4 December, 2013
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.
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.
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?