Playing mind games (also power games or head games) is the largely conscious struggle for psychological one-upmanship, often employing passive–aggressive behavior to specifically demoralize or dis-empower the thinking subject, making the aggressor look superior. It also describes the unconscious games played by people engaged in ulterior transactions of which they are not fully aware, and which transactional analysis considers to form a central element of social life all over the world.
The first known use of the term "mind game" dates from 1963, and "head game" from 1977.
In intimate relationships, mind games can be used to undermine one partner's belief in the validity of their own perceptions. Personal experience may be denied and driven from memory, and such abusive mind games may extend to the denial of the victim's reality, social undermining, and downplaying the importance of the other partner's concerns or perceptions. Both sexes have equal opportunities for such verbal coercion which may be carried out unconsciously as a result of the need to maintain one's own self-deception.
Mind games in the sense of the struggle for prestige, appear in everyday life in the fields of office politics, sport, and relationships. Played most intensely perhaps by Type A personalities, office mind games are often hard to identify clearly, as strong management blurs with over-direction, and healthy rivalry with manipulative head-games and sabotage. The wary salesman will be consciously and unconsciously prepared to meet a variety of challenging mind games and put-downs in the course of their work. The serious sportsman will also be prepared to meet a variety of gambits and head-games from their rivals, attempting to tread the fine line between competitive psychology and paranoia.
Eric Berne described a psychological game as an organized series of ulterior transactions taking place on twin levels: social and psychological, and resulting in a dramatic outcome when the two levels finally came to coincide. He described the opening of a typical game like flirtation as follows: "Cowboy: 'Come and see the barn'. Visitor: 'I've loved barns ever since I was a little girl'". At the social level a conversation about barns, at the psychological level one about sex play, the outcome of the game – which may be comic or tragic, heavy or light – will become apparent when a switch takes place and the ulterior motives of each become clear.
Between thirty and forty such games (as well as variations of each) were described and tabulated in Berne's best seller on the subject. According to one transactional analyst, "Games are so predominant and deep-rooted in society that they tend to become institutionalized, that is, played according to rules that everybody knows about and more or less agrees to. The game of Alcoholic, a five-handed game, illustrates this...so popular that social institutions have developed to bring the various players together" such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-anon.
Psychological games vary widely in degrees of consequence, ranging from first-degree games where losing involves embarrassment or frustration, to third-degree games where consequences are life-threatening. Berne recognised however that "since by definition games are based on ulterior transactions, they must all have some element of exploitation", and the therapeutic ideal he offered was to stop playing games altogether.