Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

4 December, 2013

The meaning of holidays
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:31 AM

Here in the U.S., we celebrated Thanksgiving last week. The modern traditional celebration involves eating way too much, awkward time spent with family members, and usually some sort of traditional recreation like watching football or a parade. As a kid, I was told the holiday was to celebrate the generosity the Native Americans showed to struggling colonists; in recent years, however, the origin of the holiday has been reported to be much darker.

But, if you look at the name of the holiday, “Thanksgiving”, the core of what I celebrate is: giving thanks.

As a warning: this post is going to be a tiny bit more meta than usual. There’s some game design value here, but I thought taking a look at holidays and the meanings behind them might be interesting.

Giving thanks

What am I thankful for? Having just turned 40 earlier in November, I’m feeling maybe a bit too much like a middle-aged grump, but the one thing I think I am thankful for more than anything else is the internet. A lot of the best things in my life were made possible by the internet. The people I’ve been able to talk to, the connections I’ve made, the games I’ve worked on and enjoyed playing the most, all made much possible (or at least much easier) with the internet.

Even this blog is possible because the internet makes it easy to write and distribute my thoughts. I doubt I’d have as many readers if I had to print up a ‘zine and mail it with stamps and everything; I doubt I would have been able to afford it given that I have about 10k unique visitors to this site every month.

There’s still plenty of stuff I’d like to improve. Stuff that was fine in the past, but now that weighs on me personally. But, let’s focus on the topic for now and look at holidays.

I like holidays

I like to celebrate some of the major holidays. This isn’t to say that I go out of my way to adopt holidays from other cultures; I don’t eat Canadian bacon and watch hockey on Canadian Thanksgiving, or whatever it is those uncivilized northern barbarians do on their pretend holiday. ;) I’m not exactly a zealot about every single holiday, either; I spend Labor Day rubbing shoulders with a bunch of fellow geeks more often than I spend it thinking about the labor movement and advances made for workers.

But, there are a few I like to celebrate: Thanksgiving and April Fools’ Day being two prominent ones that I’ve posted about before. My birthday, too, but that’s not yet a national holiday.

The holiday trappings

One problem with holidays is that people tend to get too wrapped up into the trappings of the holiday. April Fools’ Day is perhaps the best example of this. Many sites focus on being more silly than interesting or clever, any pretense in trying to channel the classical fool is discarded for cheap guffaws. Practical jokes become exercises in spite rather than an attempt to make someone stop and consider their values in light of the joke.

This is hardly a new complaint. The focus on food for Thanksgiving, or the crass commercialization of Christmas are other common complaints that get repeated around this time of year. People are social creatures of habit, and we as a whole tend to do what others are doing, and repeat what we’ve done in the past. This is why we have “traditions” such as the U.S. President pardoning a turkey, even though the ceremonial “pardoning” a turkey is younger than I am. So, there’s more of a focus on going through the proper motions than really considering the meaning of a holiday.

Of course, for some holidays the rabbit hole goes deep. People have been celebrating the Winter Solstice for longer than Christians have been celebrating the birth of Jesus in December. Feasts and celebrations to drive away the darkness of the longest night of the year have probably existed longer than written history. But, I’ll leave “who did what first” as an exercise for historians and pedants.

The religious connection

It’s tough to discuss holidays without heading into the murky waters of religion. The very word “holiday” comes from the Old English words for “holy day”, so it’s not easy to separate out the discussion from the religious aspects.

Because of this connection to religion, holidays can be intensely personal. Someone who isn’t Christian might not have a reason to celebrate Easter, just as someone who isn’t Pagan or Wiccan wouldn’t celebrate Ostara. Even though both of these holidays deal with the theme of rebirth, they have different trappings respective of their religion.

I’ll leave religious discussions to others. To me, I think we can discuss holidays separate from the religious meaning by focusing on emotions.

The holiday emotions

I think the most important thing about a holiday is the emotional impact. Once you strip away all the trappings, the faux traditions, the real traditions, the added religious significance, and all that, you’re left with the core emotion. Ideally, this emotion should make you a better person, and by extension, make the world a better place.

As mentioned before, the very name of Thanksgiving gives us the emotional aspect: being thankful. It’s a time to stop and consider what is really meaningful in your life and cherishing it. A big meal with friends and family is one aspect of this: it’s a great way for people who are thankful for their loved ones to get them together and celebrate them.

Christmas, for me, is about generosity. Not necessarily commercial gifts, though. Giving of yourself as a volunteer, or giving your money to a charity, or giving something thoughtful to someone you care about. In our commercial, consumerist society, giving often does take the form of buying gifts for each other.

Halloween, another favorite holiday of mine, is about facing mystery. We hide ourselves behind masks and costumes and pretend to be something we’re not. We celebrate that there are monsters and bogeymen out in the world, beyond the ability for our rational selves to explain. We consider the unknowable of what lies beyond mortal death for all of us.

April Fools’ Day is about introspection. A joke about my blog being replaced by a porn site should make you consider how much you might appreciate my site. Or, think about the prevalence of pornography on the web, and how sites grab popular domains to increase traffic to their sites.

Bringing this around to games

So, how does this apply to games? Let’s take a look at holidays in MMOs, because many MMOs celebrate holidays. Early MMOs tried to create their own holidays that weren’t related to the real world, but they tended to lack the emotional impact. Eventually games mimicked the holidays from the offline world. Usually they dress it up in a bit of lore, but whether you call it Feast of Winter Veil or Frostfell, it’s basically a time for snow and giving gifts.

But, I think that too often these holidays focus on the trappings of the holiday rather than the emotion. For example, there’s Pilgrim’s Bounty in WoW, a holiday around Thanksgiving that’s all about dressing up in Pilgrim garb and cooking holiday-specific recipes. Where’s the aspect of giving thanks? Where’s the focus on friends and loved ones? Or, is this focus on the trappings of food and pilgrims just a reflection of our culture in general? Or take WoW’s Lunar Festival, based on the Chinese Lunar New Year. This is a holiday I’m not culturally familiar with, but I learn very little if anything of the actual holiday from the in-game activities. Something to do with ancestors and the moon is the best I ever remember.

Not to pick on WoW, though. A lot of other games have the same problem. GW2′s Halloween events have a distinctively spooky feel to them, but like the rest of the game it feels more about chasing achievements than an actual celebration of mystery or even horror.

The true meaning of holidays

What about you? What’s the meaning of the holidays for you? As a bonus question, how could MMO holidays be improved?

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  1. Oh I’m the grinch I suppose. I don’t get holidays. I like celebrations just fine, but around monumental events of actual occurrence, not the anniversary of past events. Holidays seem so contrived, so arbitrary and orchestrated. I find them stifling, or worse just boring or in my way. I treat the holiday events in games the same way, because they feel like cheaply made content designed solely to break immersion / the fourth wall.

    On the up side, I get a lot of work done this time of year. =)

    Comment by Rog — 4 December, 2013 @ 4:58 PM

  2. Oh and grinch or otherwise, to improve holidays in MMOs, make them less often. Give them more meaning within the game by making them less omnipresent. In reality our calendar is filled with pre-determined holidays in order to give people a break in their day-to-day work-lives, but an MMO shouldn’t need that kind of break (assuming it’s fun, not a chore).

    I’d rather see a meaningful game-holiday celebrating a server-wide event (first boss kill) or the anniversary of the game, than an echo of Christmas-at-the-mall.

    Comment by Rog — 4 December, 2013 @ 5:04 PM

  3. Gotta agree with Rog here. While real holidays are wonderful, its hard to translate them into a game without overly gamifying them (achievement hunting, etc) and/or watering down aspects important to people in the effort to make them as accessible and inoffensive to the widest range of cultures possible.

    Creating in game holidays based on actual events in that game is awesome. A cunning developer could take that, and tie it into real holidays.

    Say, targeting the game first event of killing the major villain around thanksgiving. Have no holiday before that, but afterwards celebrate his vanquishing and the saving of the world with a holiday then in subsequent years – giving thanks for freedom, etc. Tie it into the emotions of the season rather than the trappings, and instead use trappings based on what the players actually did.

    Thus, you get the emotion of the season tied in, and a real feeling of having impacted the world at a deeper level.

    Comment by Derrick — 4 December, 2013 @ 5:50 PM

  4. MMO-holidays: They have turned into achievement grind and as most MMOs do it, it has become a chore!

    Star Trek Online offers you a very very cool and unique ship you can only get during the celebration, the requirement is do daily quests on some 70%+, X of Y days or pay some cash indirectly if you can’t make it this way.

    Other MMOs have similar achievement tracks, so I totally support Rog’s idea to have a celebration and bring people together or just to send them a mail they should log in and participate in profitable events and hand them a present on xmas for FREE instead of requiring them to do more than logging in and getting it.

    I mean I don’t have to do daily 50 push-ups to get a present either, right? So why should a probably not as exhausting but probably more mind-numbing daily quest requirement be the proper way to have an xmas celebration?

    Let it be, have a festival related to the world and not a fake-xmas put over it or maybe figure out how you could make a great xmas party. I don’t consider the current “work for your present” systems to be particularly enticing.?

    Comment by Longasc — 4 December, 2013 @ 5:54 PM

  5. Happy Thanksgiving to you good sir! As a northern barbaric heathen (AKA Canuck) I admit I celebrate your thanksgiving as well. nothing wrong with football and turkey!

    In all seriousness I am only big on holidays because I have an 8 year old and holidays are magical for kids. Holidays or not, the spirit of community and giving are the parts worth keeping. Periodic reminders of that throughout the year are not necessarily bad. :)

    Comment by Isey — 4 December, 2013 @ 9:09 PM

  6. Cross-posting a comment from the Google+ discussion:

    Rog wrote:
    Oh I’m the grinch I suppose. I don’t get holidays.

    As I said in my post, I think the important thing for a holiday is the emotional impact. Yes, ideally we should be thankful, thoughful, and generous every day of the year. The reality is that sometimes people get bogged down with day-to-day stuff that it takes a holiday that says, “Hey, go be generous to other people.” Of course, some people will still “go through the motions” and buy a few presents for friends. And, capitalist economies will always have commercial interests trying to exploit the holiday seasons for their own profit. That’s why I like to focus on the core emotion without the selfish or commercial trappings of the holidays.

    Derrick Whittet wrote on Google+:
    Creating in game holidays based on actual events in that game is awesome. A cunning developer could take that, and tie it into real holidays.

    Hmm, interesting idea about tying an in-game story to a holiday season. But, as I said, creating new holidays out of whole cloth doesn’t really work, because players don’t feel the same emotional connection. I think it was UO that tried to have all new holidays, and it never stuck.

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 December, 2013 @ 9:37 PM

  7. “I think the most important thing about a holiday is the emotional impact. Once you strip away all the trappings, the faux traditions, the real traditions, the added religious significance, and all that, you’re left with the core emotion.”

    This is the key for a meaningful holiday in game. My suggestion would be to provoke some small amount of roleplay through a system in your game during a holiday. Using our-world holidays:

    Thanksgiving. You have great feasts that occur in your game. Quests to get food materials. Great big tables to sit down at and eat. A message pops up. What is “your character” thankful for? You type in your response or maybe a pin-wheel with multiple responses you find thematic. Your character states his thanks in-game, as a tradition during this holiday.

    Christmas. You have quests to give gifts. But a message pops up. Why did you give “X” a gift? A pin-wheel would be excellent here. Because it’s expected at this time. Because I respect him. Because I want to get on her good side. Because it benefits me. The emotion is generosity. The motive might be something deeper.

    Moon Festival. The emotion is veneration for your elders. This is a great time to ask the question: who were your elders? Or if you really want to hit the player in the gut: Why can’t you visit them?

    Comment by Dan — 12 December, 2013 @ 8:07 PM

  8. Holiday Traditions and Traditional Holidays

    [...] enjoyed Pyschochild’s post about “The Meaning Of Holidays”, earlier this week. Holidays are kind of weird to me; although there are observable holidays [...]

    Pingback by Cedarstreet — 6 February, 2015 @ 8:17 AM

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