Console yourself at Christmas

Thomas McMullan

Thomas McMullan looks at how video games have become a big part of the festive season

18 December 2018 10:53

There’s something about being in a confined space with family members and cheese savories that encourages ritual. Unwrapping presents, pouring gin, watching Doctor Who, putting on thick socks, lighting fires, playing games; charades, Monopoly, Articulate, but also Fortnite, Overcooked and Mario Kart. Video games have been part of Christmas traditions for thirty or so years, but their place amongst the roast potatoes and drunken aunties is in flux.

Some things are constant: a twelve-year-old child, hyped up on a slice of toast and a total lack of sleep, tearing into a wrapped-up games console under the tree; a teenager slinking off to their bedroom to play five hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 before emerging for a handful of Celebrations. The association between video games and children remains, but as a generation that grew up playing PlayStations and Xboxes ages – and has children of their own – these games are being woven into the fabric of family rituals.

When the Nintendo Wii was released in 2006, it was a watershed moment for how video games occupied the living room. Here was a console you could use to virtually play bowling and tennis, most crucially without needing to know how to work a gamepad. Joining friends and family in flailing around with motion-sensing ‘Wii remotes’ was intuitive, interactive and fun. It’s a philosophy that Nintendo has continued to hone with its most recent Switch console; an adaptable machine that can be treated like a Gameboy-esque console for one player or a multiplayer hub for several players in the same room.

Nintendo Switch

‘It certainly feels that, since the success of the Wii and now with the Switch, there’s been a lot more focus on bringing the gaming experience to a much wider audience,’ says Phil Duncan, co-founder of Ghost Town Games, the studio behind the multiplayer cook-em-up, Overcooked.

‘We’ve personally heard lots of stories from people playing our games with a variety of different age groups and levels of experience, so I think there is definitely more of an association these days with games as a shared family experience. I’ve heard from a lot of gamers who are now parents who are loving being able to share their love of games with their family.’

In Overcooked, and its sequel Overcooked 2, players take on the role of chefs in a series of impossibly impractical kitchens; straddling two sides of a pavement, say, or teetering above the ground in a hot-air balloon. Orders for meals come in, and the players have to work together to get the ingredients prepared and assembled as quickly as possible. Things inevitably descend into chaos, as carefree cooking turns to desperate pleas for washed dishes and chopped onions.

Duncan says that he grew up playing games with his three brothers. He’d seen this way of playing, together in one room, become sidelined at a time when increasing internet speeds made online multiplayer a more dominant mode. ‘With Overcooked we wanted to make the kind of game we would want to play, and the type of game that we felt was missing at the time,’ he says. ‘The goal was always to make a game which was focused on teamwork, where the team’s ability to communicate was more important than the strength of any one player.’

Trailer for ‘Overcooked’

Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a part in all this, as a generation now in their 30s and 40s look to recreate fond memories of playing GoldenEye on the N64 or TimeSplitters on the PS2. A loose genre has popped up around this, dubbed ‘couch co-op’, encompassing everything from the ‘football-with-cars’ Rocket League to puzzle games like Snipperclips, not to mention mainstays like FIFA and Super Smash Bros. Brought into the holidays, however, these games can transcend nostalgia, spreading across the days and nights like long-running sessions of Monopoly or charades. They have helped to move video games from the kids’ bedroom into the living room.

‘I play a lot of board games over the Christmas period with my family, but we’re definitely seeing more video games creep into the mix these days,’ says Duncan. ‘A couple of weeks ago my brothers and I met up for the first time in quite a few years to spend the weekend playing games together, we trawled every game store to find the latest couch co-op games and it was great to see so many different examples, but I think there could always be more.’

Couch co-op titles may embrace the physicality of squishing together on a sofa, but online games have also shifted around winter holiday traditions. Instead of borrowing from the rituals of board games, however, these have more in common with TV scheduling and department stores – or, more specifically, with seasonal-special episodes and Christmas jumpers.

Log on to Grand Theft Auto Online during Christmas Day, for example, and you might find the city of the game covered in snow. Play Hitman, and there may be a special mission to assassinate your targets while dressed as Santa. Play the enormously popular shooter Fortnite, and you’re likely to find Christmas-themes items and clothing that your avatar can wear, all purchasable in the game’s shop.

‘Oddly, that was a thing that started with MMOGs (massively multiplayer games) which would have non-denominational seasonal events that tied in with the fantasy of their world,’ says Dan Griliopoulos, writer of games and author of Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us. ‘So, for example, World of Warcraft has its “Feast of Winter Veil” which gives exclusive quests and items to participants. Guild Wars 2 has its “Wintersday”. Then this bled over into “games as a service” titles. Multiplayer or session-based games tend to be the place it happens, because people love the idea of getting some new outfit or gadget they can show off in-game.’

World of Warcraft's ‘Feast of Winter Veil’

The idea of ‘games as a service’ treats a game like an ongoing environment (and an ongoing revenue stream) that can have elements introduced over time thanks to downloadable updates. This model spans everything from vast open worlds like Red Dead Online to mobile games such as Candy Crush, but what unites them is the scope to roll out seasonal tweaks. For the winter holidays, this means the virtual world can be changed to reflect the festivities. You might have a Christmas film on a TV channel, and now you might also have a festive mission in a video game.

There’s clearly a lot to be said about the ethics of charging money for Christmas-themed clothing in a game, although not everything about season updates needs to be a cynical cash grab. It can be testament to the ways video games, at least the online kind, have evolved into living communities. For people without big families – without brothers and sisters to squeeze together on the sofa – it can be a way to feel connected to others during the festive season, even if those people happen to be on the other side of the globe.

All of this just goes to show that traditions aren’t stable things. Having your own Christmas tree would have been unheard of in Britain until the 19th Century. The tune of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ wouldn’t have graced the radio until 1949. Now it’s hard to imagine Christmas without them. Whether or not a game of Overcooked or a festive-themed Hitman assassination becomes a yearly tradition, video games have already been folded into the multiplicity of rituals that make up the winter holidays; their buttons and pixels sitting alongside TV specials and Monopoly pieces.