Why food is the most powerful game design tool

How changing our relationships to food and survival can radically alter games and genres.

The Pirahã people, who fish, hunt, and gather on the shore of the Maici River in the Amazon Rainforest, do not preserve or store their food. According to linguist Daniel Everett¹, Pirahã eat what they have when they have it. If they don’t fish for a day—instead choosing leisure or some other activity—they don’t eat that day, and they consider not eating a normal part of life.   

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The Pirahã view of food, along with the views of many other cultures, strongly contradicts those of wealthy societies, and our attitudes show in the stories we tell and the games we make. We criticize our wastefulness—food in BioShock Infinite is found in garbage cans (or toilets), disposed of by an opulent society—but at the same time we fear scarcity, because few of us have the means to be self-sufficient. And so the booming survival genre typically treats food as something to fight over, or die searching for, rather than an everyday, peaceful part of life as a hunter-gatherer.

But there's some appeal to that vision, despite the violence, because survival games imagine a direct relationship between us and our food. For most of us in wealthy nations, our work (the majority of which doesn’t involve agriculture) is transformed into hamburgers through means beyond our control. We’re specks in a machine we can’t see the whole of, and we're forced to trust that it will keep working. Stardew Valley provides another example of this back-to-basics fantasy, in which we leave our confusing modern lives behind to become farmers. It could have just been a game about a farmer, but it was especially appealing because it was a game about abandoning the corporate bustle of the city to become a farmer.

Clearly, our specific cultural attitudes toward food inform our game design, which led me to wonder: Could we invent new kinds of games by adopting different attitudes toward food? What are we not designing when it comes to food?

Living the dream in Stardew Valley.

Karaoke evolved

The assumption that society descends into ‘kill or be killed’ violence without the strict rule of law or modern niceties is at the root of many games in the survival genre.

We are contradictory: We romanticize and fantasize about a return to the farm, as in Stardew Valley, and we also fear a world without mass-produced food, like H1Z1. We want to escape the machine, but if the machine were gone? That's a world full of zombies and bears and murderers wearing motorcycle helmets.

The assumption that society descends into ‘kill or be killed’ violence without the strict rule of law or modern niceties is at the root of many games in the survival genre. But warring gangs aren't necessarily what would develop in these scenarios. It hasn't for many societies, including the Pirahã.

“It is the long experience of egalitarian sharing that has moulded our past,” argues social anthropologist Richard Lee², who studies hunting and gathering cultures. “Despite our seeming adaptation to life in hierarchical societies, and despite the rather dismal track record of human rights in many parts of the world, there are signs that humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity…”

After some apocalyptic event, then, it's possible we'll develop peaceful new societies that don't look at all like Mad Max (not that Mad Max couldn't happen, too³). And the egalitarian nature Lee observes already does manifest in survival games, whether by design or not.

Our own Steven Messner’s tale of roleplaying in an Ark: Survival Evolved server is richer and more surprising than anything that’s happened to me while properly trying to survive in Ark. I asked Steven how he found food during all these adventures. Did he have to stop everything to go hunt? Not at all. At one point, his character collapsed because he’d entirely forgotten that he needed to eat, and other players rushed over to stuff food into his face and revive him. The server, which is specifically focused on roleplaying, also had a community center stocked with food and supplies for anyone to take.

The players on the TwitchRP server wanted to focus less on interacting with the survival aspects of Ark and more on interacting with each other, as Steven put it, but their characters still needed to eat. So they developed their world until they achieved abundance, which they shared freely with newcomers.

But if food were extremely scarce on this Ark server, as it is in DayZ, Steven’s story might have been very different—would players have divided up their small rations, or would they have protected them violently? We can completely change the social dynamics of a game with one variable, which makes food perhaps the most powerful and fascinating game design tool available.

Hunger games

Food can radically alter a game, but it helps if it's a necessity—going hungry causes death, or at least prevents progress. In many RPGs, eating rewards players with a beneficial status effect rather than preventing death, which aligns with a player’s typical goals in an RPG: to become more powerful, and to go on long adventures without worrying about basic necessities. But that wasn’t always the case. All the way back in 1987, Nethack required players to eat to live, as did other early RPGs. (Our features editor Wes Fenlon ended his Nethack series by eating a cockatrice and unwittingly turning himself to stone.)

The popularity of survival games came hand-in-hand with the resurrection of the roguelike, as we collectively remembered that simulating our real, mortal conditions can be as interesting as fantasizing about being immortal. Still, not that many games make food necessary, lest they be labeled ‘survival’ and not ‘role-playing’ or ‘action’—even though the average character in one of these games might not think of stopping for a sandwich as 'survival.' 

BioWare’s RPGs, for instance, only include food as part of quests or in rare cutscenes. Mass Effect: Andromeda would be an awfully different game if you had to sit down for a proper meal now and then, though perhaps those meals could be used as context for the social interactions that usually require bugging your space friends while they’re trying to work.

Food and drink occasionally appear in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but not with consistency.

Even without making food necessary, the social aspect could be much better explored. The act of cooking for someone else is full of existing meaning, and that intimacy isn't necessarily lost in the translation to virtual food—MMO players will happily spend their time baking for the benefit of others if given the opportunity. But eating is typically treated very plainly: hit a key, play eating animation. Making a more elaborate ceremony of meals could help form stronger bonds between players, or even players and NPCs. 

It can go the other way, too, such as in the introduction to Resident Evil 7, where a hideous meal is forced upon the player. Part of why it's so revolting is that it corrupts what should be a nice thing.

New relationships

Aside from simulating economics or ecology, we can invent new genres by concocting odder or more disturbing relationships with food.

Another under-explored food topic is its environmental consequences. One game that does tackle this idea is E.C.O., which is currently in alpha testing. E.C.O. challenges players to establish a civilization in a simulated ecosystem without destroying it. Players earn skill points through eating and must burn calories to perform work, making it a necessary part of life in the simulation, and part of the ecosystem’s balance.

That game, I imagine, will have fascinating results. But aside from a few exceptions, food is most commonly used by games to heal, or turn players into warlords in DayZ, or into sky managers in strategy games—and sometimes to kill lone RPG characters who don’t know their lore and foolishly try to eat a cockatrice in Nethack.

Food has much more to give game design. It's deceptively simple—something that must be consumed regularly to stay alive⁴—but full of potential. Aside from simulating economics or ecology, we can invent new genres by concocting odder or more disturbing relationships with food: a game in which you can only eat food gifted to you, so being ostracized means death; a game which simulates the prison break and subsequent cannibalism among Alexander Pearce and company (you can probably guess who the last person standing was); a game in which food is produced by collective puzzle solving.

By imagining different relationships with food, games can challenge our real relationship with it—socially, economically, or just weirdly. Though I’m sure we’ll keep shooting each other over cans of beans, new 'survival' games could upend the genre by making even slight tweaks to how we produce and consume food, and how we think about our virtual lives in relation to it.

Notes

1. Everett, Daniel Leonard. Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle.

2. From Robert Lee's ‘Reflections on primitive communism,’ quoted by Chris Harman in A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium, p. 7.

3. André Gorz used Mad Max to describe a possible future in Ecologica, and also described the 'machine' I refer to when describing how we relate to food.

4. It's funny that, in many games, we need to conserve and find ammo, but not eat (except maybe to restore health). Though food isn't covered much in the post-apocalyptic Metro series, it cleverly uses ammunition as currency, suggesting the questions, 'Do you want to eat or kill?' or 'Feed your gun or yourself?'