Rock: A Holiday Gaming Miracle

Russ Pitts

The Boss of You
May 1, 2006
The cat ate most of the decorations, the sweet potatoes were as runny as the children's noses, Grandma almost died and hardly anybody got exactly what they wanted, but my Christmas vacation this year in Texas was as perfect a holiday as I've ever seen.

There was drinking, yelling, screaming, more yelling, running around, eating, complaining, still more yelling, cheering, smoking (turkey) and rocking. Oh, was there rocking. My brother and I, frequently separated by various artistic differences, pulled it together for the Pittstop Reunion Tour 2006, lorded it over our adoring fans (a mix of children, parents, animals and avatars), and felt the burn as we shredded through almost 40 songs worth of video game rock with our plastic guitars.

'Twas the night before the day before Christmas and, with the help of Red Octane's Guitar Hero II, my brother and I turned my mother's home into the House of Rock, and revolutionized Christmas in the process.


Several weeks ago, as I planned my trip home for the holidays, my brother, who'd introduced me to the joys of rocking with Guitar Hero at last year's Thanksgiving festivities, assured me that Guitar Hero II would be in attendance, for which I was glad. Not to say that I wasn't looking forward to seeing how much my nieces and nephews had grown, or spending time with my folks, or eating too much, or opening presents, or any of the other various things one envisions oneself doing over a holiday vacation, but rocking with my brother was pretty high up on the list of things I was looking forward to, and so I planned accordingly.

As I packed my traveling bags (making sure to leave extra room for homeward-bound loot), I included my axe, nestled snugly (with care) between my socks and my sweaters. As my plane taxied from terminal to runway, I said a silent prayer (my first in ages) not for my safety and that of the other passengers, but for my guitar. God forbid some bag handling gorilla toss my suitcase around like a Samsonite bag in a cage, smashing my instrument of rock.

Luckily both passengers and guitar arrived safely in Texas, and after a tearful reunion at the airport, a long drive across the North Texas wasteland, and two tedious days of eating, drinking and making merry, the appointed day arrived: December 23rd, The Day of Holiday Rock; the day my brother was scheduled to arrive.

It would be our only family gathering of the holiday. We'd planned a gathering for the very next day at my grandmother's house, but had to cancel after she mixed up her meds and ended up in the emergency room. She bounced back fairly quickly, and a few days later was looking better than ever, but for a few days there it was touch and go. In any normal family, this might have threatened to put a damper on the holiday cheer, but Texas breeds stalwart folk, and, for us, a little near-death isn't anything some beer and rock-and-roll can't cure.

My brother swept into the house like a man on a mission, his four kids, a bundle of presents, a PS2 and an extra guitar in-tow. The extra guitar made me feel slightly stupid for bringing my own, but as I laid my be-stickered, black Gibson SG between his be-stickered, black Gibson SG and his brand-spanking-new cherry red SG, I felt a surge of nerdish pride. We might look dumb with an extra plastic guitar standing next to the TV, but that same mental mechanism which allows one to interpret banging colored buttons in time to an on-screen prompt as "rocking" transposed that awkward feeling into a delusion of awesomeness: We would not be playing with an extra, superfluous controller next to the TV. We would be rocking with an extra guitar on stage, ready to be deployed by an attendant roadie in the event we lost a string mid-solo.

Delusion established, ego restored, the initial twinge of self-doubt passed into that dark place where we store such things, and I resumed course for Rockville, full speed ahead. I gave the kids a cursory "My, look how you've grown!", and headed for the entertainment center.

Before the rocking could commence, however, there was to be the opening of presents. I distributed my carefully-selected toys to the tots, poured a conciliatory glass of wine and returned to find a large box on the kitchen table with my name on it. I opened it. It was a wireless React guitar controller. I almost wept. We now had four guitars in the house and it was definitely time to play.

My brother and I sent the munchkins out to ride their new scooters and claimed the living room in the name of Rock. What followed was nearly eight hours of unstoppable rocking, interspersed with the occasional pause for reflection on how wonderful all that rocking was.

Switching between my brother's SG and my new wireless React when playing solo was a bit of a chore, so we enlisted my oldest nephew (whose cries of "Can I play yet?" were invariably answered with "No.") to be our honorary roadie, arranging the spare guitars and making sure the cords didn't get tangled.

After a few hours we had just reached that magical euphoria that comes of knowing one has found a winning game, and has an entire day in which to enjoy it. Naturally that's when someone else asked to play. Who it was, however, blew my mind.

After more than twenty years of stalwartly refusing to give more than a cursory glance at a video game, our dear old mom suddenly wanted to play. She had watched us rock, seen how much fun we were having and decided to give it a shot. Mom, who had cursed us and our "games" for years, thrown away our toys and endlessly begged us to "turn it down" now wanted the controller; wanted to rock. How could we possibly refuse?

We handed her the axe and set her up with "I love Rock and Roll" from Guitar Hero, then watched as she completely failed to rock. Undaunted, she tried again, and again and again, having more and more fun each time, yet still being booed off the stage.

She then tried the tutorial, aced it, and then went back for more and again got booed off the stage. But she was laughing the whole time. Then my stepfather, after a bit of urging, stepped up, took the axe and quietly blew the doors off the joint. My folks, whose lingua rocka ends somewhere around 1980, were living the dream courtesy of 21st century game technology, and loving it. My mother, more than once, suggested that the purchase of a PS2 (she called it "the control box") may be in their future.

It was what we've all been dreaming about: A day of family, fun and gaming. Ten years ago I'd have laughed in the face of anyone who suggested a game could be so viscerally fun and intuitive that my dear old mom would want to play it, but now that the day has come, it seems as inevitable an evolution as feathers onto a bird.

Games like Guitar Hero and Wii Sports are literally changing the way we interact with games, and bringing a whole new generation into the fold. I can envision an evening that might otherwise be spent with such family-friendly gaming staples as Balderdash and Pictionary instead spent actively pursuing the specter of Guitar Hero-dom, or playing doubles tennis on the Wii. I can see a whole new future for gaming, and imagine the games that will be designed to take advantage of it. I can picture the day when "boys in bedrooms" will be a distant memory and video games will be as accepted an instrument of fun as the deck of cards or box of dominoes under the coffee table.

I've spent my life playing games and enjoyed every minute of it, but watching my mother experience the joy of gaming, for the very first time, renders my previous memories of the pastime meaningless. For me, a new age of gaming has dawned, and I couldn't be happier.

The 'rents tired quickly from their generation-gap-bridging gaming experience, and my brother and I triumphantly reclaimed the stage from our opening act, refreshed from our trip backstage, and proceeded to rock once again. In time, the clamoring of children, complaints of the elders and the lure of kitchenly scents, wafting deliciously from holiday-themed vessels, urged us to forsake our quest to unlock every song in the game, and we retired to "spend time with our family." But for one afternoon, my brother and I, our differences set aside for the glory of rock, were gods among men, and today we have the sore arms to prove it.

It would seem that a new holiday tradition has been born - two of them, in fact. The first, the rocking, will hopefully never cease. The second, my arrival home from a holiday of rocking, running through the streets like George Bailey, shouting "Guitar Hero!" to anyone who can hear, and extolling the virtues of social gaming, will hopefully soon become unnecessary.