Content note: This piece includes mentions of self-harm.

The holidays are a weird time for me. As saccharine as they are often portrayed in popular media, they are designed to be loud. I suppose that’s part of the whole appeal. Having the whole family together, stories new and old being shared, familiar jokes being repeated and laughter being heard—there’s plenty to appreciate about them. Holidays, I once heard someone say, are the only time family gets together

That someone was my mother, by the way—even though my cousins and aunts have lived less than ten minutes away by car for the majority of my life, so close that me and my cousins often met by bike when I was growing up. For an outsider, it might be a bit baffling to think that even with all of us so geographically close together, we rarely ever met, but it makes sense when you consider our situation. Working class to the core, my parents’ working hours dominated our schedule. When your parents work until 11pm, it’s hard to plan dinner at your aunt’s house.

No, whenever we met it was because someone had an emergency and someone else needed to step up and go grab the kid from school. Those emergencies, medical trips, and flat car tires were something that I guiltily felt excited for, even as I knew the belt would tighten another notch. Staying the night with family, though? How cool was that!

But the holidays… With the kids on school break, some of your 22 days of vacation saved, and the prospect of showcasing just how great you were doing lately (even when you really weren’t) holidays were a time where all the parents and kids got together under one roof. For my family, the holidays—and especially Christmas itself—are probably the most important event of the year.

And truthfully? As excited as I was for the holidays every year, I also just hated them.

How could I not? At the risk of being labeled a Scrooge or Grinch, the noise and the arguing by the adults, with voices rising so loud I could hear them through walls, was torture for me. As someone with a hypersensitivity to noise, I couldn’t hide near the kids (toddlers are loud), and with 13 or 14 people in a house with three rooms, there’s nowhere to go to be alone. Holidays meant sound, and having to deal with people for hours, and being unable to leave. They meant overstimulation, headaches, and coping by scratching at myself or holding my arms tight enough to leave marks.

And then came the Dreamcast.

A screenshot from Sonic Adventure. Sonic is halfway up a decorated Christmas tree, facing the sky. The caption reads, "May this Christmas become your greatest day!"

I don’t know how or when exactly my childhood Dreamcast entered my life. Perhaps it was something my father got for cheap because the PlayStation 2 had become all the rage. However it arrived, I quickly became obsessed. No longer was I placing Hot Wheels in rows or hiding under blankets and talking to imaginary friends. Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 took over my life, and I could finally play (and beat) Toy Story 2 and Spider-Man. I didn’t pay for the games of course—even as late as 2003, the Dreamcast had a piracy problem and my father had brought the Dreamcast home with a stack of burned discs.

Everything about the console was amazing to me, from its boxy shape, to the Visual Memory Unit (or VMU), to the controller’s analog stick that gave me greater control over characters. It provided me with such happy memories that I was drawing Sonic Adventure‘s Master Emerald from the age of five. Bringing my obsession into Christmas—well, it just seemed like the obvious thing to do.

Kids’ rooms were our domain as children at our family Christmases. Our rooms were small and over the holidays, the beds turned into a play area for our Playmobil or B-daman toys, with at least one kid sitting on the cramped floor. The Dreamcast was the perfect device to capture our attention. The four controller ports allowed simultaneous play, allowing all of us to take part and not be left out. And we played two games in particular to oblivion: Capcom’s Power Stone 2 and Sega’s Sonic Shuffle.

In hindsight, neither game holds up. Now, Sonic Shuffle is widely considered a lesser Mario Party with mechanics ripe for easy exploit and abuse, while Power Stone 2 features enough stereotypes to make Disney’s Peter Pan look tame. But as a child, I just noticed how much fun they were to play. In fact, while playing Power Stone 2 and Sonic Shuffle, the squealing, giggling and laughter that would normally annoy and overstimulate me started to feel very different. They stopped being unbearable altogether.

It might have been that I was part of things. That I was having fun even when I was cheating or being cheap and getting chastised for it. That my risky plays sometimes paid off massively even if, most of the time, I then got greedy and lost the round. Whatever it was, I finally had a way to be around the holiday noise without becoming overwhelmed.

A screenshot from Power Stone 2. Two fighters stand on a steampunk-style airship. There are health bars for each fighter at the bottom of the screen. Large blue text in the middle of the screen reads, "Action!"

Gaming became one of the holiday rituals of my early childhood (along with our family Home Alone marathon). Sometimes we didn’t jump straight into Power Stone because we wanted each other’s help with a different game and sometimes my older half brother joined us and tickled us pink with cheat codes he got off the internet. Later on, Power Stone and the Dreamcast gave way to the PlayStation 2 and FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer 4 and our tradition of trying to beat Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (it took us several Christmases to do so). But I still have fond memories of those wild Power Stone 2 matches and playing while trying to hold on to a filhose with my mouth, knowing that the next weapon could make or break me in that arcade fighter.

Now, as my cousins buy their own houses, and we work so hard that gaming is just a way to relax rather than an obsession, December weekends spent on JRPGS as Christmas approaches take me back to a simpler time. There’s absolutely something to be said about getting home from work and playing for a while, separating out work hours and relaxation time. But even as my career choices were different from my cousins, with my focus on work in video games, talking with them I can tell that those hours of playing on the Dreamcast as children meant a heck of a lot to them. It probably meant just as much to them as it meant to me. And as the holidays approach again, although I haven’t spent them with family in several years, Power Stone 2 is on my mind. I probably would not be half the gamer I am today without it, or the little Dreamcast that could. If you’ll forgive the joke, it really was a dream of a console to me.