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Virtual Presents, Virtual Trees and Very Real Cheer

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, December 21, 2006

This week, gift-wrapped presents are strewn around the streets of Paragon City. Open one up, and you'll probably get a nice little surprise from the makers of the online, superhero-themed computer game City of Heroes, like a Santa hat or a new superpower. But open the wrong one and snow monsters will magically appear, spoiling for a fight.

Millions of subscription-paying folks who take part in "massively multi-player" virtual worlds are celebrating the holidays in their own way this week, as they log on to their digital personas.

In games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest II, players are engaging in virtual snowball fights and reveling in all the other goofy-but-fun features that game designers make available for only a couple of weeks each year. Mixed in with the usual quests centered on fighting monsters are new, limited-time-only missions that may involve rescuing a kidnapped reindeer or saving Baby New Year.

It has become something of a tradition among online-game makers to mark the holidays, from Halloween to Valentine's Day, in their virtual worlds. Sometimes a real-world holiday is known by the same name in the game world's realm; sometimes it has been altered to fit the context of a game.

In Star Wars Galaxies, for example, players have been decorating their in-game homes with wreaths and trees in preparation for Wookie Life Day. To get in the spirit of the season, some players even go caroling with their team of online compadres through their virtual town, singing -- or at least texting -- all the old chestnuts, such as "Wookie Wonderland."

A big part of these games is the sense of community," said Grant McDaniel, senior producer of Star Wars Galaxies. "People want to celebrate in the real world with their families, and they want to do that with their friends online, too."

The game's publisher, Sony Online Entertainment, even employs a full-time special-events guy who helps players organize their online festivities, which are especially popular this time of year. Famous characters from the movies are hardly ever spotted in the game's world, but if a team really wants Luke Skywalker to show up at their in-game holiday party, perhaps to congratulate them for a successful year of fighting the dark forces of the Empire, it can be arranged. (But where's a virtual version of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog when you need one?)

For Brad Freeman, a City of Heroes fan from Richmond, such in-game holiday festivities have become just another way to observe the changing of the seasons. Freeman, a 40-something father of two, said he doesn't watch television anymore but would try to explain the event in terms that non-gamers might understand.

"It's like, 'Oh yeah, cool -- my favorite show is doing a Christmas special.' It's the same sort of thing," he said. "It always sounds hokey to me, but it usually turns out to be more fun than I thought it would be."

One of Freeman's favorite winter pastimes in City of Heroes, available only until Jan. 2, is skiing in a special section of the game put up last week. Last year, the game's designers threw in special prizes such as the "jingle jet" -- a jet pack that lets players navigate the game's virtual city more quickly. Like many holiday-themed prizes, the jingle jet was available only for a limited time and will disappear from players' accounts after a month.

For players who have been hooked on these games for years, such special occasions in many cases provide an opportunity for a fresh game experience.

And so, for the next couple of weeks, players in the sword-and-sorcery game Lineage II will be searching through the mythical realms of Aden and Elmore in search of Christmas ornaments and trees.

It'll be a similar deal over in World of Warcraft, where players -- or their characters, at least -- are observing the Feast of the Winter Veil. As players keep on the lookout for a special appearance in Azeroth by Greatfather Winter, that kindly old elf who dresses in red and sports a gray beard, they can enjoy treats they can't find any other time of year, such as candy canes, gingerbread cookies and eggnog.

And sure, you Grinches out there, maybe it gives you a sardonic chuckle to think of folks investing hours of their spare time to build a temporary, make-believe tree that only exists as a computer file on a server somewhere.

But, in at least one way, the Lineage II tree is better than that real one you shelled out 80 bucks for the other weekend: Stand near this tree, and it will improve your magic-regeneration abilities.

And in Azeroth, those sweet treats not only are non-fattening, but they also restore 61 health points. Ho, ho, ho!

Wii's Weather Watch

Some nifty Web-powered features of Nintendo's new game console are just now starting to come online. This week, the company turned on a free weather-checking tool for the Wii.

Owners can now quickly check the console Wii weather channel for their local 24-hour and five-day outlooks. Wii owners wanting to check conditions elsewhere on the globe can explore weather conditions using a Google Earth-style interface.

Yes, those wags out there in the worldwide blogosphere have already come up with their own ideas for new features that Nintendo could incorporate into this service down the road.

"There should be a setting that shuts down the Wii if the weather outside is mild and there's no chance of showers," joked one correspondent at Gizmodo.com.

A Wii news channel is also in the works. And while Nintendo has hinted at some other channel-related stuff for the future, the company is still being secretive about it.

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