The games people play Diversions: Scrabble, Monopoly or Trivial Pusuit help keep family get-togethers from coming apart.

December 22, 1997|By Tamara Ikenberg

Let's play a game. I ask you a question, you answer it. There are no winners or losers; no need to be competitive, petty or defensive.

C'mon, it'll be fun. Why won't you just cooperate? What are you trying to do? Ruin the holidays for your entire family? There goes my heart again! Just play, you ingrate!

OK. First question: What's a good way to ease the tension surrounding family interaction during the holidays?

A. Drink.

B. Drink more.

C. Play a game.

If you answered C, you're partly there -- and you'll probably remember a good deal more about the holidays.

At this time of year, stress reaches a holiday high that's often augmented by mandatory family get-togethers. As a diversion from seasonal dysfunction, playing organized games has become as much of a holiday staple as watching chintzy, dated animated specials. Pulling out that dusty edition of Trivial Pursuit -- or any game, from Scrabble to Scruples -- can help maintain good cheer.

"The worst thing is when people get bored and bicker with each other. Games are a way of structuring or funneling those feelings," says Dr. Ann Stambler, child psychotherapist and co-founder of children's game manufacturer Gamewright, based in Boston.

"They provide an organized way for people to get together and have fun and they're safe, because there are rules. You can be aggressive, but it's structured."

Americans appear to agree. Terri Bartlett, communications director for the Toy Manufacturers of America, says 241 million board games were sold last year. Sales during the holiday season alone account for more than 60 percent of game giant Milton Bradley's annual sales, says Mark Morris, the company's public relations manager.

Games pry families away from the television. They're a lot cheaper than a night on the town. They can get everyone talking and involved about something other than their daughter's new unwashed boyfriend or the cheap wine they know Aunt Rose bought at Wal-Mart.

But while family games sound like a winner on the surface, in some families, the outcome is as random as a roll of the dice. Depending on the competitiveness of the group, holiday games can also cement rivalries that last for years.

"He steals money from the bank. He likes to be the banker. He cheats," says Sue Jones, 38.

"I take what is owed me," says her husband, Larry, 38.

Don't worry. The Harrisburg, Pa., couple is just talking about playing Monopoly.

But when it comes to competitiveness, the Joneses have much more intense families to keep up with.

"We're vicious. It's not a warm and cozy thing," says Shelli Roth, 49, a Phoenix resident. "If you can survive us, you can survive anything."

Shelli and her husband, Steve, 50, could be talking about "competitive, killer Parcheesi." This unique strain of Parcheesi is only one in the Roths' catalog of games, where "just because you're little, we don't cut you any slack."

Their children, now grown, were subjected to other savage holiday tournaments as well. The Roths' personal style of dreidel, a traditional Hanukkah gambling game played with a spinning top, was a take-no-prisoners affair.

"We get you ready for the real world," Shelli says.

But kamikaze gaming isn't always productive for young players.

"You don't want children to get to the point where they feel they're not good enough or smart enough," Stambler says. "It's healthy for adults to make exceptions for children."

To that end, Stambler and her husband, Dr. Monty Stambler, child psychotherapist and Harvard Medical School faculty member, developed Gamewright. Its bright, memory-enhancing and shape-recognition games are meant to accommodate kids, but also appeal to adults. They tend not to be conflict-causers, Stambler says.

Not all kids are weak opponents, however. Precocious youngsters who slaughter older relatives at tests of mental acumen such as Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble can cause even more angst at family gatherings by promoting jealousy and bitterness.

Don't blame the game

"That's not a problem of the game, it's a family problem," Stambler says. "You can't blame the family pathology on the game."

And face it, some families just aren't going to let a game board get in the way of traditional bickering.

But how about a game board plus a few thousand miles? On WorldPlay, a supplier of Internet games designed for families and friends, you can mix the pleasure of game playing with the safety of geographical distance.

"You don't need to spend quite as much time with your family," says Valerie Carlson, manager of marketing communications for WorldPlay Entertainment, a subsidiary of America Online. "You can still connect with them, but you don't have to spend a whole weekend with them."

On WorldPlay (keyword: WorldPlay on AOL), multiple players in different locales can join each other for classic card games and computer versions of board and strategy games. You can even have a virtual family reunion on the lake with "Front Page Sports: Trophy Bass 2."

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