THANKS to the Great Plague of 2020, we’re in for the most low-key Christmas since Oliver Cromwell banned carols. But some things never change, pandemic or no pandemic. So, this year we can still depend upon crazed consumerism and the annual hysteria over the must-have gift.

Now I’ve written about the evils of unbridled consumerism before – but don’t fret I’m not going to make your Christmas any more miserable than it already has to be by reprising guilt-inducing homilies. What I’m interested in is what the must-have gift tells us about how we live our lives. The big commercial rammy this Christmas is between the latest versions of the Xbox and the Playstation. Which will dominate the market? Both are already selling out.

What’s fascinating about this Christmas side-story is what it says about modern culture, and the shape of entertainment – because the mania for the new Xbox and Playstation isn’t driven any longer just by parents shopping for kids, it’s driven by a huge middle-aged market and a massively expanding women’s market. Anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that gaming is something for the young ‘uns – and lads in particular – needs to get out a bit more (though granted that’s not easy during lockdown, but you know what I mean).

I’m prepared to chose this as my hill to die on and say that if you aren’t in some way exposed to gaming today then you’re at risk of becoming a cultural dinosaur. To me, not experiencing games, at least a little, is like never watching TV, never reading a newspaper, not going to the cinema or theatre, or never listening to music or watching stand up – you’re leaving a huge cultural void in your life.

Hopefully (though it’s obviously a matter for debate) folk who read this column regularly know I’m not some cultural barbarian – in fact, I’m more often accused of being a hideous snob than anything else – so bear with me on this, as I know I’ve some persuading to do.

Let me explain: games have undergone an incredible change in the last decade. It’s like the cinematic shift from the Nickelodeon to Technicolour. Games, in the crudest of terms, have gone from running, jumping and shooting (which can still be fun) to sophisticated character-driven long-form stories that, when at their very best, don’t just borrow from the novel and cinema, but excel against the novel and cinema. Here’s one example for your starter list – Red Dead Redemption, a western which feels like playing a Sam Peckinpah movie. So brilliant, that I choked up at the end when my character died.

In fact, games now seek to rival movies. New release Five Dates is less a game and more an interactive rom-com. Set during lockdown, you steer your character through a series of online dates as they look for love. It’s a brilliant take on the mores of modern romance.

Little wonder games now make more money than the movie industry, generating about £152 billion a year globally.

But games are now going way beyond simply great story-telling and powerful characterisation. In a way, games are filling in the blanks left in culture. I’ve written before about the struggle by novelists and film-makers, in particular, to get to grips with the modern world – with Trump, Brexit, the alt-right and all our current horrors. Culture seems to move too fast for many artists to catch up. When it comes to the zeitgeist, though, game developers are on it like a Shakespeare sonnet. There’s a new game out called Watch Dogs: Legion – if you want a satire on modern Britain, this is it. It’s set in a hellish post-Brexit London where drones fill the sky monitoring everyone, money is digital, everything can be hacked and manipulated, disinformation is everywhere, populism runs rampant, the country is split over immigration round-ups, jobs are hoovered up by corporations with government in their pocket. It’s a truly sinister, radical imagining of what tomorrow could look like – and it’s created by game-makers not novelists or screenwriters.

I recently played a French indie game called Night Call, in which I inhabited the character of a taxi driver caught up in crime. At night I drove the streets talking to the homeless, drug addicts, domestic abuse victims, racists, lunatics, conspiracy theorists and a myriad other outsiders. It’s a glorious snapshot of society’s underbelly and the issues that fret us politically.

Games can also be incredibly subtle and moving – What Remains of Edith Finch is a slow-burn, visually beautiful meditation on a creeping descent into madness, the agony of life in a dysfunctional family and the pain of memory and loss. It’s another indie masterpiece.

There’s games which are simply calming – or mindful. Try Rime – it’s a puzzle-solving game rendered like a living painting. Gaming – contrary to decades of tabloid scare stories – has been found to be extremely good for mental health. You can lose yourself in games and return with a real increased sense of wellbeing – of course, like anything, overdoing it will have the opposite effect.

Nor are games isolationist – there’s a console game my family plays together during lockdown called Jackbox, which delights us from the oldest to the youngest member. It’s a series of fabulously daft party games, where players use their phones to draw pictures, make up fibs about each other, and carry out acts of general silliness. Here the screen brings folk together rather than driving them apart.

These finely wrought, inventive games explain the growth in the older market and the women’s market. Games aren’t for kids anymore – that notion is so out of date it’s literally last century.

I’m not asking you to line the pockets of big corporations by splashing out on a new Xbox or Playstation – heaven forbid. But what I am suggesting is that, it might be worth trying out some games yourself, if you haven’t already. You can go online to sites like Steam and play free games, or buy games there for your home computer without having to get the latest console. Believe me, you’ll enjoy it – and you’ll not be missing out on slice of cultural life anymore that’s bigger in pure number terms than Hollywood.