Playing With My Food

I played one of my favorite games today: grocery shopping.

I am a geek: a person inclined to get excited over the minutia of a topic or topics. One of the ways I manifest this is by being a foodie. I enjoy the history, science, and craft of food preparation and consumption. Food has more in common with games than one might think. In fact, everything about food can be appreciated in the same way as a game.

The first-world way we approach food fundamentally a luxury. We need to eat, but our basic needs can be taken care of by any number of inexpensive and simple foods. The countless choices available at a grocery store and the multitude of preparations are frivolous from the perspective of our pre-technological ancestors or even from the perspective of a less-well-off third- or second-world citizen.

That means that my grocery experience was only a short hop away from being a game.

The Three Phases of Civilization

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams discusses the primary ways we sophisticate food:

“The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?'”

“How can we eat?” is the most basic way to look at food. To answer this question, we must know a few things. What is edible in its natural form? Fruits, nuts, some vegetables, and the occasional meats are easily edible raw and unprepared. However, we can supplement our health and our available food supply if we answer the next question: How can we make the inedible edible? Cooking exists to make meat more tender and safer to eat, to swell starch granules in foods like potatoes, or to turn foods like grains into more palatable and portable foods like bread.

“Why do we eat?” is a bit philosophical for this discussion, so I propose we replace it with “What other cool things can we eat?” Cultural cuisines tend to use the ingredients available to that culture’s homeland, and use a limited set of preparation methods. As food becomes more available, people naturally become curious about how others eat. They trade recipes with the next-door-neighbor, try the local foods when they visit another state, or eat at an ethnic restaurant to taste flavors from the other side of the world.

“Where shall we have lunch?” is the domain of the wealthy, urbanized consumer of food. When food is easily affordable and a variety of options are available, people can base their eating decisions on whim and novelty. Rather than depending on a staple ingredient, people can eat at a different restaurant every day. They can form an understanding of the variety and complexity of food in general. They can even experiment to find the best, most tasty version of a dish. This luxury isn’t available to a person in Stage One; they’re too concerned about cooking the poison out of their manioc with their limited fuel.

Optimization, Exploration, and Appreciation

Games are also a luxury. Even non-digital games can only be played when there is relative safety and free time. Video games are quite possibly the height of luxury so far: they require a complex post-industrial society, large amounts of money for hardware, and a considerable amount of work by highly-specialized artists. Within games, however, we can see patterns that mirror Adams’s three stages.

Optimization is a game pattern where a player must manage resources so that she has as much of the “good” resources and as few of the “bad” ones as possible. She must destroy enemies while minimizing her ammunition use and health loss. She must complete a level in as little time as possible while still scoring a certain number of points. This optimization speaks to the same base drives we use to ensure we have enough food, but it is fun in part because you don’t starve if you can’t beat Level 4.

Exploration is a common pattern in games where the player must uncover new game content in order to progress. In its simplest form, this happens when the player explores new territory in the game world. She enters a new region, finds new inhabitants, and (often) kills them. Exploration can also occur in the context of game mechanics; given sufficiently complex rules, the player may discover new approaches to playing the game that provide unexpected benefits. Players can even explore the past by uncovering historical artifacts. Our enjoyment of exploration comes from our desire for novelty, which is also what drives our desire to find new and interesting foods.

Artistic appreciation is the most sophisticated of these three patterns. Many games have visual art, music, story, or game mechanics that evoke interesting feelings or ideas. Players might derive pleasure from a beautiful environment or a horrifying sequence. The player best-equipped to enjoy a game artistically is one who is comfortable enough with the form to not be frustrated by controls, and one who is well-read enough (in games or otherwise) to notice the nuances that might escape a less attentive player. In the same way as being a gourmand or gourmet requires privilege and access, appreciating game art is easier for those comfortable with the form.

The Food Game

Today, I play my grocery trip as a game. We have a limited grocery budget this week, so I need to weigh the cost of each ingredient against its potential benefit. The cheapest foods are not always the most healthy, or the quickest to prepare. And if a food is not satisfying enough, we will be tempted to get takeout, which can be quite satisfying but also unhealthy and expensive. I have limited money, limited time, and requirements for health and flavor. Like a good RPG, the store makes comparing easy: the price tags list the food’s price per ounce or other unit, and the nutritional labels warn me of downsides like excess fat or high-fructose corn syrup. This is optimization; you can easily imagine me as a Sim managing his needs.

In addition to the basic needs, however, I’m looking to explore the available culinary space. I have “tomatoes” on the list; the last batch of plum tomatoes were too crisp and green-tasting for salads, but maybe I should try this store’s vine-ripened ones. They have a special on tuna in a curry sauce; perhaps that will be effective if we’re craving something spicy. This coffee with cocoa is tasty, but I’m not sure if my fiancée will like it; perhaps I’ll consult her and get it next time. I’ve been trying a new cheese each time I shop. Today’s is a very young gouda (and cheap, of course); I know I like the smoked kind, but let’s see how this one is. This exploration is akin to the exploration in a game. I’m just exploring the store’s inventory rather than the game’s world.

Finally, I’m shopping for appreciation. I want to buy and prepare the best possible food, not from the perspective of optimizing any concrete value but with the intent to maximize its flavor. I choose this lettuce over that one because this one has fewer brown spots. This coffee is a medium-dark roast, free trade, and whole bean; each detail is inconsequential in my simpler optimization judgment, but these will make me enjoy the coffee more. I grab some bacon to flavor my split pea soup and some candy to snack on as I work; each of these is a (cheap) luxury that is chosen purely for the aesthetic benefit of my food experience.

It’s a shame that there haven’t been more games based around a simulation of food. I haven’t played it, but I understand Cooking Mama comes closest. Still, it only seems to allow the construction of certain recipes. I don’t believe you can explore and see what happens if you construct an entirely new recipe, or weigh the merits of two varieties of tomatoes.

One major roadblock on the way to a game about food is that food is very complex. An understanding of the basic chemical interactions of the ingredients requires a degree in chemistry, and that doesn’t even take into account most of the details I discuss above. But if some mad genius developer is able to make a game that really simulates the experience of cooking, I’ll play it in a heartbeat.

Food is one of my favorite games.

6 thoughts on “Playing With My Food

  1. For some reason, a game that somehow involves the Malliard reaction sounds like it could be fun. (Though probably quite difficult — as far as I know, the reaction is not only extremely complex, but also still not very well understood.)

    I have no idea about any further details of such a game, though.

    1. Thankfully, you could abstract much of the chemistry of things like Malliard and caramelization. For game purposes, all you really need to know is that a certain amount of heat produces brownness and tastiness in certain foods, and that too much will burn the food.

      What I feel most stymied by are eggs. Coding in all the different significant uses for eggs and how they behave at various heats and in various situations seems a nigh-insurmountable task.

  2. Food is a popular topic in the casual game space, though it’s usually window dressing and not the driving mechanic.

    Hot Dish takes simplified Cooking Mama gameplay, and makes you juggle multiple dishes at once with big bonuses for finishing them all at the same time.

    In the Top Chef game, you’re given the name of a dish and must assemble ingredients to make it. The ingredients have different properties, and some combinations work better than others. It does suffer a bit from having obscure combinations you need to discover by trial-and-error, and it lacks some combinations that seem obvious.

  3. Games are also a luxury. Even non-digital games can only be played when there is relative safety and free time.

    I disagree. I think you’ll find kids playing games everywhere, in every circumstance, even in war zones, even where they have to work a lot. Not commercially available games, perhaps, but games of some sort.

    See this post from Atrios at the beginning of the Gulf War — I had misremembered it as specifically being about kids playing, but I think it applies anyhow. As someone said about “The Day”, “What will people do after the world ends? Pokemon.”

    (I think you’re right about video games, though.)

    1. Those kids do require periods of relative safety and free time to play. Games are a universal want, but they’re still a luxury… or at least an indulgence. I certainly agree, though, that where you see children with free time and energy, you probably see games.

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