Monsters and Mistletoe

The Game of Giving


Videogames can explore a wide range of emotions. Fear and aggression are the usual experiences, but moments of regret, concern and even sadness can unexpectedly arise for an engaged player. Yet despite this huge range, there hasn’t ever been a video game about the Christmas spirit. There are no games about giving gifts to others, helping friends and family or being selfless in general. Aside from a few games involving Santa Claus as a one-man army facing down a horde of evildoers, there aren’t even many games that cash in on the commercial aspects of the holiday. If a videogame is a series of interesting choices, then surely it must be a possible to make a game about giving presents at Christmas time.


What are the fundamental elements of giving a gift to someone? It’s something you know they might want or like. Unexpected or unneeded gifts can often be forgotten or unappreciated, so the difference between a good gift and a bad one is based on the recipient’s desires and expectations. Jason Rohrer, in an e-mail, notes, “I’ve generally found receiving to be a painful experience. Pretending to like a gift even when you don’t like it is awkward, and you’re never going to get something that you really need because you would have already bought it yourself. This pleasure asymmetry has led me to believe that the whole ‘surprise gift-giving’ enterprise is a bit misguided. Much better, I think, to do something special for someone at their request – like cook them a meal that they ask for, or give them a much-needed back rub.” In that sense, a good gift is something that the person wants but, for whatever reason, cannot get themselves. What Rohrer calls an asymmetry could also be attributed to the imbalance between the recipient’s (often) minor pleasure and the giver’s more substantial satisfaction; the giver receives more pleasure in the exchange because the act of giving something useful to a loved one feels better than receiving a denied pleasure.

Can that exchange be made into a videogame? In terms of single-player options, there are a couple of possibilities that nonetheless come up short. Healing a member of your party in an RPG certainly seems to meet the basic requirements, but it’s more an act of necessity than it is an unexpected perk. It doesn’t make sense not to heal them. You could argue that assigning the best items or armor to another member of the party is an act of altruism, but ultimately you’re still dispersing the equipment based on gameplay demands rather than personal tastes. Depending on the RPG, denying yourself the best equipment might even tactically work against you.

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Another genre of games involving gifts are Japanese bishojo, or girl games, and their sub-genre of dating sims. In these you have to get to know a character, learn her tastes and try to do things that she’ll appreciate. All of the elements of gift-giving are present, but the emotional payoff is somehow lacking. Whether it’s to advance the plot or go on a successful date with a girl, there is still an element of necessity to the act of giving. “The danger in games that simulate people,” Rohrer explains, “is that either the simulation is too simple to be interesting (the king always likes wine, so I always give him wine) or so complex and opaque that it comes across as random (the king’s tastes are changing, but I have no access to information about how those tastes are changing, so a randomly chosen gift is as good as any).”

There is also the obvious problem of the person in the videogame not being real. Can a game at least teach the player an appreciation for acts of kindness to others? Numerous videogames feature gifts and second chances for the player. Super Mario Galaxy randomly gives you a gift of five extra lives from Princess Peach. Contra gives you extra continues to make the game’s difficulty a bit more forgiving. Rohrer’s freeware game Cultivation establishes elements of this through its careful balance of altruism and competition. The player must cultivate plants in a garden that provide three different vitamins while their opponents do the same. Rather than encouraging competition, however, Cultivation urges players to compromise. You get the most vitamins by letting opponents take from your crops and they, in turn, let you take from theirs. This asymmetry naturally leads to situations where the player receives more than he can reciprocate.

Finally, BioShock‘s endlessly discussed Little Sisters tap into the very simple choice: do you save the young girls or harvest them for resources? Either option leads to roughly the same amount of Adam – the currency of BioShock that allows players to upgrade their abilities – but sparing the Little Sister’s earns you tokens of their appreciation in the form of new abilities and bonus Adam, all wrapped up in a cute teddy bear for you to find. Yet giving a gift to the player is a hollow act, because the game designers have created his needs and inadequacies anyway. Whether you believe it’s disingenuous or simply a way to curb difficulty, letting the A.I. give players gifts obviates the necessity of figuring out what a person really wants.

There is also still the dilemma of the player being unable to meaningfully give back in the game. “In real life, we seem to have a balance: people are complex, yet we can understand them enough to make interesting choices about them,” Rohrer muses. “But we have so much information about each person to bring to the decision – we may have known them for years, and we know all sorts of details and stories about them. How can you cram all those elements of ‘knowing someone enough to pick a gift’ into a game? Seems like you would need to solve the strong A.I. problem as a bootstrapping step, and even then the player might need to play for months before being able to pick a good gift for this A.I. game character.” As far as single-player experiences go, it may be a matter of developing characters with whom we empathize enough that we want to help them.


It’s certainly easier to introduce gift giving once you add live players to the equation. You can circumvent the A.I. dilemma entirely by just adding friends you care about. Letting someone have a kill in deathmatch might be a bit of a stretch, but not stealing a kill or offering a civil apology certainly counts. Letting someone have a piece of armor or loaning out some gold in World of Warcraft are also examples of gifts that could be facilitated in a video game – the popular MMOG even allows players to wrap items to add an element of surprise.

There’s certainly plenty developers can give to their fans as well – some new content, mods or even a fun inside joke for the community. Players, in turn, can mute their criticism for a few minutes and send a thank-you e-mail to the developers for all their hard work. Or even better, they can show their appreciation by making some content of their own.

There’s some debate today about the rampant consumerism that the Christmas season brings. It’s the same dilemma that plagues gift-giving in game design. How do you maintain the sincerity of the exchange? Perhaps there is no ultimate solution; there is no foolproof way to really make a gift have meaning every time. What makes it a present and not a necessity is that it was given for no reason in particular.

L.B. Jeffries is a law student from South Carolina who spends too much time playing videogames or screwing around on The Escapist forums instead of studying. He writes reviews, articles and a weekly blog for the videogames section of Popmatters.

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