• Food for Thought: The Sociality of Food

    by and  • March 13, 2012 • Essays • 11 Comments

    One thing we’ve learned over the years is that hungry gamers are grumpy gamers. We’ve also learned that a good food experience makes for a better night than an utterly forgettable one.

    Food for Thought is a series where we talk about food at the table.

    The sociality of food

    Game day is just around the corner. You’ve got all your gaming accessories packed, your character sheets ready and you’re ready to have a great night. Thing is, you get off work at 5. Do you stop by the nearest hamburger joint, grab a bag and head over? Do you stop at the grocery store to pick up drinks knowing that there will be food when you get there?

    Where and how does food fit into your night?

    Finaira: Good friends help you feed your friends

    Each game group is different when it comes to the treatment of food at the gaming table. I’ve been at games where the host provides all food and snacks, games where everyone brings potluck, and games where everyone is left to fend for themselves. But in all of this, I’ve learned that eating is a social experience and how a person eats with their gaming group will affect a lot of the dynamic therein.

    When I’ve been to games where I fended for myself, eating becomes rushed and furtive. I didn’t eat because it’s fun or delicious, I ate because I needed food to avoid hunger and grouchiness. Eating became disruptive to game. The game table doesn’t have room for the spare food and taking a break to order pizza annoys people. The food is often greasy and unhealthy. Here, the social aspects of eating have been sidelined, toned down or outright thrown away.

    I didn’t realize how much I hated bringing my own meals to game until the gaming group I played with changed. It started as the hosts’ responsibility to provide most of the food. Because I often left work at 5 and game was at 6, I didn’t have time to stop for food, let along decent food. And since I liked my friends, and they apparently liked me, feeding each other was just something we did. And then it changed again. Because it isn’t fair to the host to have to feed everyone every week.

    So it became a pot luck. Everyone chimed in with what they were bringing (main, snacks, drinks or dessert) and brought what they enjoyed or thought everyone would enjoy. Game wouldn’t start until 7pm because the first hour became an unwinding social event. I had just gotten off work and now I got to have a relaxing dinner with my friends. Talk about the weather, local events or the last game. In other words, bonding. Game nights stopped being just about gaming, but became about friends and being sociable. Gaming was just the after-dinner fun for the evening.

    By making dinner time a social event, game became enjoyable. We learned more about each other through food and feeding each other than we did by making characters and playing with each other. We had the time to share crazy youtube videos or relate amusing anecdotes about our week without feeling like we were being rushed or interrupting. Eating together gave us the opportunity to feel like friends just doing things friends did with each other.

    It also let us practice our baking, cooking and food knowledge skills. Want to cut back on sugary drinks? There are ways around that! Someone has food allergies? Well that just means spending time finding exciting new recipes! We learned to move into trying food we would never have made without the joy of cooking for others.

    Eating can be a social act. And when treated as one, it can change your entire day.

    Kim: Make your diplomacy roll and take a +2 bonus for those cheesy pastries.

    Oh, food. Food is the best.

    Finaira and I have played in the same gaming group for years, so her evolution from “fend for yourself” to “potluck” follows my own. I think it was the shared experience of eating together coupled with the shared experience of gaming together that taught me that eating can be a social event that transcends the need to overcome a grumbling tummy.

    Eating isn’t an activity that happens around the game; it can enhance the game. The act of eating before game means that we can get socializing done but there’s a distinct cut-off point that makes it clear when game should begin. During the game, the snack table’s presence reminds us that it’s okay to take a break to think about things or stretch, which in turn let’s us come back to the table feeling refreshed and ready to go full-throttle. Afterwards, during the post-game wind-down, dessert and cleaning up gives us time to go over things that went well or poorly.

    I’m so used to having food as part of my gaming experience that, these days, I’m a little disappointed when food is waved off. I guess I understand how others might see food as a hurdle to overcome so you can get to gaming, but it’s like treating conversation with a friend at a restaurant as a hurdle to eating.

    Words from the peanut gallery

    How do you view food at the gaming table? Are there certain kinds of food that enhance your gaming experience?

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    About

    I am a casual tabletop gamer and occasional larper who likes to hold forth on gaming in general and draws like a crazy monkey who was given coffee by accident.

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    About

    I'm a tabletop roleplayer, a larper and a video gamer. I run games, play games, remix games, talk about games, critique games, read games and have opinions about games. Sometimes, I do that online. I also have a passing fondness for making food.

    11 Responses to Food for Thought: The Sociality of Food

    1. avatar
      March 13, 2012 at 16:37

      Food DURING gaming is one of my pet peeves – I find it super distracting.

      Food BEFORE gaming is awesome. When our group first got together, my partner or I (the GMs) would make dinner for everyone every week. When our group expanded and our lives got busier, we started ordering pizza (timed to arrive just after the last player got to our place), but we still eat and chat together. We even have a little ritual where my partner or I make a really, really bad joke to transition the group from eat-and-chat mode to gaming mode.

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    2. avatar
      Darla Magdalene Shockley
      March 13, 2012 at 17:51

      Ugh, I hate food. Not to do with gaming, just in general. For two reasons.

      1. I am fat. Or at least not thin. People are so judgy. Especially about junk food, which is what usually happens while gaming.

      2. I am vegan. People try when they make food, but it is a hassle for them, and then so often they get it wrong, and I’m left apologizing for not eating food made especially for me that contains cheese or sour cream or chicken broth or whatever, and all in all it’s just really stressful for everyone. I’m good at cooking, and people usually love my food, so I can just cook for everyone, but that gets to feel like a burden. I know the experience should be one of sharing and all that, like you mention, but that isn’t how it turns out.

      In the end, usually I’m eating furtively like you describe, while everyone else is enjoying sharing a pizza. And then people are so nice and feel bad about it, and, you know, it’s just not happy for anyone.

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      • avatar
        March 13, 2012 at 18:01

        Do you have a regular group that can learn your food restrictions over time? I keep (generally) kosher and that is a huge food hassle with its own special challenges. However, every single person in my group, Jewish or otherwise, is now completely capable of putting together a meal that is kosher enough for my standards. They’ve had plenty of time to learn, and learning has been very important to all of them!

        It helps that my partner and I host game; it helps that we have a very long-standing relationship (a decade or more) with many of the people in the group; it helps that I often am the one organizing the food. But I’d trust anyone in my gaming group to feed me without screwing up. I’m sorry it’s so hard for you. It sounds like it really sucks.

        We did have a big debate, early on, about pepperoni pizza. We do have roommates who aren’t kosher, and they are fond of the pig! But it felt really wrong to have pepperoni at an event we were coordinating. Our group consensus is that if my partner or I are running / organizing the game, we do meat-free pizza; ditto if the vegetarian in our group is the GM. If someone else runs, they get to make the food rules for the group, as long as no one goes hungry!

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      • avatar
        ellie
        March 16, 2012 at 22:42

        I love food! But I hate when I’m getting to know new people and have to figure out how to handle it. I’m mostly vegan too and it totally puts an extra pressure on many situations where food is involved. For all of the reasons you said Darla. I think exactly the fact that food is so tied into sociality is what makes having a different diet that is chosen (as opposed to allergies/sensitivities) so difficult. Talking about it can feel like such an attack for both sides even when everyone approaches with good intentions. I imagine religious reasons can be difficult to discuss sometimes too. Jessica, that’s awesome that you have such an supportive group of friends.

        If I know there is likely to be food involved I usually try to see if I can be the one to provide it or suggest restaurants. Though it doesn’t come up very much for me (in relation to my gaming groups) currently. I have a Sunday MTG group that goes out to lunch first and the restaurant has an option for me that I like. My Thursday board gaming group meets after dinner.

        In my last regular D&D group we had a hard time getting people to show up at an agreed time and dinner was part of the issue, so I started making dinner (we hosted every week) so people could just come straight over. I made a big spaghetti dinner and fresh bread. Other people brought snacks or treats or desserts sometimes, but they usually weren’t vegan. That was a little bit of a bummer, but I really enjoyed playing hostess and providing a meal so that part wasn’t an issue for me. I chose something easy so it didn’t feel like a burden and wasn’t too expensive.

        We usually ate while the GM set up and I had enough room and side tables that people could keep eating once we got started. And it did allow us to start earlier than if everyone got their own dinner before showing up. Sometimes some people did eat before getting there, but that just meant more leftovers for me. And the sitting around talking was always pleasant.

        I had another experience recently where I was at an all weekend event where everyone took turns cooking a meal. I was really nervous and packed a lot of food, but almost everyone had a really amazing vegan option for me. But I haven’t had enough good experiences when non-vegetarians and food are both involved to fully shake my knee jerk apprehension.

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    3. avatar
      March 13, 2012 at 19:45

      In the days of Minion University, gaming at our house was a social event and food was provided because it was important that the traditions of breaking bread and Hospitality were maintained. These were also the days before children had entered our lives, and all members of the household had full-time jobs and thus we could afford to feed our friends. That’s where the “food” question starts to get awkward.

      Many times in the last consistent gaming group I attended we would plan to have someone else be in charge of the meals each week (for in-game considerations) (and complete with the floating spreadsheet of allergies and violent dislikes) but the economic realities were such that as much as we would have preferred to spend the first hour with us gaming the social scene with our mad cooking skillz (because there’s certainly an aspect of that to the sharing of food) oft times no one could afford more than to pick up a fast-food hamburger (or their dietary equivalent) on the way.

      Someday I’ll run the 13 person LARP I have written around a six-course meal. Someday.

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    4. avatar
      March 13, 2012 at 22:50

      One group is definitely eat before the game. Part of that is simply timing. With varying ‘get off work’ times and assorted dietary restrictions, it’s really hard for the host to plan and serve a meal that everyone can eat and will get to eat hot. That said, if you’re running late, you can bring your food with you and eat before the game starts, or as it starts if you’re -really- running late.

      The other group is a weekend game and we usually go out and get something after the game. In fact, we often hold birthday and other celebration stuff after the game.

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    5. avatar
      chemrebel
      March 13, 2012 at 23:57

      Our group is a Saturday Evening group that includes kids among the mouths to feed. Typically we get together after dinner, 6:30ish, but it’s not a big deal if someone brings Qdoba or a “Border Run” needs to be made halfway through the night. Pretty much as long as you’re not being sloppy it’s all good. It’s not uncommon to take a dessert or beer bread break when a game ends.

      We also rotate monthly who hosts the weekly game nights, and once a month that host family cooks for everyone. Those nights everyone is usually over around 5pm.

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    6. avatar
      mechanteanemone
      March 14, 2012 at 00:34

      My husband and I both loved to cook. When I first met him, he was generally the host for the games, and cooked for everyone but people were expected to bring something to share. (As I always brought something substantial, that put me in his good graces over players who brought $2 worth of snacks and ate $12 worth of food!)

      We played with a lot of different groups over the years; when we first moved away from the San Francisco Bay Area where we had met and had to find new gamers, we mostly looked for people interested in specific games, regardless of what kind of folks they were. At first we tried hosting in turn, or pot lucks, but the results were so unfair that we ended up reverting to a fend-for-yourself approach.

      Not coincidentally, we also found that the games were not very fun, because we didn’t enjoy the groups very much. It dawned on us that we should look for people we liked to hang out with first, then see if we could find something to play together. That worked much better, and we gradually reverted to communal meals. If fact, it became a favourite part of the get-togethers to just eat and chat. It’s a good way to get some of the kibbitzing out of the way before a game, and people tend to bond so much more over shared food.

      We also saw it in Seattle with the gaming club we belonged to. The group (Emerald City Gamefest) has weekly open games where anyone can drop in and try a game, there’s always at least one GM runnning something, more if there are enough gamers that night. We started attending almost every week, and eventually started a tradition of meeting for dinner before the games for anyone intereted. That also greatly increased the comradry in the greater group, and as Finaira points out, let everyone decompress after work.

      Nowadays, we’re back in the Bay Area and meet every two weeks for gaming; we make it a pot luck and people like to cook something nice. We do have one vegan and I try to bring a substantial dish he can eat every time, unless someone has already covered vegan options, or I have the meat and dairy on the side. I’ve brought things like pho, tajine, curries, salads, rices, etc.

      So yeah, I’m a firm believer in sharing food to create fellow-feeling. Store-bought is OK too, I know not everyone has a chance to cook in time for the game, and when they do have time my friends usually like to show off their cooking skills. It’s so nice too to be able to compliment a chef, and to receive sincere compliments!

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    7. avatar
      Mirasiel
      March 17, 2012 at 03:24

      I always found the idea of having *food* at games to be a little odd but all my games are usually fri/sat night after 9pm till the wee small hours, I’ve often thought that it was an American thing.

      Beer, Wine and various unhealthy snacks though…those we have a plenty, everyone brings something and (almost) everyone shares.

      Situational rewards if someone brings a good rare brew and penalties* * for opening big packet of crisps whilst the DMs trying to set an important scene.

      **up to and including being forced to use the ‘Cursed’ D20 for the next combat encounter….

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    8. avatar
      ellie
      March 17, 2012 at 04:08

      Ooh, this isn’t exactly related, but one group I game with uses Hershey’s Kisses for minions and you get to eat them once you kill them. That’s pretty fun. (and they usually have some dark chocolate ones, my fave!)

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    9. avatar
      bookscorpion
      March 20, 2012 at 10:40

      I love cooking for my RPG groups. But it doesn’t work out with all the groups.. My weekly group plays on Thursdays and we have about 3, 4 hours of gaming time. For a while, we took turns cooking and we ate before we gamed, but it took away too much of the already limited time. Also, only four out of seven people really cooked, the others only rarely did. So we decided to stop, now everybody eats before the game and it works well. But I still have a host of recipes that are quick to make and will satisfy the unbelievable appetite of eight hungry gamers.

      The weekend groups usually cook, mostly before the game, sometimes we take a break for it, depending on when we start. It’s all part of the social experience. We’re good friends, we talk before the game, we socialise even when we don’t game and food is definitely a part of it. The group will go on vacation together in the autumn, a week of gaming in Denmark, and what we’ll eat is being discussed almost as eagerly as what we’ll play.

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