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Pixel Food: The Cooking Simulator

pixfood.jpgI have to admit that I'm a foodie. When I cook, I like experimenting with different ingredients whenever I can. And since I'm a gamer, I also enjoy it when my games have some food in them. In recent years, more games have been released that show us how to be better cooks by turning the act of cooking into a game. Creating these games seems like a no-brainer, and yet it hasn't been fully explored until recently thanks to the touch-based controls of the Nintendo DS and the motion controls of Wii that try to bring these two activities a little bit closer together.

Games and the act of cooking share similar structures. Both have rules to obey or steps you need to follow. They provide a challenge to the player or cook and provide an interactive experience. They both also feature a goal you're trying to accomplish. But do cooking games actually help us be better cooks or simply be better at cooking games?

All video games are simulations of reality. We play simulators to escape our reality and enter that of a game with its bound rules and settings. While a flight simulator will give us the sense of flying a plane, changing directions, and landing, it won't actually teach us how to fly. Then again, flying isn't the same as cooking. While both require degrees of dexterity, cooking is more about following a recipe and properly combining ingredients and cooking them for a set number of time. It's not as straightforward either, since a cook can easily adjust something depending on the situation or the taste. It's an art. A cooking game's purpose then should be to teach us a virtual recipe using virtual ingredients to use in real life where we can then use our own discretion to customize it. Right?

In games like Cooking Mama, the DS stylus becomes our knife, spoon, and fork. Sort of. While these games try to mimic the act of chopping a knife and equate it to tapping a screen, we, however, know that these two things are not the same. It's simply an interactive simulation.. What we learn from these games, though, is not fake. Mama teaches us that buttering a pan prevents sticking and gives onions nice caramelization. She also teaches us that we should pay close attention to the cooking time of foods such as pasta or else they will overcook and become tough and rubbery. Here we learn basic cooking techniques, but we can't really use them in our own kitchen unless we get out there and actually cook. We help her cook it, but we can't eat it.

Once we leave the game and enter our own kitchen, we have to rely on ourselves to cook. The game may have been fun, but if it didn't teach us something about cooking, it essentially failed. A Cooking Mama game can potentially teach us simple cooking techniques, but it mostly just give us cooking-themed mini-games. The game's main purpose is for you to complete each mini-game and follow its instructions. If you make a mistake, you lose time and points and your overall meal won't be given a gold medal. The game doesn't score you based on how well you can cook in real life after playing it. It simply scores you on how well you followed its rules.

Cooking Mama games have you turning pixelated dials, flipping pixelated burgers, and cutting up pixelated carrots. If we play the game on Wii, doing these acts only helps us exercise our wrists and doesn't really actually train us to cook. You can't recreate the feel of cooking in a game like Cooking Mama because it's not a direct simulation. In fact, it's more like simulator of a cooking simulator. So why do we play them?

pixfood2.jpgWhen I played Cooking Mama, I was curious to see how the game captured different parts of the cooking process and turned them into a playable experience. The cooking times in the games are severely shortened and anyone can julienne potatoes by simply tapping their stylus or aiming their Wii remote. If you make a mistake or let something burn, Mama goes to your rescue by telling you "Don't worry, Mama will fix it!" If you already know how to cook, you may get frustrated with the game because you know you can do it better than Mama, and your food tastes so much better. But, if you are not a cook or have trouble in the kitchen, you may find pleasure from completing one of her recipes and getting a gold medal. Psychologically, it makes sense. If you can't cook in real life, why not try doing it in a game and succeeding?

A unique DS title that isn't really a game, but more like an interactive cook book, is Personal Trainer: Cooking that helps you create different dishes with step-by-step voice-over instructions. Unlike Cooking Mama, the game doesn't have any mini-games and it is meant to be used while you cook. If you think about it, you're playing two games at once: you are cooking a dish in the game and the same one in real life. But unlike the Cooking Mama games, when you finish playing Personal Trainer: Cooking, you will have made a meal you can eat. And you can use it as a reference next time you make another real life meal.

When I played Personal Trainer: Cooking, I didn't play it as a game, but I used it as an instruction manual. Each dish contains a list of ingredients and instructions that you follow until you reach the end of the recipe. Once you do, the game's cooking navigator congratulates you for cooking the dish and marks it on your in-game calendar. Mostly just a guide, the only "game" portion of this title is its goal. Interestingly enough, the interactive entertainment and challenge that a game should provide is instead in your actual kitchen. Cooking in real life becomes the game while the actual title is simply a guide.

I used Personal Trainer: Cooking with a selfish goal in mind - to cook something new. Making Hungarian goulash wasn't just fun because there were steps for me to follow or because I was impressed with the game's cooking navigator that read the instructions for me. No. I had fun because the dish I made came out like it should have and it tasted very good. This title made cooking fun. It made it into a game. And yet I did not need it to congratulate me for finishing my dish. All I needed was to know that my food tasted good, which it did.

My question is, why do cooking games exist? Cooking shows on television are like cooking video games except they don't have that interactive factor games have. When we cook in a game, we are learning, even if it's as basic as what we learn in Cooking Mama games or as elaborate as what we learn in the Personal Trainer: Cooking title. It is difficult to make a cooking game that is both as fun as any other video game but yet as informative as a cooking book. Both Cooking Mama and Personal Trainer: Cooking seem to provide one part of this equation, without successfully giving us the whole package.

Regardless, simulation video games are still games so they should be fun and worth playing, otherwise no one will buy them. The real question is do we want to play a cooking game because it shows us how to cook or simply because it gives us a fun pixelated representation of cooking? In all honesty, if you want to be a better cook, nothing beats going into your kitchen and playing with your food.

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