Under the Tree

Under the Tree
We Always Play Videogames

Leigh Alexander | 4 Dec 2007 08:05
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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.

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