Sean Pauley, Alma College
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What we eat—or what we avoid—is a major part of human culture and identity. Indeed, food is an overlooked place of diversity. These differences are not just a matter of taste either: what we eat can depend on an allergy or health-conscious choice, or can even reflect our values, religion, or cultural background. Furthermore, dietary restrictions are a form of invisible diversity—these differences are not readily apparent until they are exposed when people eat together. However, when we see food as a game mechanic, it often neglects the possibility for diversity and nuance. For example, vegetarians and vegans may groan when they play a game where their health is restored solely by chicken drumsticks or other forms of meat (Sayer, 2016). Yet, when we ignore people’s diverse dietary restrictions, we ignore our current reality: food allergies are becoming increasingly common (Santos, 2019), more people are embracing veganism (Marsh, 2016), and dietary restrictions have long been a part of certain cultures and religions (Freidenreich, 2011). Thus, I aim to address food-related diversity in my game Food for Thought, specifically in college dining halls. I plan on using the game to reveal the reality of college students’ diverse dietary needs, build empathy for their struggle to find enough food in the dining hall to make it through their day, and to prompt players to think about the possibility of a more inclusive dining hall where all students can find enough food.
Many college dining halls fail to address the diverse reality of students’ dietary restrictions, often providing few substantial options for people with vegan or gluten-free diets, for example. Thus, many college students fail to get the nutrients they need to make it through a day. Since game mechanics can be imbued with certain values, I worked to promote values that acknowledge the diversity of dietary restrictions that college students have and those that promote empathy for their experiences, while avoiding values that enforce an unhealthy relationship with food (Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014). In this card game, players try to meet their character’s nutritional demands while competing—or negotiating—with each other for the limited offerings in the college dining hall, represented by cards dealt from a deck. After three rounds of play (a full day of meals), players compare the nutrients they got from their food cards with their character’s nutrient needs; the person with the least deviation from their character’s needs wins. However, some characters have dietary restrictions for a variety of reasons (health, values, religion, etc.), and must avoid certain foods. Players with these character cards will struggle to meet their goals compared to characters without dietary restrictions.
I intend for college students (age 18-22) to be the primary audience for Food for Thought. I desire to create empathy for the experience of college students with dietary restrictions who find it difficult to get all the food they need, and I believe that college students would be an important audience for this message. After seeing the difficulty that some characters have in meeting their nutritional needs, students would be able to recognize more fully what their classmates are going through at the dining halls and possibly rally behind movements to promote greater menu diversity. Additionally, since starting with familiar experiences can help players engage in a game, the fact that my audience can already relate to the experience of choosing food at a dining hall would lower the barrier to entry and make it easier to connect with the in-game characters (Grace, 2020, p. 148). Finally, college students that rely on the dining hall for food are an important audience because any skills they learn in the game while picking food from the fictional dining hall are transferable to their lives; they now have a better estimate of how much food they need and what kinds give them the right macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and protein). This aspect of the game is applicable only to college-age young adults because the macronutrient values for characters in Food for Thought are based on factors like age, so people outside of this age group would not be able to develop the same transferable skills. However, the game can still be applicable to other people outside of this core audience. The game addresses an issue that affects people beyond college students—it is relevant to anyone who is affected by students’ eating habits. Therefore, the game can still apply to members outside of the primary audience who are willing to take on the role of the game’s characters.
One of the first ways I strove to build empathy in Food for Thought is through the face-to-face medium of a card game. During the game, players pick food cards from a dining hall’s limited menu to meet their randomly-assigned character’s unique nutritional goals for the day. Characters have different dietary restrictions (such as being vegetarian or lactose intolerant), and these players can try to persuade others to let them have the few food cards they can eat. Indeed, while playtesting the game, I noticed that players who had characters with dietary restrictions would often try to convince players without restrictions to let them have certain food cards, saying “this is the only thing I can eat.” This process of negotiation and talking about the experience of gaining the necessary food is a key factor in developing empathy—encouraging discussion and listening to others’ perspectives (Farber & Schrier, 2017, p. 23). Thus, the card game medium affords itself well to this type of game: it creates a social space where players are able to discuss their experiences in the game and possibly mention out-of-game experiences related to dietary restrictions. For instance, the game encourages players to discuss out-of-game experiences related to nutrition from the beginning: players must talk about who ate most recently to determine who goes first. I created this rule to subtly encourage discussion about players’ experiences with food. Through this process of discussing and listening, Food for Thought players will hopefully build empathy with students who have dietary restrictions and struggle to find the food they need.
Adopting the role of a different avatar was another way in which I try to promote empathy in Food for Thought. Players are assigned characters which might be different from them. These characters might have a different gender, a different cultural background, or a different lifestyle. Players must understand these different perspectives to play the game effectively. For instance, players must acknowledge the character Patrick’s perspective that the meat industry is bad for the environment in order to play the character (since being assigned this character means the player cannot choose food cards containing meat). Indeed, taking on diverse perspectives in a game is a strong tool for building empathy. A study by Paul Darvasi revealed that perspective-taking can reduce bias and increase knowledge about a group’s experience (Darvasi, 2016, p. 9). Food for Thought aims to harness this to help people understand and empathize with college students who have restrictive diets. It might seem difficult to force players into the shoes of someone different from them, but I tried to promote identification with the avatars through what Katherine Isbister (2017) calls the “‘cognitive level’ of experience” (p. 11). Essentially, when players are forced to make choices that the character would make and think the way they think, it becomes easier for them to identify with the avatar. Thus, by prompting players to think in a similar way to people different from them, Food for Thought strives to promote understanding and empathy for college students with diverse diets who struggle to find food they can eat.
Furthermore, I found that the brief descriptions on the character cards helped players identify with the characters they were assigned. For example, during one playtesting session, a player assigned the character Sushant noted that they “felt like they really knew this person” and was willing to take on the role of a Hindu lacto-vegetarian. I added these brief descriptions to the character cards partially to inform players about details like age, sex, and exercise habits that factor into nutritional needs. However, I also used these descriptions to help humanize the characters and explain their motivations. Thus, I hoped to make it easier for players to empathize with the characters by making them seem more human rather than just a set of numbers on a card.
A final way in which Food for Thought works to create empathy is through depriving certain players of agency—creating an intentionally imbalanced game—in order to create a feeling of helplessness. Although it may seem like a poor decision to take power away from players, I believe that it is necessary here. Games that allow high player agency can undermine empathy if you are trying to build empathy for people in a difficult situation—that high level of agency implies that these people can control their circumstances  (Farber & Schrier, 2017, p. 14). Since Food for Thought is designed to promote empathy for college students with diverse diets who are often unable to get the food they need due to factors beyond their control, low amounts of agency nearing forced failure may be a necessary rhetorical tool. Indeed, Jesper Juul (2013) suggests in The Art of Failure that persistent failure can prompt players to feel a lack of control, that they can do little to change the course of events (p. 118). This serves the goal of Food for Thought, however, because the game aims to show that students do not have much control over their inability to find enough food that they can eat: these circumstances are based on dining halls’ systemic negligence of students’ diverse dietary restrictions.
Furthermore, this deprivation of agency applies more to certain characters than others. Those with more dietary restrictions are given less options than those without these restrictions, and are left with few (if any) choices. Thus, the vegan character Alexis, the gluten-free character Brian, and the lacto-vegetarian character Sushant are often left with no food cards they can pick. This forces the player into a situation where they are unable to get close to their character’s goals because of the limited dining hall menu, which works to build empathy for people with these restrictions and reveal the negligence of dining halls’ limited offerings. Additionally, the character Sushant reveals a cultural aspect of this as well—he is a freshman international student from India whose family follows the Hindu practice of not eating meat or eggs. This shows a cultural dynamic of dietary restrictions, and reveals that the limited dining hall offerings force people in a similar situation to essentially choose between observing their cultural practices and getting the food they need.
In spite of all the opportunities for personal growth and campus advocacy this game might offer, making a game about nutrition that relies on collecting a certain number of calories is risky. It risks communicating values that enforce a fitness-oriented and fatphobic culture; it risks pressuring people to diet excessively and become dissatisfied in their body. However, I tried to make decisions throughout Food for Thought’s design process that minimize those risks. First, by not including pictures on the character cards, I wanted to stress that eating should not be about your looks or physique—it should be about getting enough energy to make it through the day. I made this fact explicit in the Disclaimer section of the rules, where I stated that “This game is not about losing or gaining weight. This game is about having the right amount of energy to make it through the day.” Additionally, the details I included on the cards were details that helped make the characters seem more human, as well as factors that informed their nutrient needs. Indeed, the nutrient needs on the cards were calculated based on information from Mayo Clinic designed for people who wanted to maintain weight—not to lose or gain weight. Through this, I wanted to show that being conscious about what you eat should not primarily be about losing or gaining weight, it should be about making sure you are getting the necessary nutrients.
In conclusion, Food for Thought works to build empathy for college students with diverse dietary restrictions who often fail to find enough food they can eat in their college dining halls through the card game medium and through taking the perspective of someone different to them. Additionally, through the game’s intentionally imbalanced difficulty—where players with dietary restrictions will struggle more—I aim to convey that college dining halls often fail to respect the diverse reality of student’s dietary restrictions. Hopefully, once my audience empathizes with their classmates with dietary restrictions and understands that the dining hall might not accommodate their needs, they will begin to promote the idea of a more inclusive dining hall, like the University of North Texas dining hall that is completely free of the eight ingredients that commonly cause allergic reactions (Johnson, 2019). Thus, I believe that Food for Thought has the potential to create an environment conducive to inclusivity-oriented change on college campuses.
Darvasi, P. (2016) Empathy, perspective and complicity: how digital games can support peace education and conflict resolution. In UNESDOC Digital Library. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000259928
Farber, M., & Schrier, K. (2017). The limits and strengths of using digital games as ‘empathy machines.’ In UNESDOC Digital Library. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000261993
Flanagan, M., & Nissenbaum, H. (2014). Values at play in digital games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Freidenreich, D. M. (2011). Foreigners and their food : Constructing otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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Isbister, K. (2017). How games move us: Emotion by design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Johnson, E. (2019). Dining hall free of the ‘big 8.’ Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from
Juul, J. (2013). The art of failure: An essay on the pain of playing video games. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Marsh, S. (2016). The rise of vegan teenagers: ‘More people are into it because of Instagram.’ The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/27/the-rise-of-vegan-teenagers-more-people-are-into-it-because-of-instagram
Mayo Clinic (n.d.). Calorie Calculator. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/calorie-calculator/itt-20402304
Santos, A. (2019). Why the world is becoming more allergic to food. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-46302780
Sayer, M. (2016). Empathy is a dish best served digital. In First Person Scholar. Retrieved from http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/empathy-is-a-dish-best-served-digital/