Feeding Fun: The Effect of Food Symbolism on RPGs
Imagine a brave adventurer traveling through the desert. As he walks along, glistening with sweat, his stomach begins to rumble. A great voice booms from the sky,
“Roll me a nat twenty, eat, or you get a level of exhaustion.”
After some mild grumbling the man instead reaches into his pocket and pulls out a single ration of food. It suddenly disappears from his hand and his stomach stops making odd noises. The man looks up and hears,
“Fine. You’re set for another six days of travel before then next ration. You’ll need to drink more water though.”
The man shrugs and continues on his way. This might seem absurd to the casual observer, but it is familiar to most players experienced in role-playing games (RPGs). In “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,” Roland Barthes provides the theoretical framework for a critical examination of how food—its procurement, preparation, and consumption—every interaction we have with food can be interpreted:
For what is food?…a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior…this item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies…it is a real sign, perhaps the functional unit of communication. (24)
With this foundational essay, Barthes inspired a flood of scholarly work exploring how food and our behaviors concerning food can be approached using semiotics. It is possible to find essays about the cultural significance of food in film, literature, and religious texts. Countless books have been written about what food policy reveals about our national values or how food rhetoric constructs (or deconstructs) power structures, yet there is a noticeable dearth of available scholarship at the intersection of food and role-playing games. This lack of research led me to explore the reason why eating, an activity so important and enjoyable in real life, has been neglected in formal academic game studies.
While role-playing games take many forms from choose-your-own-adventure books to board games, the most popular by far are video games and tabletop games. Because of their popularity, I believe they offer the most information about our society’s relationship with food in ludic systems. Both game types allow the player to take on the role of an imagined character in a fantasy world, but they have one primary difference: In tabletop games, the player filling the role of Gamemaster (GM), has full control of the rules of the game. He or she might choose to follow the published player’s guides to the letter or even to view them as ignorable suggestions. Either way, GMs share power with the game’s developers in shaping a player’s experience. Video games, on the other hand, allow the computer developers complete control over the game world. While developers occasionally provide players with difficulty options and the ability to turn off certain mechanics within the game, the creators still maintain full control over gameplay.
Dungeons & Dragons, which was introduced and gained popularity in the 1970s, was the first major tabletop roleplaying game. It has roots in both improvised acting and gambling, using a combination of player communication and dice rolls to tell an interactive story. Each player, aside from the gamemaster (also called the Dungeon Master or DM), creates a role and plays as an adventurer. As a tabletop game that relies primarily on interactions between characters and the fantasy world, it is natural to expect basic life functions such as eating to be properly represented. Yet Wizards of the Coast, the development company, did not publish any official rules regarding food consumption in the primary text for the game, called the player’s handbook, until the 5th edition, in August of 2014. Even now, such an important process is given only a single paragraph. The most important two sentences state, “A character can go without food for a number of days equal to 3 + his or her Constitution modifier (minimum 1). A normal day of eating resets the count of days without food to zero” (185). In simpler terms, this means that even the lowest level human can eat only once in every four days, hardly a healthy, sustainable real-world regimen. This revision is a vast improvement from past editions, where players were told to be prepared with rations, but consequences were not described in detail. The first acknowledgment of consumption was in fact in a campaign (or continuing storyline) written for second edition, but it only concerned water. The dehydration passage in Dark Sun states, “An active character (walking, riding, or performing some other hard exertion) needs 1 gallon of water per day. An inactive character (sitting, resting, or sleeping) needs ½ gallon of water per day” (95). The structure for the rules existed, and eating had surely been considered in several revisions before the 5th edition. So why omit food?
The simple answer is that without any of the sensory pleasure associated with real food, eating isn’t fun. A lack of fun in gaming is not a novel suggestion. Ruggill and McAllister assert in their book Gaming Matters that “the computer game medium curses players, demanding as it does their perpetual discomfort (tension, frustration, failure, and even physical pain) and a considerable amount of drudgery” (34), an assertion that I feel is equally valid for both tabletop and video gaming. It is easy to forget how difficult it is to obtain and eat enough food to maintain good health, since hunger is such a basic impulse. The need for food in real life is met unquestioningly, and eating itself provides its own reward for doing so. As a result, many tabletop games, inspired by the original D&D, similarly ignore food for the pleasure of the players. By omitting the rules regarding food and drink, the primary rule books encourage players to skip the complexities involved in remembering rations, planning otherwise simple trips, and calculating damage done to characters by lack of nutrition. The players can instead proceed to the frustrating challenges associated with combat or interpersonal communications, which they might prefer. The 5th edition strikes an odd balance of realism and light-hearted fantasy in this respect. A human character can eat only one in every eight days without major penalty. Yet the simple act of making these rules available brings a new sense of realism to the characters, giving the narrative created in the game slightly more depth and the players increased agency. Indeed, on gaming discussion sites and blogs, like EN World, players discuss how they treat food while gaming, such as this thread started by user HPLovecraftian:
I’m a rather new DM, and I’m beginning a campaign next month for a group of also new players.
I’ve been thinking about how to handle food and drink, or if I should even handle it at all. It seems like an important thing for immersion, but at the same time could be something that bogs players (and myself) down in boring minutia. I enjoy the food/drink mods in games like Morrowind and Oblivion, but even they, at times, can get annoying. So what is the consensus here? Does anyone include needing to eat and drink to stay alive, and if so, what rules do you use? If you don’t, is it because it can be, well, boring? Do you need a very specific group of players in order to use it effectively? (n.pag.)
Most of the respondents agree that the calculations involved in provisioning adventurers can be boring: several commenters say they “hand-wave” (or acknowledge but ignore) the food issue. One response from user The Red King is more colorful: “I agree. If I wanted to bog down the game with unimportant stuff, I’d make them stop to go to the bathroom too!” (n.pag.).
The Red King’s quip hints that real-world verisimilitude might not be the actual goal. Dr. Tim Bryant, a professor who works in the game studies field, argues that fantasy RPGs grew in popularity during the Cold War as a method of escape. He contends players desire to simplify real problems and grapple with them head-on, instead of worrying about intangible geopolitics: “fantasy-themed games replaced threats of annihilation from a distance with intimate swordplay between combatants vying for survival blow-by-blow” (Bryant 74). If it is accepted that games never intended to imitate life, and instead only draw on themes of an era common to the players, the evolution of game mechanics suddenly becomes clear. During the inception of Dungeons and Dragons, food mechanics may have been viewed as overly complex or mentally taxing for the game. Intending to focus on combat and character growth, the time consuming nature of acquiring and eating food may have detracted too much from the imagined goal.
If the player’s guides from 1970s tabletop RPGs reflect the anxiety of the Cold War era and players’ desire for escapism, perhaps the game developers were also telegraphing how the culture at that time thought of food. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto discusses America’s evolving, or devolving, relationship with food. Pollan argues that in the 1970s the US succumbed to an ideology he called “nutritionalism. “ The FDA enacted a series of rules in 1973 which forced companies to provide the nutritional information about food on its packaging. In addition, companies no longer had to label food as “imitation” if it met the same nutritional standards as the more-commonly recognized food. He describes the Food and Drug Administration’s view of food when he writes, “for all practical purposes the government had redefined foods as nothing more than the sum of their recognized nutrients” (36). Pollan is arguing here that there is more to food than simply its nutritional components, a common-sense notion that the FDA guidelines erased. It could be reasonably argued that the atmosphere of nutritionalism also accounts for the missing food mechanics in tabletop games: “food” meant calories and recommended daily allowances. Pretty boring indeed.
The government’s shift toward a modular view of food may have been a major influence on the representation of food commonly seen in fantasy RPGs. The increased visibility of nutritional information undoubtedly strengthened the cultural link between food and health. It should be unsurprising then that the first mechanics involving food in tabletop or video games were usually related to the recovery of a character. It was an extremely simplistic and effective approach, widely understood by the modern audience. Was the character struck by lightning? Perhaps he or she was in a fistfight. The answer was always the same; if they eat right, they will recover without fail. Good food leads to good health, regardless of the definition of food. While Pollan’s argument that our focus on nutrition may be detracting from other beneficial aspects of whole food is valid, the health benefits of proper nutrition are widely known. The video game Darkest Dungeon is an excellent example of using the context of the game world and food symbolism to create a more immersive world for the player. On its Kickstarter fundraising page, it is described as “a challenging, gothic, roguelike RPG about the psychological stresses of adventuring.” Characters enter dangerous dungeons, caves, and swamps for various lengths of time to accumulate wealth and defeat evil, a scenario familiar to RPG players. The game differs when it comes to the specific mechanics of interaction. Occasionally in the dungeon, the player reads the dreaded words, “The exertions of adventuring have produced a growing hunger among the party” (“Darkest Dungeon” n. pag.). If the player fails, the characters suffer significant moral decay and experience physical trauma. Yet if a player has properly prepared and can feed their party, the food instantaneously heals some of their wounds. While the instantaneous healing of physical wounds can be somewhat jarring in a narrative sense, it is the connection between mental health and food that is of note here. The curative properties of a nutritious meal have long been a recognized cultural symbol. One example of this can be found in the Victorian homemaking guide Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book and Household Guide :“A dietary cure is now as common, if not more so, than a medicinal one for even the greatest disorders, particularly in cases of mental aberration” (3). Darkest Dungeon improves the narrative by creating a realistic relationship with an easily recognizable cultural symbol while adding to the player’s enjoyment by introducing obstacles that they can plan for and interact with. In addition, the game benefits from the medium of delivery, making use of the computer’s ability to calculate all relevant changes in player condition without the need of any additional drudgery. In an entertainment format that strives for interaction and personal investment, this is key to the game’s success.
The careful management of character skills and attributes makes him or her incrementally more likely to succeed in the imaginary world. This is further reflected in the treatment of food. By omitting rules that govern the gamemaster’s use of food, the developers of Dungeons & Dragons allowed the players more agency: GMs were able to build these mechanics into the game if they felt it were necessary, such as in a desert or other barren environments, but their only options were to create a system through which to dispense penalty, or ignore it entirely.
Unfortunately, this approach leaves new players at a significant disadvantage. While more experienced players know that player’s manuals are more guidelines than firmly enforced rules, newer players are more likely to see them as precise instructions. If food is never mentioned in the player’s manual, novice players might suffer even more at the hands of a cruel GM. A variety of options can make for exciting gameplay, but only if the players are aware that those options exist. Games like Darkest Dungeon provide abundant user support to ensure that players are capable of interacting with the game world, since the player can’t ask the computer itself questions or change it to their liking. This support makes the video game format ideal for food mechanics. Yet a looser interpretation of this approach can be used when supplying players with new editions. New players disproportionately rely on handbooks, so providing them with more rules, not fewer, gives them the most enjoyable experience. Players would benefit dramatically through the creation of a more comprehensive rule system for physical and mental health effects of eating. Creating a structure through which GMs can dispense penalties related to the emotional state of characters caused by eating seems a natural next step. While tabletop games lack the natural advantage of an automated system for the more complex calculations, the medium does benefit from the malleability of the rules imposed. Players would benefit from the creation of a rule set regarding emotional states, but unwilling participants can simply ignore it.
Interaction with food can be an immersive quality for games, but not all games need it. The primary reason that it was largely ignored for forty years was the enjoyment of the player since it distracted from the productivity of their heroes. Food mechanics can, however, be implemented in a way that is both fun and allows for a fluid narrative. In May 2017, PC Gamer published “The Joy of RPG Cooking: Why Games Shouldn’t Abandon the Culinary Arts” by Leif Johnson. Johnson argues that it’s common to hear talk about how one of the chief attractions of videogames is that they let us become the things we want to be in life, but most of that talk centers on things like strength, confidence, or physical attraction. In my view, the best games let us excel at and spend time with relatively humble things, like cooking.
In video games, he can cook and eat decadent morsels; in multiplayer online games, he can share or sell the bounty of his kitchen. Yet, games that feature cooking and dining are becoming rarer. Like Johnson, I agree that gameplay and the social components of gaming only become richer when we add food. Developers should strive to provide games with proper structure and support as well as the power to engage with hunger or food mechanics uniquely in the way that makes players happy. As these games roll out, game theory scholars should be there, ready to unpack the feast.
Barthes, Roland. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” Food and Culture: A Reader. 3rd edition, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 2012, pp. 23-30.
Beeton, Isabella. Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book and Household Guide. New and greatly enlarged edition, Ward, Lock, & Co., 1898.
Bryant, Tim. “Building the Culture of Contingency: Adaptive Choice in Ludic Literature from Role-Playing Games to Choose Your Own Adventure Books.” The Role-playing Society: Essays on the Cultural Influence of RPGs. Edited by Andrew Byers and Francesco Crocco, McFarland & Co., 2016, pp. 72-97
“Darkest Dungeon By Red Hook Studios.” Kickstarter, 2017, http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1460250988/darkest-dungeon-by-red-hook-studios/community.
HPLovecraftian. “How Do You Handle Food And Drink?.” Enworld.Org, 22 May 2012, www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?323527-How-do-you-handle-food-and-drink, Accessed 5 October 2017.
Johnson, Leif. “The Joy Of RPG Cooking: Why Games Shouldn’t Abandon the Culinary Arts.” Pcgamer, 2017, http://www.pcgamer.com/the-joy-of-rpg-cooking-why-games-shouldnt-abandon-the-culinary-arts/.
Player’s Handbook Dungeons and Dragons. 5th ed. Wizards of the Coast, 2014.
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin, 2008.
Ruggill, Judd Ethan, and Ken S. McAllister. Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium. Tuscaloosa, The University of Alabama Press, 2011.
Lukas Cevetello is a junior in Electrical Engineering at Washington State University with a passion for game mechanics and design. In his spare time he plays role playing games and Magic: the Gathering at his local game shop, and his writing is heavily influenced by the community he finds there. The research about the intersection of food and game mechanics was a response to his freshman year writing class, which was focused on food as a symbol and a part of daily life.
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