The centrepiece of every Christmas, as far as I’m concerned, is the family quiz. As the oldest in my generation, I’ve spent more than a decade devising elaborate questions and playing quizmaster, occasionally devolving this responsibility to younger cousins who fancy their chances imposing discipline on my raucous Irish family.

The quiz sparks much disagreement but it is unfailingly a joyous affair, inspiring new entries in the annals of the family memes, such as the time an uncle who had drunk one too many insisted the answer to every question was “trousers”.

It’s just one of the games that bring my family together over Christmas. Each one acts upon our social dynamics differently, exposing submerged parts of our characters and eliciting the best and worst in us.

I never know my family better than when we’re playing the social deduction game Werewolf, trying to eke out the killer in our midst and realising how frighteningly accomplished my cousins are at lying, or when I’m astonished at the kindness of an aunt who’s willing to cut me a deal trading resources in the settlement-building game Catan that couldn’t possibly work to her advantage.

Perhaps our family favourite is an Irish card game called 110, with rules so confoundingly Byzantine that I have never once succeeded in teaching it to my friends. We might top that off with a whimsical round of Throw Throw Burrito, which involves cards and hurling a soft foam burrito at one another, or Jackbox, a hilarious digital party game played via smartphone.

When it’s time for video games, the older generation exits. They drift away to sit in comfy chairs, hiccup and sing sad songs to one another, while we scurry downstairs to play whatever new multiplayer game arrived as a Christmas gift.

Suffice to say I come from a family of gamers, and this veritable arsenal of bonding material has provided some of my happiest memories. As a video game critic, I believe in the transformational power of games and the central paradox that is the key to their power: that they are about so much more than just fun, yet fun is also the heart of everything they are.

A family playing the early video game ‘Space Invaders’, 1978
A family playing the early video game ‘Space Invaders’, 1978 © Interfoto/Alamy

Games have played a role in human society across history and cultures stretching back millennia. When archaeologists found unusual quantities of sheep ankle bones during excavations in the ancient Mediterranean, they deduced they must have been used as a game that required players to balance the bones on their hands, throw them in the air then catch as many as possible. This game, now called Knucklebones, was already ancient when it was written about by Plato, Sophocles and Herodotus.

In Pharaonic Egypt there was Senet and Hounds and Jackals, while the Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur dates back more than 4,000 years. The oldest games that are still played today are chess and Pachisi, which both originated in ancient India, and backgammon, whose ancestors were discovered at a 4,400-year old site in modern Iran.

More recently, the board game creators of the late 18th-century were also mapmakers whose boards propagated alongside the British empire. Before the advent of mass production, such games passed along as a kind of folk technology, with people playing the games in communal spaces and then recreating their own versions at home.

Outside of sports and the school playground, the main activities we call “games” today are of the tabletop variety, which include the likes of Cluedo and Scrabble but also role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, which involves a game master who narrates a fantasy adventure for a group of players cast as elves, dwarfs and gnomes. Themes are myriad — Wikipedia has whole pages dedicated to auction games, war games, horror games and economic simulation games.

“Games reflect the culture in which they exist,” says Nic Ricketts, curator of board games at the Strong National Museum of Play in upstate New York. “During every major war, war games became popular in one way or another.”

Chess players, 42nd Street, New York City, 1985
Chess players, 42nd Street, New York City, 1985 © Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

So we can trace social change through the games that people play. One striking example is The Game of Life, created in 1860 as a moralist fable that reflected puritanical American society, encouraging “honour”, “industry” and the achievement of “happy old age”. The evolution of a different form of capitalism becomes apparent in the 1960 version of the game, which is all about reaching “Millionaire Acres” and avoiding the “Poor Farm”, where players are eliminated.

Another instructive example is Monopoly, which today scans to many as a capitalist fantasy but was created by Elizabeth Magie in 1903 as a criticism of concentrating land in private monopolies. The bitter irony came in 1932, when Charles Darrow came across the game and decided to recast its themes in a positive light. His version was bought by the Parker Brothers and became an international money-spinner.

I’ve never been a fan of Monopoly — it is slow and often one player quickly takes the lead, leaving the rest to trudge around the board until they are finally beaten into insolvency. I prefer a genre known as Eurogames, which originated in the 1960s but hit the mainstream with Catan in 1995. These games are focused not on fighting or moving towards a goal on the board, but rather trading and building. Nobody is eliminated before the end of a Eurogame, meaning it is more inclusive (and fun) to play.

A watercolour painting of women playing Pachisi, c1725; the game originated in India, along with chess
A watercolour painting of women playing Pachisi, c1725; the game originated in India, along with chess © San Diego Museum of Art/Bridgeman Images

Such games point towards a recent development, a rise in collaborative play. After 5,000 years of competitive games, team sports aside, it is only in the past few decades that humans have decided to play on the same side. The game Pandemic was launched in 2008 but hit the mainstream recently, asking players to dash around a Risk-style world map working together to fight a deadly contagion (though recently it has, for me, hit a little too close to home).

Over the past two years, when we have found ourselves sequestered at home and bored, many non-gamers have reached for board games and delighted in their ability to bring people together. When it comes to video games, however, some believe they do the exact opposite, isolating players who glue themselves to screens, losing themselves in fantasy worlds divorced from reality.

The truth is more complex. Because video games are so sophisticated and compelling, they can draw players in like a board never could, but they can also be rewarding artistic and social experiences. Nintendo games are my primary vector of communication with my 14-year-old godson, and I love sharing my passion with him, whether we’re playing together or trading stories about our own gameplay.

“For decades people have valued the ritual of a family coming together around the dinner table,” says Jane McGonigal, a game designer and author, “but coming together around a screen can be just as effective. Research shows that screen games can have that same quality of shared time and attention. It’s OK to think of a screen as just a physical object, no different from the board in a board game.”

While it is indeed reductive to diminish video games to a dangerous form of escapism, I still feel that board games offer qualities that screen games don’t: a sense of physical communion that comes from sitting together in the same room concentrating on the same piece of cardboard, particularly in this age of distraction.

At home, games don’t just bridge the generation gap — they can turn that gap to players’ advantage, by offering opportunities to educate. Parents and grandparents who play board games with children find that they help improve reflexes and mental agility, and that they promote healthy social interaction, from learning to be a good winner or loser to understanding the complexities of cheating.

They also confer a thrilling sense of autonomy and agency to younger players. “Board games change the power balance for kids,” says Tristan Donovan, writer of the book It’s All a Game: A Short History of Board Games. “Instead of my parents deciding what happens to me, I could be the person winning this game, because it’s really down to the dice.”

We continue to play games into adulthood not just because they promote neuroplasticity in older players, helping the brain to continue learning new systems, but because of the opportunity for togetherness that they offer. Those who live in houseshares or gather with their extended family at Christmas often find themselves thrown together with people who may not share their political beliefs or world views. For them, games can act as a bridge to restore a sense of goodwill and empathy.

For children, games ‘confer a thrilling sense of autonomy and agency’
For children, games ‘confer a thrilling sense of autonomy and agency’ © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

McGonigal goes a step further, arguing that games can actually make us better people: “They’re like a healing balm for other areas of life,” she says. “When we play games we allow ourselves the pleasure of going from scratch to success and mastery. This provokes a range of positive mindsets like curiosity, creativity, flexibility and, most importantly, self-efficacy — the experience of getting better at something through your own efforts and attention.”

I’ve often observed games fulfilling a different emotional need, allowing us to express unpleasant emotions that would usually be unwelcome. In a game we can let out all our built-up reserves of competition, stinginess or cut-throat egotism.

“In Monopoly I can pummel my family, making them go around the board bleeding until I crush them completely, because it’s within the rules of the game to behave hideously,” says Donovan. This safe space for expression is part of what academics call the “magic circle”, a space created by games where the normal rules and reality of our world are suspended and replaced by an alternative set.

The psychic space created by games is only part of their appeal — there is also their physical presence. A stack of games in oversized cardboard boxes lodges somewhere in most family homes, waiting to be raided on happy occasions. They stay in view, beckoning you to set time aside for joy. These objects are freighted with associations of childhood, nostalgia and a carefree approach to life that can be recaptured through play. When in full swing, a game transforms a space and the people within it.

Games could only have endured for so long because humans truly need them. While their entertainment value should not be diminished, they also help us understand each other and ourselves. They are a social technology passed down through generations that weaves complex stories through our lives. When I trace the history of backgammon through the ages, I find it echoes within my own family.

Men play backgammon in Cairo, Egypt
Men play backgammon in Cairo, Egypt © In Pictures Ltd/Corbis via Getty Images

My grandfather fled the Holocaust in Hungary as a young man and made a life in London, taking with him a love of backgammon, which he had been taught by his own father in Budapest. He moved to America when my father was a child, but on my dad’s visits to New York he was taught the rules and strategies of the game, though he was never able to beat my grandfather. When I was growing up in London, my dad passed this knowledge to me, and I have fond childhood memories of guiding those polished wooden pieces across the sturdy board.

Today I live in Egypt, the corner of the world where this game first originated millennia ago, and find the cafés of Cairo full of men playing this game, which they call tawla, or “table” in Arabic. Before I had gotten to grips with the language, I could join them and communicate through play. As I sit over that familiar board with a cup of sweet tea, I feel I can almost grasp how rich and complex these games are, how they resonate through human history, as my fingers draw from knowledge passed down through generations and I hesitate, pondering my next move.

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