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[Ian Bogost's latest 'Persuasive Games' column takes a seasonal twist, as he examines the history of holiday-related themes in games - from Christmas NiGHTS through Sims 2 expansions - and suggests that the industry should produce more Christmas games.]
It's the time of year to find Christmas all around you, no matter where you go. Lights on neighborhood shrubbery. Red bows on downtown streetlamps. Christmas music on the FM dial. Pine-scented candles on the mantle. Gingerbread lattes at Starbucks. Red and green-wrapped versions of the consumer goods you buy the rest of the year in brown and puce. In my house, holiday-striped boxes of peppermint-flavored candy cane cookies are all the rage. Some are savory, some are gimmicky, but there's no denying that these products put people in the holiday spirit.
In addition to all the holiday-themed
packaged goods and decorations, all the various media industries take
advantage of the holidays. Film studios produce well-timed, if sometimes
shoddy, holiday dramas and romantic comedies. Music labels release holiday
albums and singles. Book publishers ship holiday cookbooks and novels.
Television broadcasters release another year of kids' holiday specials.
Are there holiday-themed videogames? A few, but it's not a popular trend. Let's take a look at some of the ways videogames embrace the holiday spirit.
A common convention of action-adventure games is the winter level (or the snow level, or the ice level). Super Mario Bros. 2 and its kindred often feature such levels, where the characters slip and slide around, making ordinary platforming tasks like avoiding pits much more difficult. Snow falls, bells jingle, and a general sense of wintriness abounds.
Not all such levels treat the holidays directly, but some do. One is Freezeezy Peak from Rare's 1998 Nintendo 64 title Banjo Kazooie. In addition to the usual snow and ice, the level featured wrapped gifts and holiday music. Among the many tasks to complete in this level, the player can help reunite a lost polar bear family for the holidays.
Of course, the winter level is only one of many themed levels in games like this. In Banjo Kazooie, it's necessary to get through the pirate, underwater, and swamp levels before reaching Freezeezy Peak. And nobody advertises a new adventure game for the holidays by highlighting its wintery level, although one can imagine that such a highlight might move the needle at Christmastime.
Nevertheless, owners of games like this might choose to pull them out again in December. Of course, a game like Animal Crossing with its real-time clock actually allows the player to celebrate Christmas in the game world after tearing open presents and engorging on game bird in the real world.
Just as winter levels can add to the holidays, winter sports games can do the same. When the Winter Olympics come around every four years, they don't do so until February, so new ice skating and bobsledding games are rarely found at Christmastime. But a match in the latest edition of NHL, or a run down the slopes in SSX can help set the holiday mood just as much as making plumbers slide around on icy summits.
One can set up a snowy game in Madden anytime -- but the sports game most conducive to the holiday season might be the NCAA Football series, thanks to its many bowl games. As the wrappings of gifts and the drippings of turkey fade, anticipating or replaying a favorite college matchup can certainly feel timely.