When it comes to love relationships, most people play games. There have been a plethora of books and articles about such games. However, very few writings have been written about the structure and the structural components used to play such games. Here we examine the structural components and the manner in which they are used by players. This short article should provide the reader with a basic understanding of the games and how they are used.
Eric Berne wrote a 1964 best-selling book entitled Games People Play, a book whose title proclaimed exactly what the book described: the types of games people engaged in. These game types however, are not the kernel of our concern. What we are going to look at instead, is the manner in which such games are structured and played out; along with the labels of such structural components.
There are structured types of gaming components which fit under the rubric IMPRESSION MANAGEMENT. As humans social creatures, we tend to limit access to our “dirty laundry” and instead, we try to emphasize to others the positive aspects of our lives which hopefully props up the appearance of a polished game.
As humans, we all FRONT; that is we enact a contrived performance for others to view. If our games are polished, and others find our act believable, they will treat us according to the response we desired from them. If our act is not believable, then our whole presentation of self will be called into question. Once that happens, it’s difficult to recover. Just take for example the singing duo Millie Vanilli. Once it was discovered that they had earned a Grammy by lip-synching, their singing careers were virtually over.
People often take great pains to prepare their performance; their game. Such prep-work mostly occur BACK STAGE, a place where a person can both relax “out of character” and perhaps even plot strategy for the next staged activity. Most of the time it’s a good idea to restrict access to our back stage regions.
In order to enact a believable front, we need to know what a given role performance entails. We need to know how to go about planning our game strategy. To do this, we use SCRIPTS as our guides. We get ideas about scripted behavior from observing others. We observe them in the media; we observe them in our own daily lives; or we observe them vicariously through others’ lives. Once acquired, however, we put our own spin on these scripted roles so that they appear to be a natural part of our own performance.
As actors, we also utilize PROPS to enhance our performances. There are a plethora of available props for augmenting our staged performances. For example, we may try and appear wearing the right clothes; we may have surgery to enhance our looks; we may try and appear driving the right type of car. A recent ad for Mercedes read, “When wit and charm fail. The S-Class.” Other props allow us to hide our grey hair; or to even have hair!
Social performances often occur as TEAM-PLAY. It could be men versus women. Games may exist between management and labor; parents versus children. The examples are endless. A sense of morality and/ or loyalty to a particular team may script social behavior. For example, a man who spoils another man’s front in front of a pretty girl may be viewed as guilty of a “man camp violation” and may be expected to remedy any such behavior in future interactions.
In his masterpiece book STRATEGIC INTERACTION, Erving Goffman talks about the basic “moves” inherent with social interaction. Three of these basic moves have a direct bearing on our discussion. The first type of “move” that is basic to gaming is a COVERING MOVE. This type of strategic move is intended to hide or obscure negative information about us that would blemish our front. Men sometimes label their porn collection as “camping equipment” or some other tag that would seem somewhat uninteresting to a female companion; lessening the chance that she will have a desire to look inside any such container. Others may hide their Prozac container during the initial stages of dating (and perhaps even beyond).
The existence of a covering move makes possible the need for an UNCOVERING MOVE. Most of us realize that people front and aren’t always on the up-and-up. Therefore, people will use uncovering moves to get at the “truth” behind another person’s front(s). I hate to be the bearer of this news, but women tend to be better at uncovering than men.
There are a number of ways to discover or uncover the truth behind a front. The goal here is to unobtrusively glean clues as to another’s “true” motives for engaging in certain fronts. The masters of uncovering moves are the ones who not only understand the larger picture in which fronting occurs, but are also attuned to the nuances of how the drama unfolds in face-to-face interactions.
These masters are gifted at noticing the manner in which the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed. These gifted observers are the ones who realize that small clues reveal large motives. A former girlfriend of mine knew I wasn’t a morning person. On a number of occasions, she had asked me to accompany her to her parents’ house, to the mall, or to help her around the house at some early hour. Normally I found a way to get out of such requests. One day however, she noticed I was up very early. She asked me why I was up so early and I told her I was going hiking with some friends. She surmised from this incident that I enjoyed my friends more than I enjoyed her parents or helping her with the house chores. As a master of uncovering moves, my girlfriend had first asked me questions around the issue, rather than first assessing my motive and then accusing me directly. She had let me do the talking first, that way I had to stick to my story once I had realized she had “uncovered” me.
Once someone’s front is called into question because of an uncovering move, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the act is spoiled completely. Some actors don’t instinctively surrender their front or admit their uncovered motives for their actions. These types know how to talk their way out of a potentially blemished front. As soon as these guys realize they’ve been a victim of an uncovering move, they instinctively and smoothly attempt a COUNTER-UNCOVERING MOVE.
By now you’ve probably guessed that a counter-uncovering move is an attempt to “reset” a spoiled front. The recent series of TWIX television commercials are good examples of this type of move. In one spot, the man is attempting to quietly sneak in late without his wife knowing. She wakes up as he is next to the bed undressing. She asks him if he is just arriving home (uncovering move). He responds by telling her that he is actually motivated to go to work early (counter-uncovering move).
When matters of the heart are involved, partners are forced to communicate. And communicate they do! There are two main component types of communication. Goffman called the first type “giving.” “Giving” information means that the sender is aware of the type of communication they are transmitting. In short, this type of message is purposeful. This could be information as simple as matching your clothes; driving a stylish car; or any number of actions showing that the person is aware of what they are communicating.
The second type of communication Goffman called “giving off.” This form of communication is non-purposeful. That is, the person communicating such information doesn’t realize they are doing so.
One time when I was living at the college dorms, I had a friend whose girlfriend always seemed to know when he was “up to something.” Somehow she was able to read the cues he “gave off” that he wasn’t exactly as innocent as he tried to appear. One time he came back from some other girls’ dorm room. When his girlfriend greeted him, she smelled smoke on his clothes and immediately began to grill him as to his recent whereabouts. He fumbled through the interrogation, but afterward, he asked his girlfriend how come she had accused him of acting in a seemingly suspicious manner. With an air of smugness, she said, “You always click your teeth when you’re trying to hide something.” After that encounter, he worked on hiding that clicking noise.
In order to gauge someone’s social actions, Goffman described a natural benchmark he called an INVOLVEMENT CONTOUR. Goffman claimed that social life has a natural or normal social rhythm. A person, therefore, could be seen as violating such an expected tempo. Any such violation would “give off” a clue as to their true motive for engaging in such social activity. If a man is coming on too strong, he is violating the involvement contour and is thus “giving off” information about his motive for his actions. On the other hand, a lack of enthusiasm in a given activity may also “give off” one’s insincerity in an activity. For example, if a man seems distracted during foreplay while Sportscenter is on the television, his partner may glean his true motive as having a stronger desire to watch sports than to engage in sex.
The concepts illustrated in this article are not necessarily as cut-and-dry as they may seem from this short article. Because many of these concepts occur simultaneously, they are not necessarily obvious or always easily recognizable. For example, a person may enact a successful uncovering move based on information “given-off” of which violated the involvement contour. A person doesn’t necessarily need formal training in these matters to have an operational grasp of how they work. There are some who are “naturals.” But to learn about these concepts, and how they “work” within any relationship definitely gives the person with the knowledge a leg up.