As a younger man I was a humbug. I hated Christmas and found plenty of excuses to participate in it as little as was practicable. I enjoyed the food and the excellent beers, of course, but everything else left me cold. The bad television, the armies of visiting relatives, the unwanted exchange of poorly conceived presents – it seemed like the worst possible mix of commercialism and boring, cheek-pinching aunts. Over the years I had developed a fairly broad range of techniques to escape excess Christmas responsibilities, and I’d usually trudge off to a bar with friends or escape to a PlayStation-equipped backroom at the earliest opportunity.
But around December of 2006, I found myself in a dream scenario for Christmas humbugging: My live-in girlfriend, who was employed as a hotel manager, would be working through most of the holiday. I was going to be able to stay home, skip the whole thing and play videogames through the entire Christmas period. I could scarcely imagine anything more splendid, and I looked forward to it with acute anticipation, counting the hours as the busy pre-Christmas weeks ticked by. Imagine it: Glorious solitude on a day when I was normally making small-talk with cousins and cake-hungry uncles. I’d be able to game until every capillary in my eyes was ready to pop.
Finally the day came, and my exhausted girlfriend was dressed, fed and packed off to work before the sun had even come up. Coffee would be her Christmas, and I would put on some woolly clothes and check myself in for a spectacular marathon of self-indulgence.
Sadly, this early rising had left me with that peculiar poorly calibrated feeling of not-much-sleep, and without the usual energy of Christmas, there was little to keep me awake. There was no feverish opening of presents, no fussing parents, no unwarranted excitement from smaller siblings. As I returned to the empty house, my heart began to sink. I was actually going to miss my girlfriend and her efforts to drag me away from the dancing polygons on whatever screen was at hand. I realized that my humbug was, in fact, a farce. The truth was that I’d long outgrown my sullen teenager-dom, and I’d actually (albeit unconsciously) come to love my family Christmases.
This carefully orchestrated day of lonesome gaming was not what I wanted at all.
As I quietly made myself an uninteresting breakfast, I grew more despondent. I was going to be alone until late that night, on Christmas Day, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. Even when the girlfriend returned from her far-flung employment, she’d be going straight to sleep. My day of gaming bliss was quickly becoming a disaster.
I flicked on a console and tried to play something. I don’t recall what it was – perhaps Ico or something else a bit emo. Then I tried to watch TV, but I’d seen all the films, and the crass jabber from other channels led me to punch it off again.
Then I talked at the cats. They blinked. I needed human response, I realized, and I’d have to play my long-loved space-MMOG, Eve Online, in order to get it. As much as I wanted to avoid being the nerd who spent the holidays glued to the grind – and despite the fact that I knew there wouldn’t be much going on, because half the globe would be asleep and the other half busy with their own family Christmases – at least I’d be talking to real people.
I logged in. At the time, my in-game corporation was based in the treacherous depths of 0.0 space, where anything goes and player-versus-player conflict is endless. We were just a handful of pilots, but we’d made friends with some of the other local players and formed a decent network of allies. A few of these people were online. There were two Australians for whom Christmas was almost over and an American chap who had been up all night playing Eve on Christmas eve. There was also a member of my own corporation, who was avoiding familial responsibilities in his parents’ home. “I don’t think they even know I have games installed on their PC,” he said, reminding me of my own parents’ tech-blindness. The two of us exchanged a few volleys with the snowball launchers CCP had dropped into the game a few years earlier, and I began to feel a little more festive.
I did some housekeeping in our home space station, then grabbed a small, fast scouting ship to head out into the nearby systems. If there was going to be anyone around, I thought, then I’d make jolly by making them miserable. Of course, there was no way for me to actually kill anyone in my tiny ship, but I might be able to pin them in place until the cavalry arrived – assuming the cavalry was still logged into the game by the time I found anything.
I toured the usual target systems where our enemies lived. A few of them were logged in, but docked. It was desolate. I could feel the loneliness creeping back, but I reasoned that if I roamed further abroad I might be able to get a kill and reap a shot of adrenaline as my reward.
Eventually, I spotted something. It was a strange gibberish name in the local chat channel, signifying there was someone in system with me. For a moment I spotted a Raven-class battleship on my scanner – and then nothing. There were no stations, so he was still in open space. Even better, I knew precisely who or what he was: a currency farmer. Farmers earn buckets of in-game ISK, then turn it around for real-world cash. There have long been many of these chaps in the quieter corners of the game, and they’d often log off as soon as you enter their system to avoid being killed. This one had another technique: He warped to a point in deep space and then cloaked his ship so I couldn’t find it.
Currency merchants seldom engage in combat or even chat, but something was up with this one. Unusually, he spoke in the local channel. The words were English, but they made absolutely no sense – probably the result of his native language being put through an online translator. I watched the nonsense scroll up in my inbox for a while and wondered what he was trying to achieve. When I jumped into the next system, it became clear: He’d been trying to distract me.
The next system contained something I’d never seen before: thirty or more of the currency farmers in one place. They all had the same gibberish names and Raven ships – perfect for killing NPCs and grinding up cash – except for one, who kept them resupplied in an industrial hauler ship. Perhaps I was simply witnessing all the local farmers grouping up in once place to re-arm. But that made no sense; surely the cargo ship would simply tour the systems, collecting loot and dropping off ammo. No, there was something else going on.
The farmers began to disappear from the local channel, but I tracked them to a jumpgate. They weren’t logging off, they were jumping to the next system. These cash cows were making a break for the safety of Empire space, and they were doing it together in the quiet of Christmas day. Unfortunately for them, they had a long way to go, and they were moving slowly.
Being a single ship against 30 meant I had no hope of holding more than one of them, and I’d be unlikely to kill even the hauler with this many of his comrades nearby. I frantically began to type up what I’d seen in our private chat channels, alerting the few allies I had online. Sleepy as they were, they flew into action. We rapidly prepared an ambush: An Interdictor-class ship would interrupt the travel of the farmer ships while a small “damage” fleet would kill as many of them as possible.
The intelligence channel came to life as people pulled other online friends from the games they got for Christmas and dragged pilots away from watching TV with their families. Soon, we had more people online than was normal for any other day of the year.
The fight, when it happened, was brief and savage. The currency farmers cursed us in their translated gibberish, and we came away with only a single loss: the interdictor that had stopped them in their tracks. It was a glorious victory – that is, until someone said “Somewhere in the world there’s an employee of a currency farming sweatshop whose Christmas we just totally ruined. His boss won’t be happy.”
We laughed, but it wasn’t funny. In fact, it could have been true. “Sorry kids, I lost the battleship fleet. There goes a month’s pay.” I imagined the sad, tiny faces of Chinese children, and as my excitement and bloodlust waned, I was wracked by guilt. All’s fair in virtual war, I told myself. They were currency farmers working against the spirit (and the TOS) of the game – about as legitimate as targets come, right? Oh God, this was like a digital Christmas Carol, with all the ghosts of gamers past coming back to haunt me. I promptly logged off.
I’d killed several hours by this point, but my lack of sleep was beginning to kick in. I was in a vague trance, clicking through websites that I’d read the day before, well aware that they were unlikely to have been updated on Christmas day. Could I feel any less seasonal? Could it be that even gaming couldn’t save me? Despondently, I ate some Christmas cake that had been sent to me by my family, far away in Cambridge. I changed my instant messenger status to “Home Alone.” It seemed as if nothing could lever me out of this hole.
Finally, an instant message box blinked up, and a cheery emoticon appeared. “How about a slice of Christmas Quake … for old time’s sake?” It was an old friend from my Quake III days with an invitation that was too good a pun for me not to accept. But that, Christmas readers, is another story.