The term mind games refers to three main categories of human behaviour:
- a largely conscious struggle for psychological one-upmanship, often employing passive–aggressive behavior to specifically demoralize or empower the thinking subject, making the aggressor look superior; also referred to as "power games".
- 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.
- mental exercises designed to improve the functioning of mind and/or personality; see also brain teasers or puzzles.
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, 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.
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 denial of the victim's reality, social undermining, and the trivializing of what is felt to be important. 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.
Eric Berne described a psychological game as an organised 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 intenseness, ranging from first-degree games – socially acceptable – to third-degree games that are played for keeps. 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.
Mind games for self-improvement fall into two main categories. There are mental exercises and puzzles to maintain or improve the actual working of the brain.
There is also the category of the self-empowering mind game, as in psychodrama, or mental and fantasy workshops - elements which might be seen as an ultimate outgrowth of Yoga as a set of mental (and physical) disciplines.
- Gita Mammen, After Abuse (2006) p. 29
- Eric Berne, Games People Play (1966) p. 45
- "mind game". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-08-09.
- Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 68
- A-M Quigg, Bullying in the Arts (2011) p. 201
- David P. Snyder, How to Mind-Read your Customers (2001) p. 59
- A. P. Sands, The Psychology of Gamesmanship (2010) p. 2
- Kathleen J, Ferraro, Neither Angels nor Demons (2006) p. 82
- R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (Penguin 1984) p. 31
- Laurie Maguire, Where there's a Will there's a Way (London 2007) p. 76
- Kate Fillion, Lip Service (London 1997) p. 244
- R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 143
- John McCleod, An Introduction to Counselling (2009) p. 255-6
- Berne, p. 32
- Berne, p. 64-147
- John Dusay, "Transactional Analysis", in Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Penguin 1976) p. 309-10
- Berne, Games p. 143
- Eric Berne, Sex in Human Loving (1970) p. 223
- P &P Battaglia, So You Think You're Smart (1988) p. xi
- Stanley Cohen/Laurie Taylor, Escape Attempts (1992) p. 121
- Sophy Hoare, Yoga (London 1980) p. 9 and p. 4