My 7-year-old son is really into an open-ended 2D sandbox game on his iPhone called Terraria. In fact, he is so into it that this Christmas season on the top of his list to Santa was “the best items in the game.” I honestly expressed to him my doubt that Santa could give those types of presents, since most presents are made in the elves’ workshop, and that iOS Terraria has no “creative mode” to add items at will. “No, daddy,” was the reply, “Santa can hack!” Oh yes, this was going to be interesting.
As Christmas day got closer, he told all of his friends about the sort of things he was going to come back with after Christmas break on his iPhone (that old subscription-less iPhone 4 that used to be mine). His items, that you could only get on a “hardmode” part of the game, would be the best around. Insisting that Santa would not let him down, he said ‘see you next year’ to his friends at school, and Christmas break started.
Naturally, the house became a flurry of activity. Grandparents, great-grandparents, our Elf-on-the-Shelf™, and other family and friends frequented the house. There were shows, events, and shopping to keep us all coming and going. Throughout it all, our relationships with our mobile devices were challenged, but we all managed to keep them charged, updated, appropriately used at the dinner table, and especially… within sight. That is, all of us except the newest owner of his iPhone. My son’s phone, along with his Terraria characters and worlds, was lost three days before Christmas, while he eagerly awaited Santa to bring him new updates on Christmas Day.
We all searched the house frantically. The ‘Find My iPhone’ app promised an audible tone the next time it connected to the Internet. We retraced our steps as the days his iPhone was missing grew from one to three. Even the integrity of our two German Shepherds was in question as we meticulously searched the backyard with both daylight and a UV flashlight at night. Nothing. Just glow-in-the-dark dog poop…which is probably something to look into, but for now, the phone was missing, and it was Christmas Eve.
That afternoon my son looked up to Elfy (our household Elf’s name) and asked, “Please leave me a note when you leave tonight and tell me if you borrowed my phone for Santa to work on, or if it’s really lost. Thanks, Elfy.” The young elf looked back in an understanding silence, shrouded in Christmas lights on an R/C car, part of his final demonstration of yuletide mischief.
After one more whole-house search, we all went to bed, hoping for a great Christmas Day.
The next morning, we awoke to the response, left in a note left from Santa himself, and it was predictably magical:
“…You have been a very good boy… Tonight Elfy told me about the ‘Case of the Missing iPhone.’ He has been on the lookout for it, and wishes he could help more, but maybe you can use this phone until you find it. If you need help to make it work, ask your dad. I HO-HO-HOpe next time you can keep a better eye on your important things..”
Underneath the note was an iPhone 4.
Upon further inspection it had a different case, Santa-themed background, but same apps and settings as the phone that was lost… Santa had cloned his lost phone!! Opening Terraria, he found one character, named ‘Elfy,’ and one world called ‘North Pole.’ Elfy had in his inventory some of the best items in the game – items that you can only get in hardmode, and some that he had only seen on the PC version. Among them the Terra Blade, Mega Shark, several powerful potions, and plenty of coins. In the ‘North Pole’ were two chests with even more rare items, and a bunch of Christmas-themed ones as well. The rest of the world was unexplored.
All thoughts of his missing phone were gone. ‘Elfy’s phone,’ as he calls it, was the gift of the year! Christmas Day was great, and the lulls in the action from the rest of the day were spent exploring Elfy’s new world.
The next morning while playing upstairs, he runs down with his old phone in hand. “Look what I found!” he exclaims. This kicked off a process of charging, syncing, joining, transferring, and introducing his new items to his original world and characters. For the next few hours he couldn’t stop talking about which items he was going to give to his friends and how they wouldn’t even believe that he had all of these great things.
And then it happened. I hear from the other room: “Daddy, I think something really bad just happened.” His old character, completely full of gifts from Elfy in one of his original worlds, suddenly and inexplicably emptied his inventory. My son was devastated.
As the tears cleared, we talked for a long time. It was a rich discussion about what it means to hack, the enjoyment of games, the integrity of electronic devices and the code on them, and the value of experiences and stories you can tell. As for the investigation into the ‘Case of the Missing Hardmode Items,’ we have come to a few possible explanations about the glitch. In the end, we feel it was a combination of all of the following:
- The battery was low on his old phone and hanging, losing lock on the inventory in the world.
- The old phone was running version 1.2.11212, and not 1.2.11328 as it was on Elfy’s phone.
- The magic involved in getting the hardmode items was Christmas magic, and was not as strong on December 26th.
Luckily, whatever the mechanism behind the gift and the glitch, my son has a good story to tell, possibly some Christmas lessons that he learned, and… (yes!) a couple hundred shiny platinum coins that he left in a chest before the morning of the 26th.