Social Ritual


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.

The fourth role is that of the Patsy, or Dummy. In literature this is played by the delicatessen man who extends credit to White, gives him a sandwich on the cuff and perhaps a cup of coffee, without either persecuting him or trying to rescue him. In life this is more frequently played by White’s mother, who gives him money and often sympathizes with him about the wife who does not understand him. In this aspect of the game, White is required to account in some plausible way for his need for money—by some project in which both pretend to believe, although they know what he is really going to spend most of the money for. Sometimes the Patsy slides over into another role, which is a helpful but not essential one: the Agitator, the ‘good guy’ who offers supplies without even being asked for them: ‘Come have a drink with me (and you will go downhill faster).’

The ancillary professional in all drinking games is the bartender or liquor clerk. In the game ‘Alcoholic’ he plays the fifth role, the Connexion, the direct source of supply who also understands alcoholic talk, and who in a way is the most meaningful person in the life of any addict. The difference between the Connexion and the other players is the difference between professionals and amateurs in any game: the professional knows when to stop. At a certain point a good bartender refuses to serve the Alcoholic, who is then left without any supplies unless he can locate a more indulgent Connexion.

In the initial stages of ‘Alcoholic’, the wife may play all three supporting roles: at midnight the Patsy, undressing him, making him coffee and letting him beat up on her; in the morning the Persecutor, berating him for the evil of his ways; and in the evening the Rescuer, pleading with him to change them. In the later stages, due sometimes to organic deterioration, the Persecutor and the Rescuer can be dispensed with, but are tolerated if they are also willing to act as sources of supply. White will go to the Mission House and be rescued if he can get a free meal there; or he will stand for a scolding, amateur or professional, as long as he can get a handout afterwards.

Present experience indicates that the payoff in in ‘Alcoholic’ (as is characteristic of games in general) comes from the aspect to which most investigators pay least attention. In the analysis of this game, drinking itself is merely an incidental pleasure having added advantages, the procedure leading up to the real culmination, which is the hangover. It is the same in the game of Schlemiel: the mess-making, which attracts the most attention, is merely a pleasure-giving way for White to lead up to the crux, which is obtaining forgiveness from Black.

For the Alcoholic the hangover is not as much the physical pain as the psychological torment. The two favourite pastimes of drinking people are ‘Martini’ (how many drinks and how they were mixed) and ‘Morning After’ (Let me tell you about myhangover). ‘Martini’ is played, for the most part, by social drinkers; many alcoholics prefer a hard round of psychological ‘Morning After’, and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous offer him an unlimited opportunity for this.

Whenever one patient visited his psychiatrist after a binge, he would call himself all sorts of names; the psychiatrist said nothing. Later, recounting these visits in a therapy group, White said with smug satisfaction that it was the psychiatrist who had called him all those names. The main conversational interest of many alcoholics in the therapeutic situation is not their drinking, which they apparently mention mostly in deference to their persecutors, but their subsequent suffering. The transactional object of the drinking, aside from the personal pleasures it brings, is to set up a situation where the Child can be severely scolded not only by the internal Parent but by any parental figures in the environment who are interested enough to oblige. Hence the therapy of this game should be concentrated not on the drinking but on the morning after, the self-indulgence in self-castigation. There is a type of heavy drinker, however, who does not have hangovers, and such people do not belong in the present category.

There is also a game ‘Dry Alcoholic’, in which White goes through the process of financial or social degradation without a bottle, making the same sequence of moves and requiring the same supporting cast. Here again, the morning after is the crux of the matter. Indeed, it is the similarity between ‘Dry Alcoholic’ and regular ‘Alcoholic’ which emphasizes that both are games; for example, the procedure for getting discharged from a job is the same in both. ‘Addict’ is similar to ‘Alcoholic’, but more sinister, more dramatic, more sensational and faster. In our society, at least, it leans more heavily on the readily available Persecutor, with Patsies and Rescuers being few and far between and the Connexion playing a much more central role.

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 to come 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 their 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 has been feasible, although it is a difficult task to find something else as interesting to the Alcoholic as continuing his game. Since he is classically 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 go back to their old ways. The criterion of a true ‘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.

It is apparent from the description of this game that there is a strong temptation for the Rescuer to play ‘I’m Only Trying to Help You’; for the Persecutor to play ‘Look What You’ve Done to Me’; and for the Patsy* to play ‘Good Joe’. With the rise of rescue organizations which publicize the idea that alcoholism is a disease, alcoholics have been taught to play ‘Wooden Leg’. The law, which takes a special interest in such people, tends to encourage this nowadays. The emphasis has shifted from the Persecutor to the Rescuer, from ‘I am a sinner’ to ‘What do you expect from a sick man?’ (part of the trend in modern thinking away from religion and towards science). From an existential point of view the shift is questionable, and from a practical point of view it seems to have done little to diminish the sale of liquor to heavy drinkers. Nevertheless, Alcoholics Anonymous is still for most people the best initiation into the therapy of over-indulgence.


As is well known, ‘Alcoholic’ is usually played hard and is difficult to give up. In one case a female alcoholic in a therapy group participated very little until she thought she knew enough about the other members to go ahead with her game. She then asked them to tell her what they thought of her. Since she had behaved pleasantly enough, various members said nice things about her, but she protested: ‘That’s not what I want. I want to know what you really think.’ She made it clear that she was seeking derogatory comments. The other women refused to persecute her, whereupon she went home and told her husband that if she took another drink, he must either divorce her or send her to a hospital. He promised to do this, and that evening she became intoxicated and he sent her to a sanitarium. Here the other members refused to play the persecutory roles White assigned to them; she was unable to tolerate this antithetical behaviour, in spite of everyone’s efforts to reinforce whatever insight she had already obtained. At home she found someone who was willing to play the role she demanded.

In other cases, however, it appears possible to prepare the patient sufficiently so that the game can be given up, and to attempt a true social cure in which the therapist declines to play either Persecutor or Rescuer. It is equally nontherapeutic for him to play the role of Patsy by allowing the patient to forgo his financial and punctuality obligations. The correct therapeutic procedure from a transactional point of view is, after careful preliminary groundwork, to take an Adult contractual position and refuse to play any of the roles, hoping that the patient will be able to tolerate not only abstinence from drinking but also from playing his game. If he cannot, he is best referred to a Rescuer.

Antithesis is particularly difficult, because the heavy drinker is highly regarded in most Western countries as a desirable object for censure, concern or generosity, and someone who refuses to play any of these roles tends to arouse public indignation. A rational approach may be even more alarming to the Rescuers than to the Alcoholic, sometimes with unfortunate consequences to the therapy. In one clinical situation a group of workers were seriously interested in the game ‘Alcoholic’ and were attempting to effect real cures by breaking up the game rather than merely rescuing the patients. As soon as this became apparent, they were frozen out by the lay committee which was backing the clinic, and none of them was ever again called on to assist in treating these patients.




  1. See if you can catch me. The prototypes of this game are difficult to correlate because of its complexity. Children, however, particularly children of alcoholics, often go through many of the manoeuvres characteristic of the Alcoholic. ‘See if you can stop me’, which involves lying, hiding things, seeking derogatory comments, looking for helpful people, finding a benevolent neighbour who will give free handouts, etc. Self-castigation is often postponed to later years.
  2. The alcoholic and his circle.

Transactional Paradigms

Psychological Paradigm


Child: ‘See if you can stop me.’
Parent: ‘You must stop drinking because…’

Social Paradigm


Adult: ‘Tell me what you really think of me or help me stop drinking.’
Adult: ‘I’ll be frank with you.’


  1. Provocation—accusation or forgiveness.
  2. Indulgence—anger or disappointment.


  1. Internal Psychological—
    1. Drinking as a procedure—rebellion, reassurance and satisfaction of craving,
    2. ‘Alcoholic’ as a game—self-castigation (probable).
  2. External Psychological—avoidance of sexual and other forms of intimacy.
  3. Internal Social—See if you can stop me.
  4. External Social—‘Morning After’, ‘Martini’, and other pastimes.
  5. Biological—alternating loving and angry exchanges.
  6. Existential—Everybody wants to deprive me.

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