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British Food Journal Emerald Article: Fast food and fast games: An ethnographic exploration of food
British Food Journal Emerald Article: Fast food and fast games: An ethnographic exploration of food

British Food Journal

Emerald Article: Fast food and fast games: An ethnographic exploration of food consumption complexity among the videogames subculture James M. Cronin, Mary B. McCarthy

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To cite this document: James M. Cronin, Mary B. McCarthy, (2011),"Fast food and fast games: An ethnographic exploration of food consumption complexity among the videogames subculture", British Food Journal, Vol. 113 Iss: 6 pp. 720 - 743

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Fast food and fast games

An ethnographic exploration of food consumption complexity among the videogames subculture

James M. Cronin and Mary B. McCarthy

Department of Food Business & Development, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to understand how food is used to create identity and community for gamers during core rituals. These meanings are to be explored within the broader context of subcultural experience in an investigation of the motives and the self-concept dynamics underlying this symbolic consumer behaviour. Design/methodology/approach – This paper uses an interpretive research strategy and adopts a multi-method ethnographic approach that includes: netnography: multiple, in-depth, ethnographic interviews; and prolonged participant observation. Interview informants are young Irish subcultural members aged between 18 and 23. Data analysis proceeds according to a constant comparative method. Findings – The findings suggest that the social gaming ritual, when intersected with food, is closely linked to issues of identity, community, fantasy and escape, gustatory rebellion and prolonged hedonism. Commensality during the core social gaming ritual contributes to a sense of communitas, while the “junk” nature of the shared food products helps to manufacture the hedonism of the event. The social ritual then is sovereign and bound by its own subcultural parameters, which oppose mainstream culture’s norms and dietary regulations. From its role in helping to create a Utopian and rebellious experience, food is then leveraged as part of the gamers’ collective identity. Practitioner implications of the results are discussed. Originality/value – This paper investigates contemporary food consumption behaviour within a postmodern community. The main contribution pertains to providing an insight into a previously neglected group of food consumers.

Keywords Video games, Fast foods, Culture (sociology), Social psychology, Ireland

Paper type Research paper

Social psychology, Ireland Paper type Research paper British Food Journal Vol. 113 No. 6, 2011 pp.

British Food Journal Vol. 113 No. 6, 2011 pp. 720-743 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited


DOI 10.1108/00070701111140070

Introduction Consumer Culture Theory conceptualizes culture as the very fabric of experience, meaning, and behaviour (Geertz, 1983). Owing to its internal, fragmented complexity, consumer culture is played out by micro groups of consumers coming together to forge their own social solidarity and distinct, self-selected, and often transient cultural worlds through the pursuit of common consumption interests (Belk and Costa, 1998; Kozinets, 2002; Schouten and McAlexander, 1995). In this article, we focus on the social food consumption behaviour of one particular micro group of consumer culture, the video games subculture, to better understand how the micro-cultural world one resides in affects his/her food consumption. The premise for this investigation is that through culture – food, its preparation and consumption, become intricately interwoven with many other central processes of social life (Warde, 1997).

Many authors have agreed that the video game industry has become one of the most active and dynamic merchandisers of culture to consumers in recent years (see Sellers, 2001; Newman, 2004; Yee, 2006; Mayra, 2008) and the consequential rise of the video game subculture has been observed to transcend age groups as well as socio-economic categories the world over. As an extremely influential power among consumers, video games permeate their everyday lives and these individuals devote huge amounts of time and effort in pursuit of their favourite activity (Mayra, 2008; Gentile and Anderson, 2003). While it is not something that has reached the echelons of public and social debate, the distinct food consumption practices of this subculture have been sparsely documented – or in some cases have been ridiculed – in popular culture. Mainstream texts typically deride the gaming experience as a sedentary activity that demands gamers spend hours of their day sitting in a chair, hunched over a computer or TV screen during which time many of these individuals subsist on quick, high-calorie snacks. As a result of this portrayal, most people are familiar with the stereotypical overweight, introverted gamer and his affinity for take-out pizza and assorted junk foods. This has spurred much debate regarding the adverse effects video games may have on physical activity, adiposity and nutritional intake (Vandewater et al., 2003; Robinson, 2001, 1999). However, contemporary debate on gaming and culture appears to be without any naturalistic study focussing on the true symbolic importance of the food related aspects of these consumers’ game-playing experiences, how food fits into gamers’ lives and the kinds of meaning based food practices that these people are engaged in while gaming. This dearth in research may be accountable by the dismissive treatment video games have typically received by scholars. Across the academic literature the gaming subculture has traditionally been painted as a heavily hedonistic, masturbatory affair that is readily denigrated as trivial – something that will be grown out of – and demanding no investigation (Newman, 2004, p. 5). Nevertheless, Lupton (1996) calls for the exploration and appreciation of the unique and multifarious foodways of all cultures on their own grounds and without prejudice. In addition, Sanders (1985) argues studies of deviant subcultural activity warrant attention as potentially vital information pertinent to wider cultural behaviour may be observed:

Disvalued social activities are typically embedded in subcultural groups which provide norms and values which direct and shape patterns of cultural choice (Sanders, 1985, p. 17).

With this in mind, the purpose of this present article is to examine the food consumption behaviour of the gaming subculture through its members’ construction of food related practices, identities, and meanings to orient their experiences and lives. While there is a wide spectrum of interaction within the gaming subculture, the emphasis of this study falls specifically on the social setting as social relations are taken to define consumption experiences (Thompson and Troester, 2002), especially within the context of subcultures. Clearly, the food habits of solitary gamers may vary and warrant investigation in its own right. This was beyond the scope of this study. By investigating the gaming subculture as a rich and sophisticated postmodern experience that carries multiple cultural, social and symbolic meanings this study will be able to pursue two major research questions:

Fast food and fast games


RQ1. What cultural functions do gamers associate with food?



RQ2. More specifically, what are the current symbolic meanings they attach to food consumption?

To answer these questions, the gaming subculture’s socially organised food related activities are read as a discussion and negotiation carried on symbolically through consumption (Venkatesh, 1995). It will be inherent within the objectives to offer “thick 722 descriptions” of the subculture’s food consumption activity, i.e. provide conceptual explanation for findings.

The association between food and culture Eating, drinking and deciding what to eat are among the most frequent behaviours of any given group of consumers. Hunger, of course, stands out as the obvious impetus for eating but individual consumption preferences are not independent of culture (Rozin, 1996; Asp, 1999):

We have a biological need to consume a certain amount of calories and quantity of liquid; this need, however, does not define what to eat and with what, how to cook it, when to eat it and in what social circumstances (Askegaard and Madsen, 1995).

Veeck and Veeck (2000) go so far as to describe culture as an “invisible hand” influencing consumers’ daily behaviours. However, before we go any further it may be astute to provide an overview of what constitutes culture and how it is

conceptualised in the study of food consumers. Hofstede (1980, p. 19) defines culture

the interactive aggregate of common characteristics that influence a group’s

response to its environment”. With this understanding, the cultural approach to consumer behaviour seeks to make sense of the imbricated layers of cultural meaning that configure consumer actions in a specific social context or that form consumers’ interpretations of their experiences (Arnould and Price, 1993; Fournier, 1998; Holt, 1995; Thompson, 1996). Mennell et al. (1992) then specifically define “food culture” as a culinary order whose traits are prevalent among a certain group of consumers defined from the micro-level (family, peer groups) to the macro-level (countries, regions, social classes). Food culture can be considered an inserted mechanism of convention specifically related to food within the broader concept of culture. Over the last two decades a mounting body of literature has emerged within the social sciences exploring the complex relationship between culture and the consumption of food (e.g. Axelson, 1986; Murcott, 1989; Shepherd, 1989; Furst et al., 1996; Riley, 1994; Jamal, 1996, 1998; Wright et al., 2001). From pursuing such an approach, Fieldhouse (1986) and Furst et al. (1996) posit that foods chosen, methods of eating, preparation and quantities consumed, are an integrated part of a coherent and symbolic cultural pattern. Rozin (1996, p. 83) supports this notion, arguing that within most, if not all cultures, food is laden with meaning and constitutes a major form of social exchange and identity building. Like all culturally defined material substances used by consumers in their pursuit to create and maintain social relationships and social identity, food performs a salient role in solidifying group membership and setting groups apart (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002). This notion is dealt with at length by Barthes, in his structuralist analysis of French culture, in which he singled out for attention the nationalist properties of certain foods, arguing that wine is typically regarded as the “totem drink” of Frenchness, “a possession which is its very own, just

as “

like its 360 types of cheese and its culture” (Barthes, 1980, p. 65). Likewise, Adair (1986,

p. 50) argues “fish and chips” constitute for the British what one may call national unity”.

a force for

Subculture and the fragmentation of food culture While it has been fairly well documented in the literature that commonalities and differences in food consumption exist across cultures on a macro-level (e.g. Lappalainen et al., 1998; Nielsen et al., 1998), there is also an acknowledgement of the presence of subcultures within cultures that possess their own distinctive food related tastes and modes of socially shared meanings and practices (Wright et al., 2001). For example, Hindu communities all over the world consume a special sweet made of sesame seeds symbolising life during Makar Sankranti, while for Muslims the month of Ramadan requires mandatory fasting from dawn until dusk regardless of which national or majority culture they are embedded in (Fieldhouse, 1986). Goody (1982) and Mennell et al. (1992) argue cultures with greater social differentiation have a more differentiated cuisine. Rozin (1996) posits that the source of this difference is a result of social influences and the peer-groups we reside within i.e. micro-level social arrangements. Within the last 20 years, a postmodern paradigm shift has opened the road for investigations into how micro-social collectives can comprise of various and assorted persons linked only by a shared emotion and experience around specific consumption activities (Cova, 1997). Fragmentation is one of the central themes of this postmodern understanding of consumer culture (e.g. Brown, 1995; Firat and Venkatesh, 1995; Firat and Shultz, 1997). Fragmentation consists of the disintegration of markets into smaller and smaller groups divergent to the mother culture from which they stem, each exhibiting distinctive modes of socially shared meanings and practices. The clustering of consumers driven by a similar passion or ethos to form a group, thereby producing a subculture, has come to be seen as an object of study with relevance across the field of marketing however any holistic examination of how food is used within these postmodern communities has not yet become fully developed. Within food marketing and consumer research, the majority of existing studies focus on experimental or survey-based approaches to examine regional, ethnic or class-based food attitudes (i.e. Verbeke and Lopez, 2005; Tomlinson, 1994), or niche markets such as organic and speciality food consumption (Squires et al., 2001; Wycherley et al., 2008; Pellegrini and Farinello, 2009), with a view to discovering potential new market segments. Little attention has been paid to how food is used within consumer subcultures to convey identity or community among these like-minded individuals. The closest investigation of how food is appropriated as an important symbolic mechanism within a postmodern community is the work of Thompson and Arsel (2004) who attempt to investigate the consumption behaviour of cafe´ flaneurs, coffee shop lovers who favour the experience of local shops as opposed to the homogeneity of large chains. These authors pursue an analysis of the feeding practices of a subculture of heterogeneous consumers whose intrinsic activities are inherently and exclusively based around a shared food culture. It is these consumers’ mutual adoration for coffee, which is the centre-place for the creation of community and identity within their subculture.

Fast food and fast games





This paper, however, leverages a richer postmodern understanding of how assorted and miscellaneous individuals of a broader – and less overtly culinary – subcultural lifestyle appropriate food in the construction of meaning-based linkages and in the assemblage of their own cultural identity during the core consumption experiences. The investigation therefore resides with how food is interwoven with broad meaning based consumer interests and activities within a subculture. Such contemporary food consumption practices have received relatively little attention in the literature, especially within a subcultural context, yet they present an opportunity to understand consumers’ sense of identity and belonging (Warde, 1997). To this end the study of postmodern communities offers researchers the prospect to identify the linking value of goods (such as food) among communal activities and how a group uses them (Cova and Cova, 2001). Having reported on the specifics of this study, a brief review of research investigating the gaming subculture will be examined to provide a background to why this particular postmodern consumer group was chosen for investigation.

The gaming subculture The notion of gaming as a specific subculture has existed in academic literature since the early days of videogame scholarship in the 1980s with Loftus and Loftus devoting a chapter to this topic in Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games (Loftus and Loftus, 1983). Mayra (2008, p.2 5) claims that members of the gaming subculture have their own language and rituals, they gather to play games and are often interested in artefacts (gaming merchandise) that can be used to mark identity. It is however difficult to pinpoint exactly who constitutes the subculture and little is known about who exactly plays video games (Griffiths and Hunt, 1995; Newman, 2004). As its popularity has soared with consumers, gaming’s fandom is spilling over into multiple generations of users making identification, from a demographic perspective, of the average homogenous gamer decidedly difficult. IGN Entertainment and Ipsos Media CT (2008) suggest more than 75 percent of gamers play games with other people either online or in person indicating a strong social nature to gaming. Additionally, Morris (2002) suggests that videogame play is an inherently social event for members of the subculture. Many gamers have been found to socialise regularly at events known as “LAN parties” which consist of participants bringing their computers or gaming consoles over to each other’s house to host and play multiplayer games between which they establish a local area network (LAN) (Mayra, 2008). Newman (2004) argues however that the videogame subculture goes far beyond just the act and moment of play itself, that sociality and interaction does not cease after the game is over. Taylor (2006, p. 56) specifically discusses the emergence of gamer guilds – small offline venues for online players to meet each other, most of which are organised by gamers themselves and “usually revolve around eating, socialising over drinks and reminiscing and talking about the game”. This observation implies some centrality of food in social events but such observations are infrequent in the literature. Green and Guinnery (n.d.), in their nocturnal ethnography of LAN gamers also provide a momentary observation regarding the food related behaviour of such gaming groups:

Organised LANs are round the clock 26-hour techno-fests fuelled by full-sugar coke and cold fast food runs.

Similarly, an observation from Kozinets et al.’s (2004) multiperspectivical ethnographic engagement with the ESPN Zone Chicago, a sports, dining and entertainment mecca, allows for a fleeting glimpse of the centrality of food in gaming:

I feel that I’m being sucked into a black hole, where everything just turns and turns around

noise, games, food—and people. We are given no reason to go anywhere else: ’Eat. Drink. Watch. Play. What more do you need?’ (Kozinets et al.’s, 2004, p. 662).

These observations allude to the importance of food as an integral device within the gaming subculture, however, little scholarly attention has been given to the food related activity of this community. Thus, an exploratory study of this micro-social community’s culinary practices appears to represent the ideal canvas to mobilise an investigation into the contemporary food related experiences of postmodern subcultures.


Fast food and fast games


Methods Geertz (1983) refers to the study of culture not as an experimental science in search of laws, but as an interpretive science in search of meaning. Owing to this interpretive nature of the study and a focus on food consumption from a social symbolic perspective (Kniazeva and Venkatesh, 2007; Rook, 1985; Levy, 1981) it was decided that qualitative approach would be the most suitable approach. Levy (1981), in particular, demonstrates how qualitative methods are particularly useful for revealing the rich symbolic world that underlies needs, desires, meanings and choice. With this in mind, the approach applied was based on involvement with consumers resembling an anthropology of consumption (Sherry, 1995) that can be described as ethnomarketing or marketing ethnography (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994). The appropriateness of an ethnographic method as an approach for this type of study is endorsed by its utilisation in studies of food consumption across many diverse cultures (e.g. Vialles, 1994; Anigbo, 1987; Trankell, 1995). This study however takes a three-tiered approach to ethnographic exploration. The first part of the research conducted involved searching for the indication of themes from subcultural texts (i.e. the internet), the second part involved in-depth interviewing and the third part entailed immersive participant observation among gamers at social gameplay events in Cork and Dublin, Ireland. The three stages of fieldwork were undertaken between December 2008 and September 2009. Throughout all three stages, analysis of data was incrementally carried out, by referring to the literature. In other words, the literature was not exhausted prior to entering the field, as it is in many studies (Goulding, 2005), rather it was consulted as part of an iterative, inductive and interactional process of data collection, simultaneous analysis and emergent interpretation. This research approach is represented schematically in Figure 1.

Stage 1: netnography Cova and Cova (2001, p. 71) emphasise that to study any form of community of consumers, the marketer is “well advised to cast aside the more traditional mono-disciplinary, systematic approaches and to favour practices based on detecting signs, foraging for faint hints and glimmers of shadow”. In following this advice, the initial stages of the ethnography involved a review of subcultural members’ popular discourse, including websites and Internet discussions on a number of gaming specific




Figure 1.

Research model

BFJ 113,6 726 Figure 1. Research model

forums to explicate structural patterns of food themes that are cultural or social (Arnould, 1998; Kozinets, 2002). Keeping in line with Kozinets’ (2002) netnographic conventions regarding the search for suitable research sites, all chosen spaces were selected in tight accordance to the research questions i.e. only forums where the online debate was focussed on gamers’ self professed food preferences and experiences were sought out. Locating such suitable research (web)sites can involve a considerable period of time (Maclaran and Catterall, 2002) and so over 100 gaming forums and electronic bulletin boards were searched before selecting 20 suitable, high-traffic food related threads and consumer posted blogs. From this netnography stage, a series of comparable events and themes were extracted which helped form the basis of a more structured enquiry.

Fast food and fast games


Stage 2: in-depth interviews Such textual resources as those explicated on the Internet were then supplemented by recourse to “consumer voices” to generate accounts of the lived experience and food consumption practices of members of the gaming subculture. This was facilitated through semi structured in-depth interviews designed in such a way to be more conversation based as opposed to formal (Elliott and Jankel-Elliott, 2003). The intention was to allow the sequence of the discussion to follow a natural conversational flow while at the same time retaining an adequate level of control over what was discussed (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995). In relation to interviewee selection, Hammersley and Atkinson (1995, p. 139) state that: “selection of informants must be based on the best judgements one can make in the circumstances”. With this in mind, selection criteria were drawn up whereby each informant must admit to identifying oneself with the gaming subculture, playing more than six hours of videogames every week, own at least one video games console, a personal computer and live in an online-equipped home. Contact was originally made with an initial two self-professed “hardcore” gamers who fit these criteria and agreed to be interviewed about their consumption. This resulted in a snowball effect whereby four other gamers who fit the prescribed criteria were identified and agreed to share their experiences and stories. This proved to be a successful recruitment method but is open to criticisms of bias. No statistical inferences can be made from this sampling technique (Miller and Crabtree, 1999). Mason (2002) describes the technique as “illustrative” sampling, whereby the researcher is not making any representative claims about the data, but suggesting that the results provide an example or illustration of what is going on in the wider world. Furthermore, while the sample size for this stage of the research was quite small, the investigation fits with the conventions of postmodern or socio-symbolic consumer research in that it concentrates on the phenomenon itself rather than on how many people shared that phenomenon (Jamal, 1996; Fournier, 1998; Mick and Buhl, 1992; and Erlandson et al., 1993). In other words: “the size restrictions on the informant pool ensured the depth concerning life worlds and product relationship portfolios necessary for thick description” (Fournier, 1998, p. 347). Where possible, interviews were conducted as close to the central consumption practice of gaming and food intersection as possible. Each interview lasted between 2.5 to 3 hours. Such ethnographic interviewing is a particularly effective methodological strategy for examining consumption patterns. The interviewees included four males and two females ranging from 18 to 23 years of age, all being Irish residents.




Stage 3: participant observation The hallmark of ethnography is participation; working with consumers in their natural settings (Fetterman, 1998; Goulding, 2005) and so finally, to gain a deeper understanding of the subculture’s food consumption behaviour, a third step of fieldwork was initiated consisting of breaking from conduction of interviews and simply immersing ourselves among gamers at their subcultural sites. Following phase two of the ethnography, e-mail contact was maintained with the first two interview informants and it was requested that they facilitate the researchers’ exploration of gaming spaces. This methodological approach was inspired by Schouten and McAlexander’s (1995) pioneering ethnographic engagement with a postmodern subculture in which the authors embraced the tutelage of two subcultural members who took them “into their circle” and acted as their guides throughout their induction into the biker subculture. With the guidance of cultural chaperones, access into the

gaming subculture was made unproblematic and the lead researcher met with these pathfinders every fortnight for four months to attend various gaming venues to participate in the gaming/eating complexity and to discuss issues related to the study.


total of eight locations were frequented, six of these being home based “LAN events”


informants’ houses, the remaining two being excursions to gaming cafe´s. Through

the conscious activity of actually consuming among consumers, one can truly understand the nature of the event (Stewart, 1998; Fetterman, 1998). To quote Lofland and Lofland (1995, p. 3) “the epistemological foundation of field studies is indeed the proposition that only through direct experience can one accurately know much about social life”. An accumulation of approximately 65 hours of field immersion was undertaken in total, which generated over 120 pages of field notes as well as photographs and videotape.

Analysis and interpretation Data analysis was carried out according to the conventions for the analysis and interpretation of qualitative data as recommended by Spiggle (1994) and others (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994) and continued in an iterative fashion across offline and online environments. As new data was collected throughout all three stages of the ethnography, it was discussed in the context of previously gathered data, coded and points of similarity and contrast was examined. As these themes emerged, they were used to guide the researchers toward relevant literature and then to the revision of coded interviews and observations in light of perspectives from the literature (i.e. grounded reading in data). As it is one of the main objectives of this analysis to offer “thick descriptions” (Geertz, 1973, p. 10), similar surfacing themes were clustered together from the patterns in an attempt to classify behaviours theoretically (Spiggle,


What follows is a thick description as well as an interpretation of the data gathered during the study.

Findings The following four major themes emerged as a result of an interpretation of the ethnographic data:


communitas: interplay between food and social gameplay relations;


“an excuse” – a hedonic escape;


rebellion: subversion of mainstream culture’s food norms; and


food as subcultural capital.

Communitas: interplay between food and social gameplay relations In analysing data from all three stages of the ethnography, the theme that emerges most forcefully is that of food’s role in imbuing communitas among gamers at core social gaming events. The idea of communitas in consumer behaviour refers to feelings of connection and solidarity in a group and this phenomenon is typically developed through communal feelings of linkage, belonging and devotion (Arnould and Price,


A prevalent view in popular culture is that “video gaming” is socially isolating and

a solitary activity (Newman, 2004). However, as some studies suggest that rather than

acting as sites of solitary play, video games foster and enhance social relations (Brown and Bell, 2004). This view posits that videogame consumption is one way to acquire and maintain a shared sense of identity by attaching symbolic meanings to objects and activities and anchoring behaviour in cultural and social orders. This perspective was corroborated throughout the ethnography by evidence of gamers’ appropriation of the group gaming event as a social bonding ritual celebrated through the necessary presence of food. As one informant Dan (aged 22, single) put it: There has to be drinks or food or something – no that’s how you make a session out of it. That’s what makes

it as an event.

Heavy in-group cohesion and verbal interactivity was recorded among gamers during a home console night where energy dense junk foods were passed around in commensal pattern between breaks and after games. Food sharing was typically recorded during such social gameplay rituals where often the food products present were utilised symbolically and playfully as “trophies” or “rewards” to the victor during intense onscreen competition between the group. This all appeared to serve as social mechanism to garner a union with others, where conviviality establishes and reinforces social ties (Simmel, 1961; Symons, 1994). Such playful interaction is particularly evident if we consider the following field note excerpt:

The host had the two couches pulled out from the wall and arranged around the coffee table

in such a way that all gamers had easy access to the plethora of Cadbury Moro bars, opened packets of potato crisps and cans of Monster energy drinks. They are all sharing from the one small table. Between heavy onscreen fire, one would shout frantic commands to the others to provide fire support while he broke play to reach for a handful of crisps. The others shoot

back frenetic comments of “Come on!!” (

comment of “Yeah! Throw me over a Moro, I deserve it!” rises up the most successful gamer

Once the online enemy had been defeated, the


as another compliments him on his skill towards the end of the match, labelling his work as

“leet” (i.e. elite)

(Field notes, 31/7/2009 10.30 pm).

Fast food and fast games


It has already been well established elsewhere that consuming food is one of the key ways in which cinema audiences embellish and enhance the experience of film watching and works to construct the meanings of movie-going as a social practice (Lyons, 2004; Acland, 2003). Much in the same way that food consumption is allied closely to the experience of cinema going, it became apparent throughout the ethnography that food plays a comparably important role in the gaming ritual. Foodstuffs made available at the host’s party become tied intimately to nurturing communitas within the ritualised event.




Indeed, sharing food has been found to be very characteristic of ritual consumption behaviour, and in that function food performs the symbolic task of sharing and celebrating group identity through its bonding capabilities (Belk, 1988; Symons, 1994). The literature on shared consumption rituals shows that events in which participants act jointly may be used to communicate meaning, not only about the self, but also about the relationships among individuals that bind them together into a “small world” (Cheal, 1988; Gainer and Fischer, 1991; Wallendorf and Arnould, 1991; Arnould and Price, 1993). One of the two female informants (Siofra, aged 20, single) described the playful intersection between food and gameplay as a stimulus for interaction among gamers:

Firing up the Wii or the Playstation and dumping all this stuff (food) on the floor in front of us and then it turns into “Okay I’m going to kill you, but not yet – I need that chocolate!” (laughs) And the rest of the night would be kind of an orgy of eating and interactivity I guess!

The analysis of such recollections reveals that the major elements of a gaming session include food becoming utilised as a social connector in groups, as something that replaces the traditional “going out” night for these young consumers. Data from all three stages of the ethnography assert that this “party” environment is a regular phenomenon among the gaming subculture. For Irish culture in general, party events are typically infrequent but the high junk food intake of social gaming tends to be habitual. The home based “LAN parties” appear to take place multiple times a month, insuring the word “party” is used loosely and operate more as the usual social get-together ritual for these subcultural members. However, informants tended to vehemently disagree that their social gaming events are likeable to “trips to the pub” or “girls nights in” suggesting they hold their own subcultural salience. Siofra noted that foodstuffs are recurrently used in the strategic deployment in mobilising sociality in gameplay and rarely do gamers eat as gratuitously on their own:

The thing is I would never eat a whole pack of Doritos or a whole pack of Kinder chocolate, I’m talking about the 16 bar packs, ever on my own – and a full bucket of Ben and Jerrys (laughs) but this is what I like did one night every week last summer with friends (laughs). It absolutely happens in the company of other gamers.

It is possible here to draw on Beardsworth and Keil (1997, p. 251) who note that the self-indulgence and guilt of eating confectionary and sweet foods “is handled by socialised and ritualised consumption which is more acceptable than individual, solitary use”. In addition, it should be noted that a social presence was not found to just increase food intake but also found to alter the type of foods consumed by gamers during their ritualistic experiences. This social influence on food consumption is substantiated through some of the comments gamers posted on forums with regards to their favourite foods during gaming. For example:

If I’m by myself, right now it’s a banana and an apple. If I have a buddy or two, its Salt & Vinegar chips and lots of cold beer (“DJ Machismo” posted June 24th, 2008 on “So what is your preferred gamer food?” thread).

It is apparent that gamers eat more junk foods in the company of other gamers. This behaviour can be interpreted practically as the social facilitation and of meals. Feunekes et al. (1995) suggest that the principal cause of social facilitation of human food intake is that social agents increase duration of meals and the amount eaten

throughout the meals. The data does indeed evidence the eating of more, but also the consumption of more junky foods than would be eaten privately. Communitas thus can be taken on a pragmatic level as gamers’ tendency to alter their diet to higher quantities and more calorific, sweet foods with instant gratification.

“An excuse” – a hedonic escape The second emergent theme covers how gamers appear to use the social gaming ritual as

a justification for eating in excess or perform what could be described as “binge-eating”.

According to Rozin (2005), food is particularly potent at creating a hedonic experience for consumers, or at least contributing to one. Khan et al. (2005) argue it is hedonism that

enables consumers to choose a rich creamy Haagen Dazs ice cream for dessert instead of

a healthy but perhaps less tasty bowl of fruit. The term hedonic means “having to do

with pleasure” and derives from the philosophy of Hedonism, which holds that pleasure is the ultimate drive for all consumer behaviour. All of this study’s informants’ social food consumption complexity reflected this drive for pleasure. It is interesting to note that their food choices were mostly unconcerned with nutrition and healthiness, just flavour and suitability for commensality i.e. tasty food for sharing during the core gaming ritual. All informants elicited “junk foods” or “fast foods” as the preferred staple diet of a social gaming event, which was substantiated by data generated from netnographic research. Such sites as where gamers can vote for their favourite food allude to the popularity of miscellaneous fast foods as the ideal “gamer food”. In interpreting such subcultural data, we must turn to Bourdieu (1984) who stresses that hedonism is socially and culturally constructed, with taste being the crucial factor of pleasure. This means that whatever pleasure the consumer derives from the indulgence of food products may be seen as not only a matter of individual taste but also social taste and socially embedded sensations. This social dimension of eating during the gaming ritual involves a gathering of people that usually has a well-defined purpose, or what the two female informants referred to as “an excuse”. Rachel (aged 23, living with boyfriend) explained that: “I’m not just happily involved in this whole thing – what you refer to as a subculture – just for the games but for the social aspect and treating myself”. She describes the relief and inherent bliss in taking things easy and cutting loose by enjoying an X-Box night with her friends or boyfriend and “Ben & Jerrys” (ice-cream). Similarly, the other female informant, Siofra’s opinions appear to corroborate this notion:

I suppose what’s kind of funny is that food is it’s such a primitive pleasure and maybe we’re using gaming itself as an excuse to indulge in a bit of that. Like for me personally, it is the moment of gaming with friends that I look forward to because it’s kind of an excuse! An excuse to be a bit of a pig!

In an early study of the gaming subculture, Turkle found that “for many people, what

an altered state” (Turkle 1984, p. 79). This study

is being pursued in the video game is

perhaps points to an extension of this theory – that the displacement of identity goes beyond consumers’ transformation of their selves in the game itself and into their real life behaviour. While the gamer may indeed look for an altered self within the game itself (i.e. embody a strong protagonist, physically enhanced avatar), the ethnography’s data points to the displacement of real life conduct during the gameplay – in particular, diet. It appears that the gaming ritual offers consumers the opportunity to “cut loose” and enjoy foods that they ordinarily would try to minimise in daily life.

Fast food and fast games





Plate 1. Instruments of escape:

game controllers and junk food

Thus, it became evident that the excitement, passion and intense competition of social gaming rituals represent for gamers the prospect for eating tasty foods, an escape from their regular diet. The consumption of such food then is one of the key ways in which gamers embellish and enhance the experience of video gaming (Plate 1).

Rebellion: subversion of mainstream culture’s food norms The third emergent theme draws on the work of the neo-Marxist cultural theorists such as Kellner (1995), Hebdige (1979), Frith (1996) and Willis (1978) who conceptualise subcultures as pockets of collective, ritualised resistance or rebellion. The gratuitous junk food consumption of the gaming subculture during the core gaming ritual could in this light be interpreted as a rebellious conduct. Lupton (1996, p. 127) proposes that consumers in experimenting with different types of cuisine is a symbolic gesture of rebellion, a way to reject their parents’ habits and norms and so the gaming subculture’s affinity for junky, greasy, fat food may be a communal representation of this gastronomic rebellion. One of the female informants directly elicited an escape from the foods she was raised with by her parents:

Your parents wouldn’t always feed you junk food, so if you want to throw a nice event of

gaming – you’re going to want to have everything you can! So it does make it kind of a childish treat. Childishness is an aspect to it. You’re not meant to spend hours of your day playing games and you’re not meant to spend hours of your day eating junk food so it is a

kind of

junk food (Siofra).

I don’t know, a naughty little secret thing going on! (laughs) So yeah, it has to be

it is a kind of junk food (Siofra). I don’t know, a naughty little secret thing

The second female informant then referred to the notion of “bad food”:


parties are meant to about just indulging in what you want to do most, having your friends

It’s taken that you’re going to eat bad food and not grapes or something like that

about and tasty food (Rachel).

This informant’s labelling of junk food as bad indicates awareness that such consumption subverts her normative diet. A cursory browse through the literature subsequent to the emergence of this theme found that snacking on junk foods could be interpreted as a behaviour that turns food from a functional duty of self- sustenance into a temporal and spatial interface marked by moderate subversion (Vannini, 2008, p. 245). Moreover, this subversion were observed to be held as identity salient for the gamers as the following statement from Mark (aged 18, single) makes clear:

Let’s face it, gamers are not wine and cheese people y’know? I don’t sample the finest Chardonnay and some type of cheese on crackers while blowing someone’s head off in Call of Duty, I’ll probably be balancing a tube of smokey bacon between my legs as a buddy throws me over some dip! That’s how it is. That’s all that is like. We are gamers and don’t portray ourselves as foodies or vegans or whatever, we are who we are.

A further indication of subversive food consumption was evidenced through observation of “speed eating”, which Chitakunye and Maclaran (2008, p. 219) define as “a fast rate of movement or action when young people put food into the mouth, chew and swallow, in order to finish their food as fast as possible”. Speed eating was coded in the following quote from field notes during one of the early games console parties:

Just past 11.15 and the gamers are all guns blazing in a new match. The action is intense onscreen and off, frequent swear words are blasted by the gamers as their avatars are slain onscreen. Match over – gamers were defeated but booting a rematch quickly. During this short interlude Dan quickly unwraps a Cadbury “Twirl” bar and shoves the chocolate finger in his mouth with the side of his hand still holding the games controller. He munches hard and fast as Des is slurping down his can of coke with one hand, his other and on the controller still. His eyes not leaving the screen – can is put down. Back into the game (Field notes, 18/7/2009, 11.20 pm).

Rushing food in this way defies traditional table manners that parents and popular consumer culture itself may encourage. This can be interpreted as an attempt to escape from parental and mainstream expectations regarding conventions at mealtimes. Also, more practically, this behaviour can be interpreted in the light that members of the gaming subculture will sacrifice typical mealtime etiquette in favour of expedient intake during core rituals. In this manner, speed-eating insures gamers will not miss out on valuable gameplay while they feed.

Fast food and fast games


Food as subcultural capital The fourth emergent theme to arise from the data is that there are rules and norms of good taste in food that solidify the consumer’s place in the subculture (Bourdieu, 1984; Thornton, 1995). Bourdieu refers to taste as a socially accepted characteristic that defines what a culture’s food consumption is and more importantly – what it is not. While informants were keen to promote that the gaming ritual is guided by no written liturgy, certain politic was found to surround the gaming ritual feast however. Not knowing how to eat properly is universally a sign of outsider status (Lupton, 1996).




Plate 2. Pizza and (micro)chips:

symbolic rebellion

A certain unspoken mandate to eat heartily and to eat only certain fun and filling junk foods during the event was observed throughout the ethnography. When Siofra was questioned about her response to a friend refusing to eat the provided food at a games console night in favour of his/her own snacks such as celery brought from home, she had difficulty accepting such a move:

No pumas or celery at my event, put that away! (laughs) That doesn’t make sense to me, it’s difficult to picture that. It would be strange, I can’t imagine any of my friends doing that (

think it would ostracise the gamer a little. They would definitely be subject to some ribbing if they didn’t partake in living it up with all the goodies we usually have at games night. The whole point of the gaming thing is to work together even if in the game you are competing. The second you remove yourself from the little community you have set up in front of the television, you become an island.

Schouten and McAlexander (1995) acknowledge that such prohibition or strict outlaw of behaviour is not uncommon in subcultures as cultural norms within consumer communities dictate what is acceptable or unacceptable (see Plate 2). In order to investigate this food politic of the gaming subculture, the lead researcher brought along a choice of celery sticks and fruit juices to the observation of the home console night with informants 2 and 3, Dan and Des. Once the junk food errands had been completed and a copious selection of rich and varied bars of chocolate, branded potato crisps, pizza and litre bottles of soft drinks were arranged for consumption during the networked gameplay, the researcher produced the frugal choice of modest, healthy alternatives and asked who would like to try them. Jokes, a telling cultural form (Freud, 1960), were instantly made. Dan frivolously passed comment that the

) I

try them. Jokes, a telling cultural form (Freud, 1960), were instantly made. Dan frivolously passed comment

researcher was there to observe “a hardcore gaming party, not the minutes of a vegan meeting” while Des suggested he “leave that stuff outside for the birds”. Food itself is a term which makes cultural distinctions between acceptable and non-acceptable organic matter for human consumption and so Falk (1991, pp .758-759) argues the term can be used to denote different material in different cultures. Des’ flippant use of the word “stuff” as opposed to acknowledgement of the introduced items as food points towards a (sub)cultural dissimilarity with foodstuffs outside of those accepted within the consumer community. Such frivolous responses help to substantiate the existence of a set food consumption value system within the gaming subculture. This system appeals to what Thornton (1995) calls “subcultural capital” to describe the way in which identity and social distinction are formed within subcultures through the assessment of social interactions and symbolic goods against a set of group-specific values. Sean (aged 22, single) described the movement of food related values from the individual to match those of the group and his statement can provide evidence that reveals both social order and aesthetic socio-culturally shared beliefs:

Well normally I wouldn’t eat a bunch of chocolate bars on my own but when you get a group of friends together, you don’t say let’s all go to the shop and we’ll get a bunch of apples and we’ll have a big party with apples – it’s like what you just get used to. What you’re familiar with having at the event. And yeah you’re familiar with having the junk food at a gaming event. But like if someone brought in an apple into a gaming environment saying they usually have apples while playing, that might assimilate in but personally I haven’t seen that.

The data reveal that food is a marker of inclusion within the gaming subculture and expressive of internalised identities. Or as Mintz and Du Bois (2002), p. 2) puts it: “The behaviour relative to food repeatedly reveals the culture in which each of us is inserted” and your place in culture depends on your appropriate use of food. On a practical level, gamers’ subcultural capital can be interpreted as normative enforcement of behaviour. Gamers will consume foods in a social setting in ways they ordinarily would not because everyone else is behaving that way – it becomes the norm.

Fast food and fast games


Implications Researchers contend that culture has a substantial effect on consumer behaviour in terms of influencing the effectiveness of advertising messages (Aaker and Maheswaran, 1997) and determining product and brand choices (Spiggle, 1986). Furthermore, subcultures can be considered as promising potential social units for segmentation (Zaltman, 1965, Schouten and McAlexander, 1993) due to their relative homogeneity of norms, values, and behaviours. Insights from this ethnography may provide some guidance into how food marketers and those concerned with improving dietary behaviours may be able to effectively communicate with this postmodern consumer group via techniques that illustrate how their offerings or messages coordinate with the subculture’s activities. In particular, clear and somewhat concerning patterns of food motives emerged throughout this study that suggest a blatant and dissident use of food within the subculture. Further to this use, food holds a central role within the community’s social conduct. The cultural meanings attached to food in terms of “rebellion” and “hedonism” are counter to what could be described as good dietary patterns and are reflected in the quantities (gorging) and qualities (junk) of foodstuffs consumed. These worrying dietary patterns naturally




present significant challenges for public health groups. Furthermore, these challenges take on more significance when we reflect on Sanders’ (1985) argument regarding the potential spill-over of subcultural values and norms into wider society. Should gorging on excessive quantities of energy dense, nutrient poor foods become more commonplace while sedentary behaviour like that of gaming rituals become more normative for general social events; policy makers could face an increasing societal challenge in addressing food-related health issues. With the intensification of these problems on a macro-level, pressures will certainly mount on food manufacturers and the ingredients industry to isolate the damage of their products. Notwithstanding the rejection of “traditional” healthier foods as “stuff”, the insights offered by this ethnographic engagement suggest that opportunities may exist for food manufacturers to provide healthier foods for consumers involved in the gaming subculture. The development of healthier alternatives for gamers should offer “fuel for success” in the form of convenience (fit seamlessly within the gaming activity), performance (mental functioning and dexterity) and offer some sensory pleasure (to maintain the hedonic element of gameplay). Furthermore, in order to be successful these healthier alternatives need to expropriate certain symbols to appeal to the gustatory rebellion associated with the gaming subculture. The findings revealed that gamers’ sense of self identity is played out through their food consumption tastes and the rebellious stance this has against mainstream culture’s food norms. The oppositional stance is solidified in Mark’s quote maintaining “We are gamers and don’t portray ourselves as foodies or vegans or whatever, we are who we are”. This kind of identity salience and its link to behavioural enactments creates a task for marketers to be able to relate their healthy offerings to such nonchalant food consumers. Marketers need to create a rebellious and irreverent tone around their products in order to appeal to gamers’ self-identity. Practitioners must also consider the need to load their marketing communications with relevant subcultural values. According to Escalas (1994), to target a particular subculture, one must relate to its members through realistic cultural messages. Observations of the core gaming rituals within the subculture expound on sets of actions practiced by members to follow cultural values and norms. It has been suggested that practitioners might consider such values and norms appropriate to their target market when marketing to specific consumer subcultures (Deeter-Schmelz and Sojka, 2004). For example, because communitas and the subcultural capital of food were witnessed repeatedly throughout the ethnography – this translates clearly into a value for a “sense of belonging” and therefore products advertised should emphasise group behaviour. The food product should be shown being consumed in a group setting. Furthermore, the normative politic surrounding the consumption of certain foods during the ritual are of particular importance to marketers in showcasing behavioural ideals in their advertisements. Informants argued that fellow gamers that chose not to share in the rich foods present for a gaming event would find themselves alienated. This suggests an instant normative pressure that can be leveraged in advertisements.

Conclusions and limitations With a growing public interest in contemporary food consumption and an intensification of municipal health concerns regarding obesity in recent years, the

videogame subculture’s affinities for junk foods has received its own spotlight in the attention of popular media. The present article has sought to explore, in terms of consumer behaviour, the various meanings attached to social food consumption within this community and how food plays a role in the reification of communal experience and identity. In doing so the article has explored culturally constructed food

consumption practices and symbolic meaning among gamers during core social rituals. It is crucial to note that by taking a cultural standpoint in pursuing this initial investigation it was able to assist the authors in achieving a comprehensive interpretation of a consumer group that has not received much scholarly attention with regards to food consumption behaviour in the literature. As the findings have shown, this article provides evidenced thick descriptions for the food consumption complexity of the videogame subculture. Therefore, the research questions can be answered with reference to these descriptions. In relation to the first question: what cultural functions do gamers associate with food, the interpretations reveal that approved foodstuffs such as snack and junk foods represent ceremonial and social governance functions for gamers. In terms of a ceremonial function, the foodstuffs act as artefacts, which offer a level of hedonism through taste and delight to

a ritualistic community that is perceptibly pleasure-seeking – therefore the junk foods

serve an integral purpose in contributing to this space. Then pertaining to food serving

a function as a social governance mechanism, we can return to the findings in relation

to subcultural capital and Bourdieu’s (1984) concept of taste to argue food, like in any culture, is a strong indicator of one’s place in that community. The norms and social politic surrounding what type of foods to consume during a gaming event largely affect a consumer’s place in the subculture. In relation to the second question: what are the current symbolic meanings gamers attach to food consumption, it can be argued that food values and habits function as key cultural expressions that are central to the processes by which gamers establish, maintain, and reinforce their subcultural and individual identities (Reilly and Wallendorf, 1987; Pen˜aloza, 1994). Junk foods offer rebellion and fun, which are attributes that gamers want to be associated with. What is then witnessed when these food consumers perform their food related rituals and practices is “the emergence of a shared and tribal happiness” (Maffesoli, 1996) whereby they experience the pleasure and consciousness of kind of consuming together. Since this article is based on purely interpretive work, it acknowledges all the limitations attached to this particular approach. It does not seek to offer any firm conclusions but simply interpretations in line with the postmodern enquiry. While the sample size for this exploratory investigation was quite small, the focus was on depth rather than breadth in data collection. The interpretations generated by this research could form the basis of hypotheses, which can be tested in future studies of the gaming subculture’s food behaviour. Furthermore, in keeping with many postmodern enquiries (Schouten and McAlexander, 1995; Goulding and Saren, 2007; Miklas and Arnould, 1999; Goulding et al., 2002; Kates, 2002; Belk and Costa, 1998; Kozinets, 1997, 2001), this research fixated on one consumer group and explored their behaviours on their own grounds. Thus, comparisons with other consumer communities were not undertaken. In further studies a comparative approach may provide additional insights into the uniqueness or otherwise of the observations made here.

Fast food and fast games





Other limitations include the fact that secondary and tertiary stages of the ethnography (interviews and participant observation) were conducted exclusively in Ireland, a country which in general has been found to comprise of a significant number of hedonistic food consumers who are particularly uninterested in the quality aspects of health and freshness of foods. Gamers living in other geographic areas may exhibit different consumption behaviour in their social contexts. Additional research is needed to determine if gamers’ food consumption complexity transcends national boundaries and, if so, how is it affected by different core cultural food values and norms.

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Further reading Beard, F.K. (2007), Humor in the Advertising Business: Theory, Practice, and Wit, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD. Green, L. and Guinery, B. (n.d.), “Play up! Play up! And play the game!” Edith Cowan University, Perth, available at: (accessed 3 March 2009). Mela, D.J. (1999), “Food choice: the human factor”, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, Vol. 58, pp. 513-21. Mintz, S.W. (1996), Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture and the Past, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.

About the authors James Cronin is a PhD fellow in the Department of Food Business & Development, University College Cork, Ireland. Mary McCarthy is a Senior Lecturer in Food Marketing in the Department of Food Business & Development, University College Cork, Ireland. Mary McCarthy is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

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