xwing.jpg When I was around six or seven, Christmas morning meant one thing: Star Wars toys. And even when I was six or seven, I knew that Star Wars toys were junk. My parents gave me one of the first Darth Vaders on the way to a nice restaurant in Boston at Christmastime, probably to keep me quiet at dinner. The figure wore a cape that was just a round piece of vinyl with armholes, and Darth’s light saber slid out of a gouge in his forearm.

After The Empire Strikes Back, I got a Hoth play-set that had as much detail as an egg carton, and when Return of the Jedi landed and the franchise ran its course, I settled for a line of non-canonical one-off spaceships that looked like something you should bury a mouse in. But nobody bought them for the quality. We bought them to play.

Last month, I caught MIT’s Futures of Entertainment conference, where some of the best and brightest of Hollywood and academia came to talk about film, TV, games, and toys, and the transmedia stories that tie them all together.

And I was surprised to hear a couple of the panelists reminisce about playing with Star Wars toys as kids, and using the toys and merch to – as Heroes’ Jesse Alexander put it – “extend the story,” and spin your own experience from what you saw on the screen. Except I don’t know many kids who actually stuck to the script.

Personally, I made everything up from scratch. I built whole worlds – starting with a couple of planets, and building piece by piece until I had a solar system, a galaxy, a universe, and a multiverse. Each action figure became a new character, and sometimes a few characters, and sometimes they’d spend a while flying around on the Millenium Falcon, and sometimes it was the Shuttle Tyderium.

I’m not saying I was J. R. R. Tolkien. I had the same killer robots, hyperdrive spaceships and squid-faced aliens with funny voices that any sci-fi property has to have. Over weeks and months of playing, I basically coughed up a mish-mash of Battlestar Galactica and Black Hole toys, doing the same stuff you would’ve seen in any of those movies. But I came up with the names and the adventures, and that made the stories mine.

Eventually, I got older and put all those toys aside. In fact, I remember digging them out of the closet and trying to play with them again – to wave a spaceship around and pretend it was in a life-or-death dogfight – but nothing happened; I was just sitting there waving around a piece of plastic. That part of my imagination had just fallen out of my head like baby teeth.

Thing is, I still wanted to create something, and tell these kinds of stories. I tried writing fiction, and it turns out, I’m lousy at it. I’m bad at creative writing in the same way that I’m bad at sculpture: it comes out lumpy, crude and unable to hold its own weight. I was persistent – I wrote a whole novel when I was 13, and I didn’t stop no matter how bad it got. But I never got any better.

That’s when games stepped in. I picked up my first writing crutch from Infocom: One of the first stories I ever wrote read like a transcript from a text adventure game – just a string of descriptions and the player’s commands. That saved me from all the exposition and “He walked through the hangar; there was a chill in the air” scene-setting that gave me so much trouble. The whole story read something like this:

> WALK NORTH

You fall into a hole and land in …

The Well
You have fallen down a well. There’s no way out.

> DAMMIT NOT AGAIN

I don’t know the word “dammit.”

But I also got the same creative buzz just from playing games. In the Ultima series, Lord British gave us room to do whatever we wanted in his world; we could tackle the plot points whenever we felt like it, and project whatever we wanted onto his rudimentary stick figures.

More recently, Planescape: Torment hit exactly the right balance between engaging you with a story and letting us invent ourselves inside it. And Jets ‘N’ Guns GOLD won me over this year because, well, it’s so damn juvenile – like kids scribbling out notebooks-full of spaceships and riffs from sci-fi films and somehow munging them into a game.

WizKids%20XWing.jpg Earlier this year, I got some promo materials from WizKids for their new Star Wars PocketModel trading card game. I know zilch about trading card games. (I mean, sure, I’m a geek - but we all have to draw the line somewhere.) But I found this one really intriguing.

You buy packs of the cards, and each one contains the pieces of a foamcore model of a spaceship. You pop out the pieces, assemble the ships, line them up against each other and fight. They sent me a starter box, and one night I found myself snapping them all together and laying them on a table. They’re small and brittle models, but they have the same tactile appeal and killer Star Wars designs that hooked me when I was a kid. I wanted to play with them.

And that’s why it’s a game: the rules teach us how to play. They draw us back into the experience, and give us baby steps as we move the little foamcore ships around a table again. They support our imaginations.

And I’m taking some post-Christmas time to appreciate it, because while the industry talks about “participation” and “user-generated content,” I don’t think developers always realize how important this is – how they take me back to a time when the best thing in the world was making a new one.

[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]