley's case, reporters going about the business of trying to get important information for their readers are deemed "silly" and, in one reporter's case, "baldheaded." This is classic "Blemish" language, which turns even normally sophisticated individuals into oddballs who can judge a nation's worth by the length of their jacket sleeves (example from Games People Play). Until Richie can succeed on his own, don't look for the game to end any time soon.

Ralph Nader
There are any number of ways to get attention for causes that need consideration by the platform committees of our major political parties. Ralph Nader chooses to do so by playing a hard game of "I'm Only Trying to Help You (ITHY)." It is a hard game because the stakes are very high - the presidency of the United States--and has two levels of payoff for Nader. He lives off his reputation as a certified do-gooder from his Unsafe at Any Speed days. Therefore, when he loses the presidential race, as he inevitably must, he can feel righteous about the ingratitude of the populace. When he is further castigated for being a spoiler in elections that have seen highly destructive politicians ascend to the Oval Office, as he must have known he would be, he gets to experience a megadose of ingratitude. This is his payoff. Having faded from relevance, Nader has slipped into the must-not-be-shaken belief that people are ungrateful and disappointing--indeed, this belief originally may have set him on the road to uncovering corporate malfeasance, but now it fuels the destruction he is doing to our body politic.

The Democratic Party
The Democratic Party would not be what it is today without Ralph Nader. He allows them to play a fairly hard game of "Look What You Made Me Do." The party and many Democrats can blame Nader for ruining their chances of saving the country without having to face their failures of vision and will, as well as their inability to offer real alternatives and effective campaign strategies to their increasingly disaffected supporters.

Mainstream Media
When Woodward and Bernstein brought down a U.S. president, thousands of young idealists were inspired to follow in their footsteps. A lot of good journalism was done, but a growing number of journalists were attracted to muckraking and became addicted to "Now I've Got You, You Son of a Bitch (NIGYSOB)." In this game, mainstream media take the role of Parent, warning "I've been watching you, hoping you'd make a slip." When public figures were more cowed by the power of the press, they were forced into the humble Child position, "You caught me." The NIGYSOB player then felt free to unleash his or her righteous fury, and maybe win an award or two. Former Chicago newspaper columnist Bob Greene, for example, was well known for his relentless battle to save a couple of child torture victims. It was an admirable cause, of course, though I wondered when reading the series whether every word could be verified. Nonetheless, like Nader, Greene had the official cred as a good guy until he got caught having sex with a teenager. Then he switched to playing "Kick Me."

Now it is the conservative cabal that is playing NIGYSOB. Unbelievably, all conservatives had to do was grab a few media outlets and start bandying about the word "liberal" as an accusation of wrongdoing in and of itself, and the mainstream media folded like a house of cards. Many journalists were unable and unwilling to sink to the level a few of their colleagues had and play a hard game of NIGYSOB, and thus were almost completely routed. Now they can only play "Wooden Leg" ("What can you expect of a man with a wooden leg?"), claiming their need for access to the powers that be has made it impossible for them to do any better. They reserve NIGYSOB for inconsequential celebrities like Tom Cruise and still bark that they are our public guardians. Yeah, right.

Ozzie Guillen and the Sports Media
As a man who makes a living off playing a game enjoyed by millions, Ozzie Guillen takes naturally to a wide assortment of TA games as well. As has been well documented by The Beachwood Reporter, Guillen has an almost compulsive need to say any little thing that comes into his head, which has resulted in a very entertaining, long-running version of the "Stocking Game" between Ozzie, the sports media, and sports news consumers.

Berne describes the "Stocking Game" as a typically female game in which a woman provocatively displays a long and lovely leg and declares to no one in particular, "Oh my, I have a run in my stocking." This provocation is designed to arouse men sexually and make other women angry. What is significant is that the player rarely waits to find out what kind of people she is dealing with and therefore fails to understand what happens to her in life. The game is cynical regarding human nature ("others have dirty minds") but is self-destructive.

It's pretty easy to see beyond the female example to Ozzie's provocative, impulsive statements and behaviors. We also can readily see his sexually based approach to communications in his frequent use of the term "fag" for friends and foes alike. The sports media and consumers, like the men who enjoy the leg shot by the female player of the "Stocking Game," love the sensational revelations and have no incentive to end them. Those who object to Guillen's apparent homophobic language might step in, but that would be a mistake. As the wise Jay Mariotti knows from personal experience as Guillen and the press corps called him out for never coming down to the locker room for a bit of the "Stocking Game" and "Man Talk," Guillen and his peanut gallery are always ready for a hard game of "Let's You and Him Fight."

Beyond Games?
I'd like to say that we can get beyond games, but the level of adult behavior we would need to counter them may be beyond us. As long as there is a Baby Boomer alive, the Age of Aquarius will continue to gasp away, infecting our transactions with Child demands and Parental reprisals. Here's hoping the next generation has had enough of this nonsense and decides that growing up is just what we all need to do.



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Posted on August 2, 2006


MUSIC - The Weekend In Chicago Rock.
TV - FCC [Hearts] Sinclair.
POLITICS - Police Stood By In Charlottesville.
SPORTS - Why Colin Kaepernick Matters.

BOOKS - Windy City Blues.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Fish Unboxing.


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