The games we play
Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman
In this episode
- How to create alternative universes.
- How to identify game players and the games they play.
- How to identify what’s at stake in social transactions.
Unpacking the last of my boxes I came across a selection of wooden spinning tops, brightly painted, carefully bubble wrapped. I placed them in a ceramic bowl I’d bought in Istanbul and the move was over. I looked at them for a little while. These were not my daughter’s spinning tops, they were mine. I had collected them over many years, bringing the original few to Paris a decade previously, returning now with an expanded collection.
Paris is a carnival of problematic scents: base notes of overripe Charentais melon, left in a gutter to rot. Bitter mid-notes of diesel fumes, sweat and barely-restrained rage. Top notes of Guerlain, Issy Miyake. On special Summer days the local town hall would drive a van to the end of my road and open the back doors wide, whereupon operatives on minimum wage would release sweet-smelling oxygen into the atmosphere. I’d hang around there, drinking it in, hoping to somehow imbibe enough in the day to carry on breathing through the stifling nights, where the air hung heavy and only mosquitos moved.
I left France eventually and came home to the UK, leaving behind the claustrophobic City of Lights for a dose of fresh air under the giant skies of the Somerset coast. I traded the discordant siren of the metro doors for distant seagulls and the roll of waves. After we moved house, I showed my daughter the new sideboard where I had stored all her board games. She let out an elegiac sigh:
“Oh,” she said. “Operation. How many hours must I have spent playing that with Anaïs as a kid?”
It’s a curious thing to watch your own child experience nostalgia for a lost youth, but compelling all the same. There’s a quantum leap, you see, between the age of nine and age eleven. In parent-years it’s gone in the blink of an eye. By the time you’re finished sorting out your tax returns, your kids’ worlds have changed completely.
In the first universe, two friends are whispering in a room full of Mr Men books, with a cache of hidden sweets they think I don’t know about and a misspelled note on the door saying, “Keep out unless you have the secret code”. The buzzing of the Operation game punctuates the hushed silence and suppressed giggles.
That’s gone now.
In today’s universe, my daughter is about to start high school, her smartphone is in her back pocket and she keeps up with her buddies on Snapchat.
And I realised, as she knelt, sighing at the care-worn Operation game, that she had made the leap from one universe to the other and was looking back across the singularity. Staring down the tesseract at her former self.
It stayed with me all day and has been pulling at my trouser hem ever since.
When I was a kid, we had few board games in the house and those we had were held together with Sellotape and rubber bands. There was an ancient Compendium of Games, which included some generic classics such as Snakes and Ladders, Ludo and draughts. I only ever got that out if one of my mum’s friends came round with strange kids and I had to keep them amused. Then there was Monopoly. Family outings of this time-consuming, stressful game were quite rare. And then, there was Battling Tops. This was the best game and, crucially, it was the only one my elder brother would accept to play with me.
The game was composed of a plastic arena, a Flavian Amphitheatre in bright blue. Around the sides, plastic tops were wound tightly with fishing line and docked. At the call of one-two-three we pulled on the rip cords and unleashed the spinning gladiators into the ring, where they battled for dominance.
My brother had convinced himself that superior engineering would ensure continued victory for his preferred top, which was called Smarty Smitty. To this end he had filed down the foot to make the top travel more aggressively and re-engineered the rip cord assembly to deliver more revolutions per minute. My brother had made his own quantum leap years before. He already lived in another universe to me but Battling Tops was like a portal, an invisible bridge made of space-time. The tesseract opened up only on rare occasions, when the stars aligned in a certain way. But I treasured it all the same.
These were the games we had at home and that was all there was. The games described the limits of the known world. The games were there at the start of my timeline, had always been and would always be.
Visits to family friends, however, were like pressing the button for hyperspace. My godfather’s house had a game called Downfall and I would sit entranced for whole days playing with his kids, sending coloured counters down a system of wheels, like cracking a safe.
My parents had friends in Hampshire who we visited once a year. This house had the mother of all board games: a thing called Mousetrap. Over many moves, with mouse-shaped pawns, an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine would be built from tiny parts, such as legs and bathtubs. At a given moment, its action would be triggered and a ball bearing would be sent careening around the machine, a complex automaton whose function ended with a basket being brought down on whichever unfortunate mouse had fallen foul of the rules.
Many years later, as a callow eighteen year-old, I was working my first job — a precursor to the internet. People could ring me up and I would read out the Yellow Pages. I’d put in for Saturday morning on time-and-a-half and when we finished our shift a colleague from Anglesey called Mike suggested we repair to the Deep Pan Pizza Co. for lunch. As we rounded the corner of Silver Street, we passed a shop window and I came to a grinding halt.
There was Mousetrap. Not half-demolished and held together with rubber bands but all shiny in cellophane wrapping, in the display window of some toy emporium. I felt as though someone had burrowed a spark plug directly into my brain stem and pushed down on the kick start to some weird galactic motorbike. My body began to throb.
“Oy Lewis,” Mike and the others called.
“Coming,” I called back. But I walked the remaining distance slowly, deep in introspection.
When you’re a kid, things are just there. You come online into a world that seems pre-fabricated and static. Your dad just knows how to drive, food just appears in meal form and there are just games in the cupboard above the wardrobe in the back bedroom. And although in recent years my attention had been grabbed by exams and girls such that I hadn’t given things like this a moment’s thought, I suddenly came to the lancing realisation that the universe was not immovable and finite.
I have no idea how many years I had silently longed to be in a family that had Mousetrap so I could play the game all the time. Now the realisation that I could simply walk into this shop and acquire it — it blew my mind. All those years, we could have just gone out and bought the game?
I didn’t even know where games came from. I mean, as a kid, you only go to the shops your parents take you to. Or the shops up the road, to get an onion for your mum. How are you even going to know that others exist? You live in such a bubble.
And when you try to say it out loud you feel so ridiculous:
I thought that families just had the games they had and if you wanted a different game you had to go to the family that had that game.
Of course it’s crazy. It seems doubly crazy now that our kids have the internet, they can fact-check what they are told and zoom out from their existence on Google Earth. But this was the eighties and I had no idea. The irony, of course, was that, as I stood staring at the game of Mousetrap in the shop window, secure in the knowledge that I could just walk in and buy it and not even feel the price … the irony of course was that I no longer yearned to play it. My friends had grown up, my brother had moved away and the game was just a Proustian madeleine. Something in me wanted to buy that game, just to close a circle. Instead I caught up with my pals and went to eat pizza.
But what if I had known, way back then, the agency I had. The agency you always have. The agency to create and construct your own universe. To not simply accept a set of circumstances as the permanent status quo.
This moment from my past only really came back to me in memory the other day as I watched my daughter. I can’t say whether that epiphany on Silver Street actually was a genuine revelation that caused me to change my outlook on life. Or whether it just seems that way in retrospect.
But what I can say is that it happened just as I was taking my first steps out into the world and attempting to make a place for myself in it.
And what I can also say is that I have had a life in which a defining factor has been a refusal to accept the status quo, just because that’s the way it’s always been. And that’s an attitude that has allowed me to solve problems by finding creative solutions.
Now — I was just marking time in that Yellow Pages job. I’d already won a place to study Social Psychology at university but I had deferred the place so I could spend some time working. It was a necessary interlude between periods of study, in which I came to understand how I could exercise power over my own situation. I enjoyed earning money and using purchasing power to change parts of my life.
Not long after my Mousetrap epiphany I wandered into a bookshop and found a book by Dr Eric Berne. Already more than two decades old when I picked it up, the book was called Games People Play.
In it, Berne sets out his transactional analysis theory of human relationships — a theory that has been influential in modern psychology.
Berne believed that human relationships were essentially transactional and that when two people interact they are very often buying or selling something. His theory rests on his description of three ego roles: the balanced Adult, the Parent and the Child. Trouble in relationships, Berne argues, stems from switching between these roles, or confusion over roles.
For example, two adult colleagues of equal status work alongside each other. But one of the colleagues talks down to the other like a controlling, disapproving parent. “How many times have I told you to file the report this way and not that way!” The other colleague responds like a child, throwing tantrums at the unfairness. “Well I won’t file it at all, then, see how you like that.” Dysfunction ensues. Two adults in the same situation would have simply cooperated to get the filing done correctly.
Berne felt that people engaged in many different kinds of theatrical mind games — the games people play from the title — involving these ego roles. Games that enable the players to get what they want from the transaction.
The friend or romantic interest who shows up on your doorstep with suitcases crying: “I’ve been thrown out of my flat, can I stay with you?” This person is playing a game pitched from her child at your parent, a game that Berne called Threadbare. White’s made the opening move. Now what’s Black’s move?
Black decides to play the game as parent and takes the girlfriend in: oh poor you. But now Black has to “look after” this adult child, who ought to be sorting her own life out. In this transaction, White has “bought” the right to cry, “why does this always happen to me?” She doesn’t care about the cost to Black.
Black could refuse to play this game and the adult might say: I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that but you’re welcome to use my phone and book a hotel.
Here’s another one, this one plucked straight from Berne.
A man calls a plumber to fix his sink and the plumber quotes £300, promising no hidden extras. But when the plumber goes to buy the part he realises he underestimated the cost by £2 and so submits a finished bill of £302.
Furious at the transgression, the customer refuses to pay the bill at all. The plumber won’t back down, so the customer writes a furious letter attacking the plumber’s professional ethics until, finally, the latter gives in and lets the customer get his way.
Berne called this game “Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch.” In this game, the player is far more interested in the rage and power this tiny mistake allows him to rain down on the plumber than he is in rectifying his original problem. In fact, once this game has begun the player has little incentive to resolve, since this would end the game.
Meanwhile, the plumber is also playing a game, which Berne calls Kick Me. The bill with the added extra is a provocation, inviting his opponent to kick him. The pay-off to this game is that the plumber, like the girl in Threadbare, gets to throw up his hands and cry, “Why does this always happen to me?”
For the plumber, the adult ego role would have swallowed the extra cost and said nothing to the customer: a promise is a promise. For the customer, the adult would pay the £300 that was owed even if he disputed the extra £2, because the job was still done and he had agreed to pay that much for the job. But the game player is more interested in having the plumber at his mercy. Secretly, he is delighted at this tiny transgression as it gives him a chance to vent his pent-up fury.
I’ve had clients like this, in fact I’ve developed a special system for payments to avoid these players messing me about.
Here’s how it works: the client orders — let’s say — a logo in green for £300. I do the job as specified. The client says “That’s great. Only now that I see the finished work, I think I’d rather have it in blue.” I say, that’s no problem, just settle up your bill and I’ll quote you to change it to blue, it won’t be much more.
“No way,” they say, “We’ve told you we don’t want green. We’re not paying for something we don’t want.”
That’s the key phrase. Telling themselves they are being forced to pay for something they don’t want allows them, in their mind, to start playing Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch and unleash their rage. “You’re unprofessional, you’re dishonest, we’re not paying anything at all until you give us what we want.” And hop, we’re right into Berne’s game.
Should I acquiesce and make that change, the matter is not resolved. The client then continues to hold that payment over me indefinitely, demanding change upon change. But each attempt to satisfy them by doing what is asked makes them madder, because they don’t want resolution, they want to keep raging. The changes are not needed, they are simply ways to extend the game.
It falls to the adult ego persona here to devise a contract that includes system of milestone payments, triggered at specified points in the job, such that when the client tries to play this game, they realise they can only withhold the tiny amount of the fee that remains outstanding. If I can’t bring them back into the adult role, it gives me the option to cut my loss and run with minimal damage.
Because life is too short to feed the troll, right?
Berne writes that these mind games being played on us all the time exhausts and depletes us. It may be that we have many relationships that are predicated on such games and we may indeed be playing them without realising.
Let’s just take that one game, NIGYSOB. How many times have we found ourselves caught in the crosshairs of an NIGYSOB player?
I had a boss once. Let’s call him Bob. Bob owned his own company and should have delighted in the success of his employees because their success made him money while he slept. But he did not delight in their success, indeed he revelled in their failure and did everything he could to set them up to fail.
He developed an intricate, Kafkaesque system of grading and scoring in which it was nigh-on impossible to “pass”. Jobs that were close to perfect and could have been sold straight away would be rejected for spurious transgressions. Bob would then relish holding the employees hands to the fire over the one tiny thing that was not “perfect”, humiliating and demoralising them. Until they left.
It seems so counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Why on earth would someone smart sabotage their own business in this way?
Until you understand that for Bob, the real currency in this transaction was not saleable-quality work, but a constant source of captive players for his game.
And then you think to yourself, oh I get it. Bob probably spent his entire childhood trying and failing to win approval from a withholding parent and now he is trying to even up the score with every poor sucker who comes into his orbit.
But by understanding what’s happening in these games, Berne argued, you can exercise agency over the universe of relationships that you live in, and have a happier time.
Recognising the games does help. The player is trying to fashion a universe in which they get to play their game all the time. They don’t care about the cost to you of playing those games.
But if you really understand these games, then you can easily spot when one begins. You can then understand what the player’s motives are, what their endgame is and what moves they expect you to make. You can then choose to play their game with them or you can refuse.
If nothing else, being able to spot a player in the throes of one of these games helps you to understand that when people play these mind games on you, it’s actually all about them and not about you. And this … is precious intelligence that stops the game player from doing you damage.
That’s the idea. And I don’t want to say any more about Berne and his games today, because I don’t want to get into relationships until season two of Thirty Walks. The idea here is to give you some of this vocabulary and let it go to work. I think we’ll come back to it later, once you’ve had a chance to ruminate on it a little.
Anyway, Berne’s book fascinated me and it took my mind off where I was living.
I was unsatisfied with where I grew up. I never fit in with its pebbledash although I tried. But one year, when we were fifteen, our school took us away on a French exchange and I lived with a French family, deep in the countryside of the Charente. I liked it here and on one of the days we were taken in a bus for a road trip, where we stopped in a pine forest clearing to eat a picnic lunch.
It felt very far away indeed from our brutish suburb of cracked asphalt and I was fascinated by the soft substrate of fallen pine needles on sand, by the filtered sunlight dappling the ground, the call of the cicadas and … something else … something farther off in the distance. What was that?
As I walked towards it with my pals we came suddenly out of the forest and a vast, deserted sandy beach opened up as far as we could see from left to right. That sound was the hissing of the surf. Above the dunes, a lighthouse towered over us, red and white stripes.
I had no idea where I was, but I was transfixed. I pulled out my Kodak Instamatic camera and set the exposure to sun.
That picture of a random lighthouse, lost in a forest, somewhere in my childhood, became one of those treasures that you keep. Child years are so much longer than adult years and by the time I was 20 the yellowing photo was a peeling relic from a former life. And yet …
… When I looked around and asked myself where I would go and what I would do in life, the picture spoke.
That was the year I spent the spring and summer in a tent on the Atlantic coast of France, working on a campsite at the foot of that lighthouse. On sunny days off I would take my mobylette and buzz up and down the coast. On rainy days I would dig a trench around my tent, put the gas cooker on and draw.
It was my first ever experience of using my own personal sense of agency to create an alternative universe for myself. And I liked it. That summer in France sparked off a fascination with the country that persuaded me, finally, to live there for more than a decade and start my own family there.
I’m not sure where Battling Tops is now. I know I don’t have it. It’s possible my parents gave it away, or perhaps it ended up in some sidewalk sale. An awful lot of stuff from childhood disappears. So much jetsam, in fact, falls over the side that I do sometimes marvel at just how much we manage to drag with us into adulthood.
I watched my daughter looking over her small collection of board games.
“The funny thing is,” she said suddenly, “Operation isn’t even that good a game.”
She’s right of course. It’s rubbish. It’s the sort of thing you buy one year when your daughter is tiny, for a stocking present, without thinking about it, imagining that you’ll get more games. Somehow time passes, life intervenes, you forget to get more games, and over the years a view of the universe has developed in which Operation — this most random of acquisitions — is the immovable ancient column that always was and always will be.
I look at my daughter. I’m impressed at the speed with which, when faced with the opportunity to lament a lost past, she processes, relativises and concludes the present is a better space.
“Time for some new games?” I ask.
“You bet,” she says.
So I sit thinking about how, maybe the time has finally come to close that ancient childhood circle and buy Mousetrap. I’m thinking that I should check Amazon or, no wait, check eBay and get the original 1965 version. And while I’m at it, I should get Downfall, if I can find the original with all the pieces intact and, while I’m clicking away, suddenly my daughter says:
“Why do you have 12 spinning tops in a bowl?”
And I had never asked myself that question but the neural pathway is suddenly forged, my brain has access to new information and I’m instantly transported back to the dining room of my parents’ old house, the seventies curtains we kept all through the eighties, the wonderful oval beech dining table that my sister now has. And that bright blue colosseum of spinning gladiators.
“Ha!” I say. “You really don’t know why I have these?”
“Er, no, Papa. All I know is, for some reason, as long as I can remember, you have a bowl of spinning tops.”
“Go to your cupboard in the kitchen,” I say. “Fish out your 12-inch cake tin.”
Off she runs and brings it.
“Now select your spinning top,” I say. “The one you think is best.”
My daughter and my partner now both select a top. I pick mine.
“On your marks, get set ….” I launch my top spinning into the cake tin and the others follow suit. The tops dance around each other, like humming hornets, and then strike, throwing each other into the air.