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02.13.08

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Phaedra

Hot Stuff: Cooking Mama looks sweet now, but she shoots flames from her eyes when displeased.

Virtual Vittles

Unreal food that's satisfying to the last byte

By Suzanne Podhaizer


C hristopher Coccaro, a 19-year-old college student, is throwing together some pork and vegetable soup. First, he rapidly chops and slices a green onion, carrot and a radish. He tosses the veggies into a sizzling pan and stirs them regularly to ensure they don't burn. Then he adds them to some liquid in a pot, drops in the pork and adjusts the temperature. The whole process takes around four minutes, but when he's done, there's no steaming bowl of soup to enjoy. Coccaro isn't making dinner; he's demonstrating Cooking Mama, a game for the handheld Nintendo DS. Instead of using a knife or a wooden spoon, he performed his cutting and mixing with a skinny stylus.

Coccaro can easily make fried gyoza and hand-rolled sushi to Cooking Mama's satisfaction. (The temperamental animated woman's eyes shoot flames when you fail at a task.) But he isn't so savvy in an actual kitchen. "I can make grilled cheese sandwiches, that's about it," Coccaro confesses. He's proof that you don't need to know a saucier from a skillet to enjoy the startling number of "virtual cooking" options that exist in computer and console games and on the Internet.

Why would anyone want to "cook" if they don't end up with a delicious morsel? The millions of people participating in virtual cooking may each have their own motivations, but it seems clear that a game focused on food has a potential mass appeal that games about, say, fly fishing or knitting lack. Maybe it's because almost everybody likes to think about food—for instance, to watch other people stir and sample on the Food Network—even if they can't find the time or energy to make it themselves. Plus, game-based cooking always has a tangible outcome: a meal that can be sold for money, a concoction that restores health or an item that can be shown off to other players. For that reason, even those who aren't foodies in RL (real life in gamer-ese) may opt to stir things up in a game.

Cooking Mama falls under the umbrella of what the industry calls "casual games"—addictive, easy-to-learn diversions that can be enjoyed by hardcore gamers and nongamers alike. It's one of many food-related titles in the casual game sphere, such as Diner Dash and Cake Mania, that test organizational skills and speed by requiring players to perform tasks in a logical sequence within a set time. Most of these games, though, don't actually have anything in common with following a recipe. Cooking Mama is unique in making the player simulate the motions and steps of RL food preparation. Participants are scored on the ability to chop quickly, fill measuring cups to just the right point and keep pots from boiling over.

If there's anything more addictive than a casual game, it may well be something called an MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game), such as Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft (WoW). These games encompass entire virtual worlds where strangers meet online—WoW boasted more than 9 million subscribers as of last July—and team up to explore, fight, pillage . . . and cook.

Why spend your time over a bubbling cauldron when you could be killing ogres or tracking down treasure? University of Vermont assistant professor of English Richard Parent, a gamer and expert on all things digital, cites three reasons. First of all, in WoW, eating food you've prepared is one way to heal your character after battle. "You can either sit down and slowly regenerate your health, heal yourself using magic or you can eat one of the hamburgers you've cooked up for yourself," he explains. Plus, certain dishes can add useful bonuses to a character's strength or magic.

Second, cooking is considered a "profession" in WoW , just like alchemy, herbalism and lock picking. A gamer who wants to score as many points as possible, i.e., "max out" her cooking, must scour the world for recipes and learn to make dishes such as "soothing turtle bisque" and "dragonbreath chili." Beginners visit a "cooking trainer" who can sell them an easy recipe to get them up and running. "I think they start you off with a loaf of bread," Parent says. "Something that's challenging to make in the real world is the easiest thing here."

Parent pinpoints a third reason people like to cook at the keyboard: they like to try on identities. "A lot of the role-playing people go really far with [their food choices] and use that as part of their role playing," he explains. "They may refuse to eat meat and only eat fish. You might have a character who was vegetarian or vegan. It's a way of using food choices in the game to respect and demonstrate your character's personality."

If you want to use food to show off your own personality to the masses, Second Life is probably the best place to do it. The gigantic world is a web-based virtual reality, not a game. It's inhabited by millions of "avatars"—stand-ins for real people—and is completely customizable. If you're tech-savvy, you can add an apron and chef's hat to your avatar, carry around a heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs or build a realistic-looking refrigerator and fill it with goodies. And if you don't know how to make something yourself, you can buy it with "lindens," Second Life's unit of currency, which can be bought and sold for U.S. dollars.

Strolling through SL for just a couple of hours, I visited a free, all-you-can-eat buffet that offered shrimp-adorned martini glasses and platters of farm-fresh vegetables. I shopped at a gigantic store that sold plates of enchiladas and cups of coffee, as well as fancy-looking serving trays and punch bowls. I saw signs of a distinct foodie presence, like a perfect model of a KitchenAid stand mixer at a tiny bistro. (If you're on the ball, you can also find the occasional cooking demo or class.) And I window-shopped at a bakery whose proprietor served up political commentary along with her fancy, custom-made cakes. Click on her "Victory cake," and text reading "It's a lie" pops up.

If you're not a gamer or a web-head, it's still easy to be bemused by all this virtual cooking. After all, eventually everybody needs to unplug and have a real meal—and when that happens, computer-based culinary skills won't get you very far.

College student Michael Lahens sees it differently. A passionate cook in RL, he simply wants to extend his skills into the virtual world—and indulge his gastronomical fancies. "In games which have cooking elements, I always strive to perform the best in that discipline," Lahens says. "For example, all my characters in the Sims are distinguished chefs."

Lahens also enjoys Lord of the Rings Online. "While my friends were 'power leveling' their characters," he says, "I was traveling the land looking for recipes." There he discovered "Shire rations," which he imagines consists of "what an average Hobbit would have for lunch: a hunk of sharp cheese, a piece of roasted chicken and a whole spiced-apple pie." Simple, perhaps, but a definite improvement over the typical college-student rations of cafeteria food or ramen noodles. "In summation," says Lahens, "I want to live in the Shire." Sometimes imagination tastes better than reality.


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