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):
- A First-Degree Game is one which is socially acceptable in the agent’s circle.
- A Second-Degree Game is one from which no permanent irremediable damage arises, but which the players would rather conceal from the public.
- 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