Play with Your Food: Exploring Food Sustainability with Video Games

Dwarf Fortress packs a rich world into a forbidding interface: the food preparation area of a fortress, seen from above. Screenshot by author.

Written by Luke van Ryn. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members, alumni, and guests of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.

Recent years have seen an explosion in the complexity of global food systems: the circuits of production, distribution, and consumption through which food travels. Media technologies are a key part of this development, whether surveilling workers and livestock, communicating the ethical and nutritional values of different foodstuffs, or displaying our consumption choices on social media like Instagram. Food and eating also seem to be more prominent in games and play, in titles like Overcooked, Final Fantasy XV, and Stardew Valley. My current research is particularly interested in how games can contribute to our understanding of food sustainability: can “playing with your food” help inform, perform, and reform food systems?

“Food systems” are the chains of industry that get food to us, including its production in farms and factories, distribution, acquisition in restaurants and markets, consumption, and disposal as waste. Food researchers across disciplines break down the polyvalent concept of “food” into these different but connected circuits to clarify what is at stake in the way we eat. Games that explore this space include SimFarm, Stardew Valley, and Overcooked.

Does Overcooked 2 (Ghost Town Games, 2018) make us more efficient cooks, or more patient consumers? Screenshot by author.

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a keynote on my research on food systems in Dwarf Fortress at the Centre for Excellence. I’ve been playing the game, studying its coding, and analysing design diaries and user forum posts. I’m interested in how game designers simulate food systems, and how players respond to them.

Dwarf Fortress is a colony management game that has been in continuous development, funded by player donations, since 2006. In 2012 it was one of fourteen games added to New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s collection, joining such celebrated titles as Pac Man, Minecraft, and Snake among others.

Players start out with seven dwarves, a wagon of goods and a couple of pickaxes, with the goal of making a home in the wilderness. The gameplay is open-ended and driven by players’ own ambitions, as well as procedurally generated invaders like goblins, giants, and dragons. All of this is displayed through a combination of ASCII symbols to indicate different onscreen elements, and textual descriptions of what the player “looks” at.

The player’s role is a kind of benevolent parent: they issue instructions to the dwarves, who will fulfil them if they are willing and able. With patience and attention players can build windmills, furnaces powered by underground magma, and complex mechanical defensive traps. They must also develop a food system, a rare challenge in gaming. Each colony must grow crops, brew drinks, and cook meals to survive and thrive. The dwarves have surprisingly strong positive and negative food preferences; catering to these is a means of buttressing their fragile moods.

On user forums, we see many user posts about food systems: requests for new features, mods, buffs, or nerfs. We also find many posts by players sharing ways to make the game’s food systems challenging and meaningful, whether by introducing dietary restrictions, cooking minigames, or modifying the game code to increase dwarves’ food needs. Because the game is still in development, and likely to be for a decade or more, it is possible to track the designers’ and players’ attitude to food systems across time.

Tarn Adams, the game’s designer, has said that producing food and feeding dwarves is going to get more difficult from here to version 1.0, through additions like nutritional requirements for dwarves, and recipes that go viral across the civilization (watermelon ham, anyone?). An additional challenge is managing the load that the simulation places on the player’s hardware. As the colony expands in size and population, the rate at which the game “ticks” over will slow, approaching a state that players refer to as “frames per second- [or FPS-] death”. If they fail in this challenge, they will have to abandon the fortress and start again.

Therefore players must manage the food system in a way that is sustainable—computationally if not explicitly environmentally. Responses might include planning efficient fortress designs, minimizing the pathing calculations that each dwarf (and chicken, and cow…) performs, and avoiding industries that produce a lot of waste, each item of which the game will carefully track until it deteriorates completely. This confrontation with limits, both environmental and computational, may illuminate other challenges we face in our everyday lives with food.

Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe, 2016) includes a cooking mechanic, through which players may restore health, gain temporary status effects, or build relationships with non-player characters. This is one of several games I will be writing about in the near future. Image by permission of ConcernedApe.

Luke van Ryn (PhD) is a media researcher and teacher at the University of Melbourne. As part of a broad interest in games, food and environmental sustainability, his doctoral thesis (University of Melbourne, 2018) analysed media workers’ attitudes to food sustainability in the production of reality-cooking television program MasterChef Australia (2009–present). In the coming years he will extend this research interest into a study of food systems in games, tentatively titled “Play with your food”.