Christmas was always a largely secular affair at my house. Discussion of crucifictions, Jesus or God was completely off of the agenda and not once did anyone discuss nailing anyone else to a tree. The only things worshipped were the holy Christmas TV specials, the altar of the turkey and the sacred ceremony of The Pouring of The Gravy. For a young gamer there was one other praiseworthy aspect of Christmas: the Unboxing of the Divine New Gaming Hardware.
The Unboxing took many guises over the years, but was always a transcendent experience. The ripping of the Christmas paper was followed by the desperate clawing at the cardboard of the box. Following this, the squeaking polystyrene came clear of its grasping shell and with the unwrapping of a layer of plastic we were exposed to our new gaming hardware, complete with new console-smell; a kind of faint, burnt electronics musk you don’t get with phones or cameras.
For me, this experience came in many forms over the years. First, it was the ZX spectrum.
You could smell the rubber! Coming second hand this personal computer came with a whole musty brown box filled with games, both original and illicit, pirated games copied on to Memorex audio tapes. Although excited by this piece of entertainment technology that seemed to come from the future (but which actually came from a guy who lived down the street and had bought a new Commodore 64) I couldn’t get it to work. Christmas was almost ruined as none of the games would load! Frustrated after hours of getting nowhere I got out on my bike and cycled furiously. “Fine”, I thought to myself, “I’ll just be into bikes and football and running and stuff”. How different my life would have been if I’d accepted this. After trying to jump a paving block and failing painfully, I decided “Screw this, I’ll make it work”. Before that moment, broken televisions, radios or etch-a-sketch’s were something my dad fixed for me, but I limped back to my bedroom and I fixed that ZX Spectrum 48K myself. I was on the path to being a gamer. Thank you paving stone.
Although the Spectrum would be a demure partner in my gaming life exposing its best features slowly over time, the next major games hardware Christmas was a more brazen, lustier gaming experience. In 1988 the console company with all the momentum was Sega, at least in my home town. While Nintendo dominated in the US and Japan, Sega’s Master System was a viable, strong selling alternative in the UK. The run up to this Christmas had involved poring over pictures of Altered Beast, Alex Kidd, Shinobi and ESWAT. Granted, many of the pictures were of the superior Megdrive (Genesis for the states) versions of the games, but I had decided that the Master System version would be almost as good. My love affair with the Master System was passionate but brief. Alex Kidd in Miracle World was a great Mario clone and the eventual release of a decent version of Sonic was convince me that the Master System was a viable long term partner. Only later in the year as the Christmas honeymoon period faded from memory and we drifted apart did I realise that Master System and I weren’t such a good fit after all. I wanted better gameplay, better graphics and deeper experiences. Master System was a short, memorable but shallow experience that I had metaphorically kicked it out of bed without offering to make breakfast.
After a long, lazy summer of the turtle power rap (T-U-R-T-L-E power) and commodore 64 (the crap console version no less) I was ready for a step into more mature gaming. I wanted a mega drive. At the time the ads were like crack to kids. I had this one taped on a vhs and watched it so many times I wore out the heads on the player.
With “proper” versions of all my favourite Master System games as well as the prospect of new games like Mortal Kombat (with blood, take that SNES bitches!) and Street Fighter 2 as well as classics like Strider and Shadow Dancer I couldn’t wait. My parents managed to get a second hand model as it was very pricey at the time, but somehow without knowing they had got a Japanese model. This was beyond awesome; the Japanese version would play cartridges from all regions! This was the level of gaming fandom I aspired to. Having not only the console with Blast Processing ™, but also being the only one in my school that could play imported Japanese Shmups and obscure wrestling games would make me a legend in geek circles.
That Christmas was exactly as good as I had hoped. I was old enough that I could explain to my family what these games were all about and they would listen. Mega drive didn’t exactly break gaming into the mainstream like the Wii, but it had a comparable effect on my family. To this day, my Gran’s the only person I know who has so little difficulty collecting every single ring in Sonic that she actually started trying to improve her score too. Yeah, I didn’t even know Sonic had a score either!
Many more Unboxing Christmases have followed. Even at 29 years old, last Christmas I got a laptop that was specially chosen for gaming and told my wife not to give it to me early. I did this so that I could once again have an Unboxing Christmas; a Christmas where I could recapture the childish enthusiasm I had growing up. I wanted to relive the excitement that I had when a whole new gaming world was opening up to me and I could only have that at Christmas through the kindness and generosity of my family.
Now I don’t really need to rely on kindness or gifts to get stuff. I have a job and some disposable cash and despite having bills to pay, I can afford to buy things that I really want. Worse, the gaming peripherals and motion devices available this year are all cynical attempts to jump on a long-departed bandwagon. The long lifecycle of the current consoles means that there’s no major hardware releases to get excited about. The days of the Christmas Unboxing are gone now, and it’s kind of sad…
But wait, I won’t finish this on a downer! This Christmas there will be great experiences for gamers. While the houses will be full of light and noise and drunk people and singing and left over roast potatoes, there will be happy times for us too. We’ll get our uncle drunk enough to try guitar hero or convince the whole family to play some Mario Kart. We’ll sneak off from the party to play Assassins Creed Brotherhood on a portable tv, or borrow our 10 year old cousins PC to log on to Minecraft and check out our servers blocky Christmas tree. Maybe we’ll even play some Dance Central with the neighbour’s attractive cousin. We might even crack out some board games, the progenitors of our glorious hobby.
For me Christmas has moved far beyond a religious festival and become a time of tolerance and inclusion. While some may moan that it’s empty, consumerist and has lost its true meaning, I believe the opposite. Just look in a window at Christmas and more you’ll be almost guaranteed to see something that will make you smile. For those without close family it’s an excuse to see your very best friends and drink far too much, while in busy houses like mines there will be nothing but activity. Whether its kids getting their first console, mums and dads dancing around each other in the kitchen to open the oven and close the fridge or Gran asleep after a sherry, everyone’s together. Gamer or not, that has to be a good thing to do, even for just one day in the year.