Games People Play: Alcoholic/Addict [en]

Alcoholism can be analyzed through social games theory, which leads to the interesting realization that most support groups (like AA) encourage alcoholics to play another role in the game (Rescuer instead of Victim), and don’t actually help the alcoholic to pull out of the game and learn to relate to people differently.

If you have never heard of Eric Berne or his best-selling Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships I strongly encourage you to lay your hands on this book, or at least scoot off to this site, which briefly presents some important social games.

Games are played to varying degrees, and with consequences of varying severity (from benign to lethal):

  1. A First-Degree Game is one which is socially acceptable in the agent’s circle.
  2. A Second-Degree Game is one from which no permanent irremediable damage arises, but which the players would rather conceal from the public.
  3. A Third-Degree Game is one which is played for keeps, and which ends in the surgery, the courtroom or the morgue.

Coming back to the game of ‘Alcoholic’, here is the complete quote concerning the role of support groups in continuing to play the game:

There are a variety of organizations involved in ‘Alcoholic’, some of them national or even international in scope, others local. Many of them publish rules for the game. Nearly all of them explain how to play the role of Alcoholic: take a drink before breakfast, spend money allotted for other purposes, etc. They also explain the function of the Rescuer. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, continues playing the actual game but concentrates on inducing the Alcoholic to take the role of Rescuer. Former Alcoholics are preferred because they know how the game goes, and hence are better qualified to play the supporting role than people who have never played before. Cases have been reported of a chapter of A.A. running out of Alcoholics to work on; whereupon the members resumed drinking, since there was no other way to continue the game in the absence of people to rescue.

There are also organizations devoted to improving the lot of the other players. Some put pressure on the spouses to shift their roles from Persecutor to Rescuer. The one which seems the closest to the theoretical ideal of treatment deals with teen-age offspring of alcoholics; these young people are encouraged to break away from the game itself, rather than merely shift roles.

The psychological cure of an alcoholic also lies in getting him to stop playing the game altogether, rather than simply change from one role to another. In some cases this is feasible, although it is a difficult task to find something else as interesting to the Alcoholic as continuing his game. Since he is classicly afraid of intimacy, the substitute may have to be another game rather than a game-free relationship. Often so-called cured alcoholics are not very stimulating company socially, and possibly they feel a lack of excitement in their lives and are continually tempted to get back to their old ways. The criterion of ‘game cure’ is that the former Alcoholic should be able to drink socially without putting himself in jeopardy. The usual ‘total abstinence’ cure will not satisfy the game analyst.

Both quotes: Eric Berne, Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships

9 thoughts on “Games People Play: Alcoholic/Addict [en]

  1. I don’t think this guy has ever been to an A.A. meeting. A.A. is not some rehab center that
    can “run out of alcoholics to work on”. There are no “doctors” and “counselors” waiting for
    someone to walk through the door.
    His thing about the Rescuer role is confusing. Is he referring to the fact that A.A. has
    basic foundation that the sheer act of helping another alcoholic stay sober will help the
    alcoholic his/her-self?
    Is he suggesting that alcoholics should shell out ridiculous amounts of money for some
    psychologist to put them on Zoloft?

  2. There was a footnote to that statement which I didn’t include, you might want to check it out
    for more details on his research: Berne, Eric MD, Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and
    Psychoanalysis, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957, P.191)

    To my knowledge, Transactional Analysis does not encourage the use of drugs (legal or not) to
    come out of destructive games.

    The “Rescuer” is a necessary component of the game ‘Alcoholic’. You might have heard of the
    general triangle “victim-persecutor-savior”, which applies to this situation. The role of the
    “savior” is not more “healthy/mature” than that of “victim” or “persecutor”. It is a dynamic
    in which each role plays a part and is necessary.

    Here are more details from the chapter on this game in the book:

    “In game analysis there is no such thing as alcoholism or ‘an alcoholic’, but there is a role
    called the Alcoholic in a certain type of game. If a biochemical or physiological abnormality
    is the prime mover in excessive drinking – and that is still open to some question – then its
    study belongs in the field of internal medicine. Game analysis is interested in something
    quite different – the kinds of social transactions that are related to such excesses. Hence
    the game ‘Alcoholic’.

    In its full flower this is a five-handed game, although the roles may be condensed so that it
    starts off and terminates as a two-handed one. The central role is that of the Alcoholic – the
    one who is ‘it’ – played by White. The chief supporting role is that of Persecutor, typically
    played by a member of the opposite sex, usually the spouse. The third role is that of Rescuer,
    usually played by someone of the same sex, often the good family doctor who is interested in
    the patient and also in drinking problems. In the classical situation the doctor successfully
    rescues the alcoholic from his habit. After White has not taken a drink for six months they
    congratulate each other. The following day White is found in the gutter.”

    I’ve skipped Patsy and Connexion, the two remaining roles.

    Doctors, support groups, and even therapists are not immune to games. ‘Games People Play’
    contains a whole chapter on “consulting room games” – see the document I linked for some

  3. I don't think this guy has ever been to an A.A. meeting. A.A. is not some rehab center that
    can “run out of alcoholics to work on”. There are no “doctors” and “counselors” waiting for
    someone to walk through the door.
    His thing about the Rescuer role is confusing. Is he referring to the fact that A.A. has
    basic foundation that the sheer act of helping another alcoholic stay sober will help the
    alcoholic his/her-self?
    Is he suggesting that alcoholics should shell out ridiculous amounts of money for some
    psychologist to put them on Zoloft?

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  5. Thanks for recommending that, this book is definitely a real help but that’s just for some of the alcoholic people, not all of them want to "play the game". My mother is an alcoholic, knowing her I know for a fact that she wouldn’t interested in this book because she doesn’t even admits to herself that she is an alcoholic…

  6. Actually, within the T.A. model there is a better book on this topic. I recommend Claude Steiner’s “Games Alcoholic’s Play.” For one thing, Steiner does not make the same mistake about Al Anon that Berne makes. Steiner applauds Al Anon for teaching spouses & other family members & friends, how to pull out of the game, to stop being Enablers or Rescuers or Persecutors. This is not a book to be given to alcoholics (see remark above that it would not help the writer’s alcoholic mother). Of COURSE alcoholics deny that they are alcoholic! That is part of their game! Giving your alcoholic this book just gets factored into the game. GET OUT OF THE GAME. Don’t pick up after her. Don’t clean up after her. Don’t buy her booze, for sure (or cigarettes). Don’t scold her — absent yoursel from her company when she is drunk or drinking. If you live with her, put a lock on your door. Definitely don’t ride in any vehicle she is driving! (You might choose to lose the keys, but don’t discuss it with her, just lose them so she can’t kill others in an MVA. And don’t drive her to a bar or liquor store or grocery store or pharmacy so she can buy booze.) Don’t lie for her — for example, don’t call her work place and tell them she is “sick” — she has to do that herself. Don’t take responsibility for her behavior in any way, and don’t argue about it with her. The only person for whom you have to take responsibility is yourself (or any young children she might affect – get them out of the way.) The book was intended for therapists — and for those who are caught in the cycles of living in the orbit of an alcoholic. One of the surest ways to identify an unacknowledged alcoholic at a party is by his or her behavior toward someone who chooses to drink something nonalcoholic. The alcoholic will make fun of that person and insist he or she have “a real drink.”

  7. Wow, so excited to read such a simple and clear explanation and have just ordered Claude Steiner’s book, which I did not know about. Although I see this post is ten years old, I am very happy to find it this morning. I played the game Alcoholic, principally as the White player, for many years. I initially got sober through abstaining by joining and following AA principals. Then I moved into meditation and transformative buddhist practices (which were not necessarily game free — in the Mahayana tradition as a bodhisattva or aspiring buddha, one can really get into playing an Exalted Rescuer). And more recently still, about 4 years ago, I came across a Transactional Analysis teacher/group. It seems a rare and precious gift in this day an age to find the continuation of the TA movement from the 70s. Understanding and practicing based on the theory of TA is the first time I have been able to make what I consider real progress in finding freedom from habitually painful states of mind.
    Thanks Stephanie!

  8. I like this explanation of behaviour but when he refers to games, aren’t these just the mechanisms alcoholics and addicts inject into their behaviour, to continue getting the side benefit, of whatever their addiction brought them? e.g. a dry drunk will always find a way to bring back into his/her life, what the alcohol was providing for them, unless they resolve the underlying issues that caused them to want the side benefit in the first place.

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