Empathy is a Dish Best Served Digital

Chef Antoine from Dead Rising menaces with a meat cleaver

Matt Sayer is an analyst programmer from Melbourne, Australia with a passion for psychology and the cognitive biases that subconsciously influence our daily life. bio-twitter

Wizards need food badly – and so do a lot of video game characters these days. Survival games like Don’t Starve and Rust make hunger a core gameplay mechanic, elevating food from a simple side dish to the main course. This can produce some fascinating conundrums: what if you’re a vegetarian but a game only serves meat? As a vegetarian myself, I find that the function of food in such games overshadows its form; I treat it as I would a health potion or a medkit. It’s a necessary concession if I want to play games like Rogue Legacy and Final Fight.

That’s not to say I enjoy it, though. Food isn’t just a source of sustenance, it’s a part of our identity, and betraying that identity even in the digital realm leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Virtual embodiment need not be 1:1, of course; I have no trouble projecting myself onto a female avatar or assuming the role of a medieval knight. The dissonance kicks in when ideologies, rather than physiologies, clash. While I could, theoretically, be a space bounty hunter in another life, I find it a lot harder to imagine abandoning my vegetarian lifestyle and the principles it represents.

This is less of an issue when I’m playing as a well-established character like Nathan Drake or BJ Blazkowicz, where my relationship to them is one of empathy rather than embodiment. But when the protagonist serves as a canvas for me to paint myself on, any lines already drawn spoil the portrait. An avatar that consumes meat is plainly not me, and that fact niggles and gnaws until my digital self becomes the ‘other’, a superficially similar but fundamentally foreign entity that just feels wrong. It’s like looking at the Twilight Zone version of myself, the aberrations subtle but pervasive and wholly unnerving.

This notion of food as a vector for otherness has a long history, fueling some of the most primal us-vs-them conflicts in human culture. Whether cultural, biological, or psychological, dietary preferences tie back to tribal affiliations and personal identity. The Jewish avoidance of pork was claimed by Christianity to stem from their porcine nature and subsequent reluctance to commit cannibalism. Conversely, the Jewish sentiment condemned Christian pig-eaters as being as filthy and loathsome as the creatures themselves.

The Food That Divides Us

Modern society, for all its globalisation, is no less prone to attaching stereotypes to food. This trend is especially damaging in video games, where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are often painted in stark black and white. When every heavyset character is depicted with a hamburger in hand, the implication is that anyone with a weight problem must be a lazy glutton. In reality, though, I know plenty of healthy eaters with large physiques, and just as many unhealthy ones with bodies as slim as a smartphone. So when a game regurgitates another stale joke about putting down the fork, I find myself feeling the same discomfort I do every Christmas, when the beer starts flowing and inhibitions give way to crude humour and casual racism. Any sense of belonging I might have felt, whether to family or fiction, dissolves, my principles slamming into walls built of pints and polygons. No reasoned argument can penetrate their stubborn facades, leaving me with little choice but to get up and walk away; to remain would be to align myself with the values I oppose, sleeping with the enemy of the person I aspire to be. Both in-game and out, this ideological dissonance drains my empathy dry.

Walls often divide us whenever food comes into play. Consider the enmity that arises from both sides of the vegan debate. You have animal-rights activists marching into steakhouses and condemning the patrons’ culinary choices; while meat-lovers drape themselves in sausages and storm vegan cafes, hurling slabs of meat at the unwitting diners. This attitude often bleeds into games, too. One of the most common vessels is the Elven race, which is typically portrayed as pale, physically weak, and morally conceited. These traits are intertwined with the Elvish attitude towards natural harmony and sustainability. The human lust for causality links the two together, reinforcing the notion that all vegetarians are weak, snooty, and decidedly inhuman.

This always upsets me. If I want to role-play the vegetarian, I have to resign myself to the role of the sneaky rogue or the fragile mage, never the commanding warrior. Even when it’s technically possible to play a different class as a herbivore, I still have to listen to the same lazy presumptions being bandied about whenever the topic of Elves is brought up. Nor is this problem confined to fantasy games. In the first two Saints Row games, for example, food can be used to restore health mid-battle, an essential aid in the tougher fights. Of the foods available, though, very few are vegetarian, and those few are more difficult to obtain than the many burgers the games feature. Similarly, the Dead Rising games offer a smorgasbord of carnivorous delights but few non-meat dishes, with the former providing far more healing than the latter. So much for vegetarian being the healthier option.

Stereotyping is no less severe at the other end of the spectrum, either. Consider the relationship between body shape and junk food. Heavyset video game characters like Fat Princess and Darlene Fleischermacher from Dead Rising 3 are portrayed as single-minded, food-obsessed junkies, their size attributed to an inability to control their hunger. It is far easier to communicate an addiction to hamburgers and chocolate than it is to consider genetic, hormonal, or medical causes, all of which are just as plausible. Nor do biological factors lend themselves as well to the crude fat-shaming humour synonymous with large characters. If they can’t be made fun of, games proclaim, they don’t even deserve to exist.

The same attitude extends to player-created characters, especially in RPGs. Character creators in games like Dragon Age and Skyrim don’t support plus-size figures, permitting only skinny heroes to save the world. The absence of larger physiques implies they are abnormal and undesirable, unworthy of representation. Fat heroes, it seems, are an oxymoron.

The miserable treatment of rotundity in video games is an insult to anyone with meat on their bones. By mocking and demonising characters on the basis of their diets, food once again divides us, fragmenting our society with another meaningless definition of ‘normality’.

International cuisine might be a staple of the modern diet, but you wouldn’t know it from its depiction in video games. Starting way back with Mario and Luigi’s fondness for pasta, and Punch Out!!’s baguette-eating Frenchman, sushi-eating Japanese, and maple-syrup-chugging Canadians, video games often turn to cheap caricatures instead of nuanced authenticity. The Grand Theft Auto games are notorious in this regard. In GTA 3, the Chinese Triad drive fish vans and operate noodle stalls, while in GTA: San Andreas, protagonist CJ’s diet is limited to the kind of fast food associated with the ‘urban’ lifestyle. Culinary stereotypes like these dehumanise their subjects, portraying them as corporeal punch-lines that don’t warrant the same treatment as real people. It’s okay to shoot the drunk Russian because he doesn’t really exist, no more than the mushroom-shaped Goomba or the sledgehammer-wielding Super Mutant.

Not only are these depictions offensive, they undermine the tremendous cultural value contained within our food. Our beliefs, our history, and our nature are written into the dishes we eat: Australian damper folds the tale of the humble swagman into its soft dough, speaking of a time before towns and cities when home was wherever the campfire was; Sushi began as a means for preserving fish in a time long before refrigeration; Chop Suey, which translates to ‘assorted pieces’, rose to popularity with the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the U.S., when food was scarce and leftovers couldn’t be wasted. Alas, games skip over the rich cultural ingredients that go into our national cuisines, serving them up as little more than side dishes that reinforce rather than break down the barriers that divide us.

Breaking Bread

The thing is, food doesn’t have to divide us. A good meal can inspire empathy among those who share it, humanising its participants under the universal need to eat. When we ‘break bread’, we are sharing the potential for life, symbolically depriving ourselves for the sake of another. When we dine at a stranger’s table, we put our trust in their cooking, accepting their dietary preferences at the same time they accommodate ours. In these moments of mutual vulnerability, we are reminded that for all our differences, at the most basic human level, we are one and the same.

This is just as true in the digital world as the organic one. The cult horror game Deadly Premonition serves up a prime example. Special Agent York, the game’s oddball protagonist, begins the game en route to the quiet town of Greenvale, Washington to investigate a murder. Upon his arrival, he is met with suspicion and resentment by Greenvale’s local police force. They see him as the hotshot FBI agent intruding on their turf, and dismiss his expertise as big-city nonsense.

Their attitude gradually warms over the course of the game, though, due in no small part to the many meals they enjoy together. Each in-game day (the town of Greenvale runs on a real-time schedule), York is able to eat lunch with his new colleagues at the sheriff’s department. These meals strip away adversarial pretense and allow the characters to connect on the most basic human level. Thomas, assistant to the sheriff, proves to be a talented cook, and York’s appreciation for his dishes provides a jumping-off point for discussion of favourite foods and unusual cuisine. Emily’s disastrous culinary skills serve as a running joke that offers some much-needed levity to the ongoing murder investigation. And even George, the stubbornly stoic sheriff, reveals a softer side in his love for French fries and ketchup.

As the mystery of Greenvale deepens and suspicion falls upon the sheriff’s department itself, the laughs shared over salad and sandwiches complicate the situation even further. Eating together is an act of intimacy; could York have let food blind him to betrayal? Those humble scenes add valuable depth to the key players in Deadly Premonition’s story. Food not only unites them, it humanises them in ways the corny dialogue simply can’t.

Conveying the essence of food through sight and sound alone is an impossible task. Books and movies are never going to fully capture the decadent aroma of freshly-baked cookies or the nourishing warmth of a hot bowl of soup. Video games might be no different in that regard, but by establishing a clear causal relationship between a player’s culinary choices and the effects they produce, games grant digital food the same potency as the real stuff. From simple mechanics like a hamburger restoring your health or a curry giving you flame breath arise powerful subconscious associations, far harder to spot and squash than those written on a page or acted out by somebody else. Up until my late teenage years, I wouldn’t touch Indian food out of fear I’d end up spitting fireballs like Kirby after he ingests a Superspicy curry. Not only did I miss out on diversifying my taste buds, I steered clear of Indian culture as a whole, as if spiciness was somehow a representative trait of the entirety of Indian society. Ludicrous, and all because of a misinformed video game trope.

At the same time, digital food is uniquely primed to bring us together at the same table. Following Deadly Premonition’s lead, more games could explore the memories and emotions we attach to the things we eat. Rather than relegating the culinary backstory to the apron-wearing chef stereotype, why not acknowledge the fact that everybody eats and give all characters a layer of culinary depth? Some JRPGs are already on the right path with their inclusion of character-specific favourite foods, but why stop there? Maybe the heavyset warrior is a vegetarian, driven away from meat after witnessing so much bloody slaughter in his life? Maybe the female protagonist isn’t afraid to indulge her love of steak, despite the unhealthy relationship society encourages between women and food?

By attaching positive gameplay buffs to these three-dimensional appetites, games could reward us for letting go of our culinary prejudices, leveraging our Pavlovian subconscious for good instead of evil. Just as we need to be mindful of the food we put in our bodies, so too must we consider the meals we feed our brains. A poor digital diet can lead to intellectual malnourishment, fortifying the fragile facades between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Forget high-resolution graphics and lazy fridging incidents; a simple meal is the secret ingredient of human empathy.