In late December of 2005, I found myself with little to do on a cold Friday evening. My wife works late, and since it was just a day before Christmas Eve, many of my friends were occupied with holiday obligations. Desiring to be anywhere other than the ice-blasted plains of the Midwest, I searched for solace in the virtual worlds I’d traveled to over the past year. Though it took me most of the evening, I managed to kindle some holiday cheer, receive a few presents and even catch up with a few old friends.

When I sat down at my PC, I merely intended to keep the shadows on the wall at bay. I loaded up World of Warcraft (WoW). Zoning into Iron Forge, I received well wishes from my guildmates, other holiday refugees seeking escape. Grateful for the (albeit digital) human contact, I greeted them and considered what elements of the Winter Veil (WoW‘s version of Christmas) quest I had left to accomplish. Rather than focusing on character advancement, the Winter Veil quest line rewarded players with snowballs, eggnog, cookies and so on. One quest I hadn’t yet completed centered on rescuing Metzen the reindeer from kidnappers.

In exchange for returning him to his rightful owners, I would receive a piece of holly that would turn my horse into a reindeer for a short while. I could hardly think of something more Christmas-y, and decided an evening spent liberating a four-legged fuzzy thing from the forces of evil, with guildmates, was just the thing to cheer me up. Enthused, I queried my guild chat channel to see if anyone else was interested in participating.

Silence. My guild channel was silent. I was used to quick acceptance of any sort of group offering, and the lack of response seemed very much out of character for the guild. Confused about the silence, I opened my social window to see who was online. As I scanned the names in my guild window, I grew even more confused. The guild leader no longer appeared to be a part of the guild. My friends list revealed he was online, and so I asked him what the deal was. I discovered, much to my sorrow, that in the week I’d been offline, the guild had changed directions. Rather than a raiding guild, the guild’s focus was now “hardcore RP.” The former leader told me he’d been overthrown in a Christmastime coup. I wish I could say I was shocked. After being bounced from guild to guild all year by bad luck, though, I could do little more than remove myself. No one even asked why I’d left.

Unsurprised but a little sad, I set out to save Metzen and win my prize alone. Following the helpful directions of some Christmas-themed goblins, I tracked Metzen’s kidnappers to Searing Gorge.

The spawn site for the kidnappers was so overrun with players that they hardly had the chance to take a swing or two before they died. Some sort of impromptu party was going on. Someone had even set up a streaming server to broadcast Christmas-themed dance music, and the call was going out to the rest of the server: PARTY IN SEARING GORGE!

I wanted holiday cheer, but the online version of a Christmas rave wasn’t really what I had in mind. Dejected, I rescued Metzen and headed back to Ironforge, but I couldn’t shake my holiday blues. Even running around on a horned deer didn’t make me feel better. The mood in the air was festive, but having to leave behind yet another guild (my third or fourth for the year) was just too depressing.

Back to the desktop. My wife was due home in an hour, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up yet. As if on a mission, my mouse cursor went to the games folder, and selected the small black icon with the yellow star. The game launcher flashed onto the screen, and all the baggage I’d been carrying around came right back to the surface. My mouth tightened, and as I entered my username and password I breathed a frustrated sigh.

I was returning, once again, to Star Wars Galaxies.

While the game was patching, I noticed the community manager had thoughtfully listed player-run holiday events for each server, and beneath my server name something caught my eye. My old player association (guild), a group I’d fed and clothed for months in 2004, was holding a holiday party. And they were holding it as of about 10 minutes ago. I quickly logged in to check out the festivities.

The orchestral strains of the Naboo theme rose from my speakers as my Mon Calamari tailor stood up from the couch in his palatial home. I was no longer formally a part of the PA, but apparently my presence didn’t go unnoticed: I’d hardly finished getting my hotbar in order when the first private message appeared in my chat window. What I’d hoped to be a low-key zip around the galaxy was about to turn into a homecoming.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I was ready to say hello to old friends, but after that private message, I didn’t have much choice. The PA’s hunt leader had just had remodeled her house with one of the new Mustafari bunkers, and I just had to see what she’d done with the fountain. With private messages scrolling up my screen, I put on the best duds I could find and set off for the starport.

As I made my way to the PA’s burgeoning city. I couldn’t help but reflect on planet Rori’s beauty. The city was a reflection of the natural wonder the designers had envisioned for Naboo’s sister satellite; the PA’s architect (and mayor) loved fountains, and cascading water was everywhere. Familiar landmarks guided me toward the city’s center. Just off the main square, I found myself in the first crowd I’d seen off of Tatooine in quite some time. Almost 20 people were gathered to catch up, hang out and survey the new digs the hunt leader would now be calling home.

After a long and mostly lonely night, the response I received when I pulled up on my old banger of a speeder was nothing short of jaw dropping. I’d been gone quite a long time, but I was not forgotten. Enthusiastic emotes began flooding my window, and the disconnected malaise I’d been experiencing washed away in the outpouring of goodwill. Old friends, business partners, hunting buddies and even the clique of drama queens who had forced me out of the PA in the first place were all expressing their appreciation for my return.

It was right around the time I found myself doing dance moves next to a jukebox that I realized I was smiling. A bunch of people had gone off to hunt, but there were still six or so of us left behind grooving and talking about old times. Many of them were dressed in Christmas red and green, and the theme from the Mos Eisley cantina played on. As I took a moment to look at the scene from outside myself, I realized how incredibly dorky the whole experience was, but my smile didn’t dim a bit. These were people I’d never met and wasn’t even that close to, but just the same, we were having something very closely approaching a Christmas party.

With my wife due home shortly, I made my goodbyes. I was tired, exhausted really, by the memories my tour had dredged up. I’d done what you’re not supposed to be able to do: I’d gone home again.

I promised to try to come back more often, but even as I said it, I knew I was lying. What I loved about Star Wars Galaxies had long since been removed. As a parting gift, I set off a fireworks show I’d had riding around in my pack for about a year, lighting up the sky above their city for something like two full minutes. I couldn’t just log out, either. For some reason, I physically had to get on my speeder and drive away, to distance myself from these people and their place, before I could really leave the game.

When I finally did log off, my Mon Cal was sitting proudly in his home again, his back straight in the old couch he’d made himself. When I dropped back to the desktop for one last time, I knew it was time to call it a night. I sat back in my chair to collect my thoughts, and heard the jingle of keys outside my apartment door. My wife was home.

For most of the year, we take our virtual worlds for granted. We never reflect on the spaces we inhabit, or truly realize how much those virtual spaces inhabit us. For better or worse, the “reality” of the massive games we play extends beyond the PC, Ventrilo server and guild forum. Games in this genre have the ability to change the way we think, the way we feel and most tellingly, the way we interact with others. During the holidays, when the games themselves change to reflect the season, it’s a great chance to reconnect with what makes them fun to play. It’s not the raiding, and it’s certainly not the epic loot. The reason we play World of Warcraft or Star Wars Galaxies is the same reason we travel home for the holidays: We need to connect with people that can make a difference in our lives.

Michael “Zonk” Zenke is Editor of Slashdot Games, a subsite of the technology community Slashdot.org. He comments regularly on massive games at the sites MMOG Nation and GameSetWatch. He lives in Madison, WI (the best city in the world) with his wife Katharine. Michael is not a game journalist.

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