Food is not just a basic necessity of life. Food is intertwined with culture, traditions and social activities. Eating together fraternizes, friendships are formed while enjoying a good meal and a cold beer. In fact, the whole world revolves around food, and gaming is pretty much the only place I can escape it.
Trigger warning: this column discusses (the consequences of) an eating disorder.
For those who wonder why it is (or was) so important to me: I have an eating disorder. For about eight years, I have been too concerned about accurate kilocalories, macronutrients, meal times, fat percentages, and so on. It started as a healthy hobby but slowly turned into hell. Fortunately, the end is in sight, and that makes it slowly but surely possible to look back on that period, and in particular the role that games played in it.
Games, of course, are an excellent means of escaping reality. Probably everyone who has ever experienced mental health issues or just has not been well for a while will recognize this. Forget all that bullshit for a while and dive into a fantasy world; learn the custom of one boss; shaky trees on your sad holiday island. It does not matter what you do, as long as it is something else.
Games are interesting to me for a very specific reason. Have you ever noticed that game characters usually eat very little? I do that because I work on it all day. Just as it is particularly striking to women that cartoon characters never change clothes and dentists, that the teeth of people in movies and series set in the Middle Ages are far too well-groomed.
It was quite nice for me to step into the shoes of a virtual character and not have to worry about all the problems that came with my disorder: but having energy for one activity a day, taking balanced food everywhere, blue nails from the cold and soon. Running and jumping for hours without the risk of fainting due to lack of reserves was the definition of escaping reality for me.
Yet food often plays a big role in games, although you rarely see it actually eaten. Food is often reduced to a means of healing or temporarily gaining strength. In RPGs and adventure games, you carry bags full of questionable elixirs, pork roulades, and native plants that I wouldn’t even touch in real life, but in the game have (usually) only positive effects. This is in contrast to the stress that comes with real life.
Gathering and cooking in a game like Zelda: Breath of the Wild therefore suddenly feels like something very natural. As an adventurer, you are out all day instead of sitting behind a screen, so it makes sense that your body would ask for food. In addition, the game removes my cooking stress – I weigh each ingredient down to the gram, read endless packaging to check the contents – completely. I could experiment with dishes without worrying afterwards that I had eaten too much or something wrong, or that my food would be spoiled in the sun and I would suddenly starve far from home. Even for a misfire – I’m a lousy cook – you get at least one heart in Zelda.
Survival games with ‘hunger and thirst meter’ is a completely different story. That’s why I stay away from games like Don’t Starve, which constantly push you in the face, how much fuel your body has left, and whether you’re already in danger of dying from the cold. Am I eating enough or too much? When should I eat again? Do I have enough for the road? It’s the constant chaos in my head, shown on a screen.
The only time I actually came across it in a game was during a preview session for Metal Gear Survive. That game asks you on the basis of a maze of meters to take into account not only your hunger but also your oxygen level and water supply. Drinking too much water to fill the stomach is a common symptom of eating disorders, so playing with Metal Gear Survive was anything but enjoyable. The end product turned out to be very mediocreSo luckily I did not miss anything.
Of course, eating is also a social affair and it also plays a big role in almost all other social occasions. With the above problems, one quickly gets out of touch and often people immediately look for an explanation. “Do you drink or are you still anorexic ?!” shouted a relative once in a house filled with strangers. I therefore became very good at avoiding such confrontations. The first time I found an excuse not to go to a party, I thought it was hard, after that it got easier.
This created a social divide, a kind of loneliness, which games were only too good to absorb. No games with random online people, but with virtual characters who do not judge. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt came out at the perfect time for it: a game filled with ingeniously written characters and stories in a time of social isolation. Without actually leaving my house unless absolutely necessary, I still went to parties, made new friends and had adventures.
It is extremely valuable in such a situation. As friends developed socially during the transition from high school to college, I stood still. In fact, after barely talking to people for about two years, I had forgotten most of the social interactions. It also cost me more and more energy, as if I was slowly switching from an extrovert to an introvert.
The concept of playing suddenly took on an extra meaning: literally ‘practicing’ for real life. Without going into the real world, I slowly learned to relate to others and my own situation again thanks to video games. Life is Strange taught me that it was okay to ask my friends who had no idea what was going on for help, even though it took them a while to fully understand the situation. As Geralt of Rivia, I learned to deal with confrontations where I was misplaced and that some people will never fully accept you. And Celeste taught me to take small steps forward, and that ‘mistakes’, in my case a relapse, are perfectly okay. As long as you keep breathing calmly.
It’s much better now and I’m pretty much free of the annoying blockage on my leg. This is largely due to the professional help I have received. Let me start by saying that it is extremely important to seek help in such situations and that gambling can in no way replace this. Still, I think it’s special how they have contributed to my recovery in their own way. They not only helped me change my mind, but also to learn to live in a world where food is central.