United around a singular fixation on videogames, my little sister, my younger cousin and I must have seemed inscrutable to the adults in my family. Our usual gathering place was our grandparents’ house; there, heads together over GamePro, we talked rapid-fire about an entertainment medium an entire generation out of the grown-ups’ reach. Grammy always smiled, gently indulgent, as we pointed to the glossy pictures of this title and that, crowing in anticipation as we told her what we wanted for Hanukkah.
We fell victim every year, our trio, to the holiday retail rush. We were too young then to be jaded by the market’s annual rhythm – every year we believed this was the year for gaming, this would be the holiday season that went down in history as revolutionary. We need Valis, we need a Game Boy, we need Sonic & Knuckles. Please get us Tobal No. 1. We need Ocarina of Time and we really, really need a Dreamcast. If we kept more meticulous holiday photo albums, they might read like a history, encapsulated, of the industry from one year to the next – one page showing kids enraptured with Super Nintendo, the next, a boy triumphantly hoisting a Sega CD, another, three kids gazing intently at the box art of a huge RPG.
We always convened at that same home every holiday, leaving the warm scent from the kitchen and the murmur and laughter of our relatives’ conversation to scrutinize the wrapped gifts awaiting us after dinner, looking for tell-tale game shapes beneath the shiny paper. We’d been telegraphing our wishes all year, of course; there were many trips for the three of us to McDonald’s during that time when they were offering Mario prizes in the Happy Meals. We were all firmly Team Sega, telephoning each other on Saturday mornings to chat about the latest Sonic cartoon, but really, come holiday time, we were excited about everything. We’d spent many a mealtime with Grammy one year playing invisible Game Gears, suggesting with impish grins that maybe she could, this year, fill in our empty hands.
My uncle – my cousin’s dad – was the gadget guy, and there were many holidays we spent waiting for him to hook up this or that, so we could demonstrate the latest in jaw-dropping graphics. Thirty-two bits, we crowed, passing the controller back and forth, while my sister huffed for her turn and the entire family paid dutiful, albeit bemused attention. We always insisted on this demonstration, because, of course, as pleased as we were with this year’s gifts, we had to ensure that all the adults understood just how quintessentially important our pastime was to us.
I, the eldest, domineered, secretly longing for the day when my cousin would grow into a worthy Player Two. Eventually he was on my level; I could hand off the controller, making manipulative excuses to my too-small little sister. Occasionally we’d surrender a turn to her, watching the joy in her face as she walked Croc into the lava, flew Spyro into walls, over and over.
Escaping upstairs in our holiday clothes, leaving fancy shoes in the foyer to hide in my cousin’s room, shutting out our younger second-cousins (who were, of course, brats), we’d play the entire night. We’d have paper plates full of Hanukkah cookies, butter treats in holiday shapes and crusted with blue sugar, as our game fuel; we’d send my sister on missions to bring more sweets, assuring her of the vital importance of her role – if we didn’t have cookies, how could we beat the boss? And even though the three of us were still too young to be obligated to gift one another, we had my sister’s crayon Sonic art, the sheaf of color printouts of game characters my cousin had gleaned for us, the full-size Twisted Metal poster I’d pulled out of a game magazine to give him. These marathon idylls are my holiday memories.
The way our family celebrated changed forever when our Grammy died. I was about 12 at the time; my cousin was 9, and my sister was 6. Our first holiday without her felt hardly a holiday at all; it was quiet, and my aunts can’t cook. The adults decided we’d move the celebration to my cousin’s large, fancy house. His mother made a “kids’ table” for us, and I, a seventh-grader, was affronted. We sat, isolated, around the little table in the kitchen, listening to the somber conversation and the music my uncle had put on his elaborate stereo system. Everything had changed, and I think the three of us were rather too young to articulate the pain.
My Grammy was gone; we’d gotten too old to play on the floor, and with the grief still fresh for all of us, there was no place in the air for laughter. Nobody seemed to have remembered to get the Hanukkah cookies, and gifts were soberly sparse this year, too – it just didn’t seem respectful to be indulgent. As a reminder that I was, as everyone said, becoming a young lady, I got a pair of earrings, a few responsible, practical things. There wasn’t really much to be excited about.
Except my cousin’s brand-new, jaw-dropping, cutting-edge Dreamcast. That was something.
He had Pandemonium and Soul Calibur. And we were a little bit lonely, but as we played, it became easier to remember being happy. Something in our family had changed forever, but as Siegfried decked Sophitia and we finally laughed, secreted away like always behind the closed door of my cousin’s room, the three of us – me in my awkward adolescence, my cousin getting serious as he grew older, my sister too old now to have a stuffed animal with her – all realized that we had one thing we could keep consistent: We were a trio, it was Hanukkah, and we were playing games.
We kept the tradition even after I moved out of state to live on my own, years later. My cousin’s parents divorced, and he had a new stepmother. We had a new cousin; my mom’s sister had a baby girl. I’d return to my parents’ house for the holidays, where my own sister had grown taller than I and too cool to hang around much. One year, the three of us, teenagers, sat together smoking cigarettes on the porch and remembering our grandmother. Right before the tears came, though, I found out my cousin had gotten an Xbox, and we had a right proper console war. That Hanukkah, he told me he doubted the PS2 could sustain – it had, like, no games.
It became a functional ritual, even once the three of us were old enough that the holiday gathering was somewhat a matter of obligation. After all, I’d become reluctant to leave my newfound freedom in New York every year, where I, now cynically non-religious, had started setting up a festive annual Christmas tree. My cousin had begun college, studying business, and my sister would rather spend time with her friends; our Hanukkah celebration seemed to have gotten smaller, less familiar with every year since Grammy’s passing. My sister had fallen out of interest in games – except those times she’d dust off the Genesis and play Sonic & Knuckles for old time’s sake, over and over. Hanukkah was now the only time my sister and I saw our cousin, our former partner-in-crime, and the little boy in our memory had mysteriously become an adult, somehow. With a dearth of things in common, we still had games to discuss.
When I published my very first gaming article, my cousin was the first one I emailed. But aside from occasional contact, our trio hadn’t been together in the same place in years. Then, just a few months ago, when my grandfather passed away, I got on the next train home; I couldn’t wait to be with my family. Most of all, I needed to be with my sister and my cousin again. As a trio, we’d sustained the loss of Grammy; now, with Papa gone, too, we needed to reconvene.
My aunt picked me up at the train station. Our “new” cousin was 8 years old, now, and she rode in the back seat with her Nintendo DS in hand, oblivious to grief in that way small children are. Aware of my interest, she could barely restrain herself from asking about my Pokémon, despite her mother’s frequent reprimand that this was a very serious, very sad time. But although she endeavored mightily to be respectful, the little girl had serious challenges restraining her enthusiasm in my presence. While we made preparations for the mourners at my mother’s house, my girl cousin begged to play, whispering low so my aunt wouldn’t chide her.
I wondered if, perhaps, her insistence on playing DS was a sort of odd defense mechanism from grief; the resilience of children is well documented. Loath to think of her feeling emotionally alone in a painful time, I took her aside. We had a talk. We cried. And then, out of earshot of our mothers, we played Elite Beat Agents in vs. mode, her pink DS vs. my black one.
My trio had reconvened to grieve, and now we had one more. It was comforting to us, and to her, to play together. And I was more than a little proud at how good she was at EBA, how many Pokémon she’d collected and how impressed she was that I could trade her some rare ones. The loss of our family patriarch was immensely painful, and in a lot of ways, it woke old grief of Grammy’s death over a decade ago. But still, we had each other. And still, we could play.
When I was leaving to go home to New York, she clung to my leg. We’d forged a strong bond during my visit, and she didn’t want me to leave. “No one else knows how to play videogames with me,” she complained. “When are you coming back?”
“Hanukkah,” I told her. “Probably Hanukkah.”
“Can we play EBA again at Hanukkah?” She asked. She looked excited, obviously visualizing the holiday, when perhaps she could play more games, make more noise, without the encumbrance of mourning on her heels. Even round after round, incomprehensible to our relatives, hadn’t been enough for her this time.
“Of course we can,” I promised. I began thinking of games I could get her for presents, wondering if she’d like Ouendan just as much, thinking of the Pokémon toys and posters in her room. “We always play videogames at Hanukkah.”
Leigh Alexander is Editor of WorldsInMotion.biz and writes for Gamasutra, Destructoid, and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.