Watch out - Homo ludens is about

You wouldn't dream of it any other day of the year. Now, crazed by excessive food, drink and family, what do you do? You play a game

'Tis the season to be jolly, whether you like it or not. The Christmas juggernaut is hurtling towards us again, with no brakes, no driver and a consignment of unstable nuclear fuel sloshing around in the back. There is no escape from its pressures and miseries, no let-up in its intensity. The first guilt-inducing cards arrived long ago, from people who are so much more efficient than we are, and so determined that we should know it. The double issue of Radio Times is already well thumbed, and from now on it's downhill to the grim sink of desperation we all know as "New Year's Eve".

For some people, though, it really is all good fun. A few genuinely regard family reunions with enthusiasm, while for others the opportunity to watch The Snowman for the 583rd time is not to be missed. Many of us will cope with the forthcoming festivities by choosing a particular table and then proceeding to drink ourselves under it. But make sure you choose wisely. Even a huge multi-leafed dining table might not be safe. For as the Christmas holidays settle into their traditional rhythm, someone is sure to say that it might be fun to play a game. This is no idle suggestion. No other option will be put forward. Everyone present who isn't near death will be expected to take part.

Yes, this is the season of Homo ludens, game-playing man. For 11 months of the year that dusty old box of Trivial Pursuit rests in its longstanding home on top of an unfeasibly high wardrobe. No one gives it a second thought. But between Christmas and New Year, when you have eaten as much Quality Street as you are ever going to eat, and Noel Edmonds is on all five channels at once, Homo ludens - whoever he or she is, but let's face it, it'll be a he - seizes his chance. Before you know it you are back in the mid- 1980s, trying to extract those little cheesy things out of those big cakey things with a straightened paper clip, and losing your rag when someone else gets all the easy questions.

It's not just Trivial Pursuit, of course, and it's not just families who are affected. Homo ludens lurks everywhere, in many guises. Any group of friends will nurture one or two of the species, and even workplaces are not immune. As colleagues "let their hair down" in ways they may begin to regret when the photographs are developed, someone is certain to have arranged a company quiz night to douse the seasonal flames. While you're wondering whether it's Boyle's Law or Charles's Law, and desperately trying to remember who won the League Cup in 1985, at least you're behaving yourself. Even so, such events can present their own problems. Is the managing director on the winning team? If not, who will suffer tomorrow morning?

Trouble is, Homo ludens probably has a point. All of us need to play. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", as our parents used to tell us when they wanted us to go away and leave them alone. These days, all work and no play makes Jack a snarling psychopath who screams at drivers on motorways and conducts a fumbling affair with his secretary. Adult life has become so unforgiving, so weighed down with responsibility, that we are apt to forget our need to play, or at least underestimate its importance.

But at Christmas the need seems stronger than ever. For once, the pressure is off. There's no more work to do: most of us don't even intend to think about work until the middle of the first week of January. Suddenly, we find, we are adrift. There is nothing we actually want to do with all this free time. Worse, we must spend the majority of this free time in the company of other adults who don't know what to do either. We are primed and fattened for play. Homo ludens could not find more promising raw material if he tried.

Even so, we should be careful. Gameplay is not a distraction from real life, it's a microcosm of it. All the pressure and aggression that we normally try to suppress can come bubbling to the surface during what everyone thought would just be a quiet game of Pictionary. Feelings can be hurt, dice can be pinged into eyes, and tyres can later be let down. If you have nothing to say to your relatives for the rest of the year, you will have even less to say after they have beaten you at Scrabble. When a loathed in-law turns LOG into LOGARITHM, and then points out that you had ZYDECO all the time, it could be the last straw.

A year or two ago, a group of friends of mine hired a small house in the countryside for Christmas week. They bought provisions, they agreed what they wanted to watch on TV, they even managed to avoid an argument about room allocations. The great experiment - conducted only because they all wanted an excuse not to visit their parents at any stage of the holiday - seemed to be working out. By the 29th, though, the pressures were beginning to tell. One couple embarked on ever longer walks through ever less clement weather to avoid everybody else. One wife took to her bed; her husband took to the pub. The third couple looked for a solution. They found one in the form of a Trivial Pursuit set, long unplayed. The six soon-to-be-ex-friends gathered around. The questions seemed much harder than normal. No one could get any cheeses. Tempers frayed. Wine was spilled. A punch was thrown. One couple drove home that evening. It was only later, when someone looked at the box, that they realised that the Trivial Pursuit set, though in English, came from South Africa, and was therefore incomprehensible to anyone not born on the veldt.

Every game has its own specific problems. With Pictionary it's the "call that a lettuce?" argument. With Monopoly there's the sheer length of the game - 20 minutes or so for the eventual winner to emerge and two hours for him or her to grind everyone else into the dust. Charades - a film no one's heard of, a mime no one understands, accusations of bias and incompetence, beloved family heirlooms accidentally smashed while you're trying to mime The Towering Inferno.

And as all the subtexts of family or office life are made plain, each of us realises how desperately we want to win. We all become disgracefully bad losers, sulky, furious, full of excuses and fantastically rude to the winners. But the winners are no better, lording it over everyone with a false modesty that may take decades to forgive.

It's hard to accept, but undeniable. While Homo ludens may have got the dice rolling, it is the rest of us who turn the Christmas games season into gladiatorial combat. We are all Homo ludens in our hearts. And none of us holds to the Olympic ideal. None of us thinks it's enough merely to take part. We only want to win. Nothing else will do.

For it is the season to be jolly, and by 30 December even beating screaming eight-year-olds at Ludo will seem worth the effort. Have a nice one.

FIVE WAYS TO RUIN CHRISTMAS

Scrabble Created in 1938 by Alfred M Butts, almost certainly as revenge for all those taunts at school. Any family member with perfect recollection of all those irritating two-letter words may not survive the weekend.

Cluedo "It's Colonel Mustard in the living room with the lead piping." No it's not, because Mum forgets the rules and cousin Simon is cheating. Don't leave any real lead piping lying around.

Totopoly Ancient horse racing game which will be most players' only encounter with the name "Leonidas II". (Children will ask who Leonidas I was. Adults, unwilling to admit ignorance, will instantly change the subject.)

Balderdash Board game version of 'Call My Bluff' (Robert Robinson not included). Is "spod" a type of Iranian sweetmeat, a 15th-century pen-and- pencil set or a bird of the jackdaw family? And does anyone care?

Twister Put your hand on the red spot, your feet on the blue spots and try to keep everything else to yourself. A game designed to be played naked in orgies with supermodels, not on Boxing Day with uncles in tartan socks.

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