Meaningful Play and Beyond: What Anthony Bourdain Taught Me About Making Games

Anthony Bourdain was a Chef, Writer, Traveler and so much more. What did I learn after watching his shows and reading his books about making games? Everything I needed to know.

In this series of articles, Mars Ashton does a deep dive into a number of topics related to submitted papers, talks and games found at this year’s Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University. For this article, Mars reflects on his own history watching and reading Anthony Bourdain’s shows and books and their impact on his pedagogy, methodology and general approach to all things game making. This entry emphasizes Meaningful Play’s nature of bringing developers closer to more personal, human-centric and culturally relevant experiences.

My paternal Grandfather bought me a Nintendo Entertainment System when I was 5 years old.

I don’t recall much about my younger years, but I clearly remember a large garage kit I had at the time that was the centerpiece for my room. Little me used to ride Hot Wheels cars up and down the tracks, parking cars, then parking them elsewhere, over and over. I was only able to take my creativity so far with toys like this. I would introduce other toys into the mix, protecting the garage like a base and generally forming objectives for my favorite toy characters to complete. Then, as Super Mario Bros was introduced to me, I was now taking on a role. It made me more self aware because of how user-centric it was. The environment taught me how to play, what the rules were and explained my purpose. I struggled to make the simplest of jumps, complete levels in time or overcome the tricky jumping patterns of enemies. I was trying to do this with my garage base and vehicles, of course, but this video game thing had a purpose and incentives. I was now able to exist in another world in some form.

They told me I could be anything. So I became Mario.

What followed was what you most likely experienced yourself, right? I found new games, indulged in news about sequels, new consoles and secrets my friends happened to find. Without the internet as it is now it was common to have revelations and mind-bending moments of clarity. I was often questioning everything I knew about my favorite games. I didn’t find an easter egg, an alternate ending or a hidden item naturally. Through experimentation or the help of a friend I would discover there was a missing piece, that I just knew was there all along, that was now able to be revealed. There was magic to this feeling of uncertainty that can be lost these days.

I’m pretty sure you can relate with this.

In many ways, I now do everything I can to know all there is to know about games or movies I’m interested in. I read wiki articles, Reddit posts and speculation about what it really meant and dig deep into top 10 lists of things you didn’t know about X, Y, or Z. I feel satisfied knowing all there is to possibly know, and then some (regarding development insight), about these things as it brings me back to those times of discovery and the unknown. I revel in conspiracy theories, even, and love reading about the intricacies of making games back when I was only playing them and not making them.

That very same Grandfather that purchased a Nintendo console for me surprised me one day with a road trip. Teaming up with my Mom, they talked about our destination like it was going to be the greatest thing that I had ever witnessed.

For context, I was in the 4th grade at the time. My family was living with my Grandfather while we were shopping around for a house, to my knowledge anyway, and most of my stuff was in storage. Creatively I was stunted. I only had so much of my stuff. A Sega Genesis was on hand but the television was usually reserved for my Grandpa in the family room. My outlets were rationed, as it were, which had a big impact on me. Bored with school material that was behind where I was at in my previous neighborhood, I started to act out. I started getting into fights at school by giving in to the taunts coming from bullies. I had several meetings with my parents and the school’s principal about it.

So, when it came to two of the three most important people in my life telling me I was really in for a treat my mind went wild. Since this was around the time I was introduced to stores that carried Japanese imports like Gundam kits and games that weren’t released in the US yet, I was convinced they found a store that was nothing but these types of products. No, not even that. They found a mall full of places like that. With everything I would ever want. Everything I knew that was out there, waiting to be discovered, ready to be experienced. As if my perception of the world would only be complete by witnessing such a spectacle. My mind would be opened and I wouldn’t feel so isolated, lost in my own creative silo. You could say I set my expectations a little too high.

They brought me to a drive-in fast food joint.

Looking back on this now, I understand the frustration my Mom and Grandfather felt, and wish I had the capacity to communicate what I was feeling at the time.

Another time, during high school, my grades were slipping. I was given a fair amount of freedom to indulge in video games. So, like any self-hating teenager, I jumped in whole-heartedly. When consoles and “game time” was taken away from me as a consequence, I became very aware of an issue I have with balancing work and play. I would come home, do homework, and sketch. I found myself getting lost in my sketchbook and card games, making up new worlds and game rules with what I had at my disposal. When I invited friends to play Magic: The Gathering with me, with a flurry of custom rules I thought up, they weren’t really interested. They thought it was odd that I would change the rules but entertained the ideas because I was trying to make things more fun and engaging. We had played Magic so much that our strategies and options were growing fairly stale.  As it turns out, some of my concepts are now very similar to alternative game modes for that game. This creative outlet fixed my problem, though. I would often find time to complete my homework well before I headed home. This let me take advantage of every evening and weekend to continue drawing, making and participating in my creative outlets.

As these sketchbooks and Lego projects went on and on I got into the habit of turning on reruns of Saturday Night Live, watching Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming or random movies that would run on TNT, TBS or USA Network. Before long, I started incorporating Food Network or the Travel Channel into the mix as they typically showcased far off locations, great places (that were a far cry from Warren, Michigan) and interesting people. This introduced me to one of the most influential people in my life that would help to shape me during my formative years. A guy that my Mom always dismissively claimed “looks like he smelled bad”.

His name is Anthony Bourdain.

In his books, Tony reveals the inner-workings of the food service industry through reflecting on his own experiences as a chef, restaurant owner and celebrity. The reality of most new restaurants failing in their first year, the arrogance and thick skin needed to persevere, and the balance of abiding by trends and experimenting with your own cultural history and context are all present. As the years went on his books became reflections of his experience as a host and traveller and helped to illustrate exactly what it was like being on the road the majority of his life. As I watched and read it helped me understand how little I really knew about the world and that I can find beautiful, existential moments in some of the simplest things. I did not have to be there with him on the side of a busy road somewhere in Asia to take in the noise, the sights and the feeling that you get when you feel connected to something. That you’re moving along just like everything else. With a purpose, with a place, with a sense of worth.

In his shows, coupled with an award-winning team (Zero Point Zero Production), he had a tricky start. At first, he was rebellious. He didn’t do his homework. It was a free ride. Until he went to Vietnam and was interested in a place they were headed he wasn’t doing his research and putting in the time to focus on unique and interesting aspects of each location. He didn’t want to do just another food show for a network and talk about how great everything tasted. After researching each destination he better understood the perspective of the people who lived there and a perspective he wanted to have, inspired by wondrous stories, films and culture revealed through politics, authors and comics. He wanted to eat where the locals ate. He wanted to take risks with the content and appeal to one over a hundred viewers to engage, inspire and provoke. He wanted to explore and experience as much as he could about their home and how they look at the world, not just through their cooking, but the way they live their lives.

And the music they use for each episode? My jam.

Each lesson he preached about discipline, cleanliness and organization as a member of a kitchen are relevant to making games and making them well. “Everything important I ever learned, I learned as dishwasher and as a cook: you show up on time, you stay organized, you clean up after yourself, you think about the people you work with, you respect the people you work with. You do the best you can.”

He wanted to take risks and be meaningful. This spirit and sentiment are at the heart of almost every developer I know. The meaningful, risky, underdog stories we celebrate and adore and discuss are grounded in the very same lessons taught by a struggling man looking, nay hungry, for more. Let’s talk about things other games cannot speak about. Let us use games as a message to tell a story, to bring us home, and remind everyone that we are all in this together. We are all connected. You have a role in this network of all the things that keep us woven together.

As I search and do deep dives into topics and inform myself of games I play, I try to do the same for games I create. I want to understand the user as a cook would understand their guest or ingredients. I want teams I manage to know one another, as a kitchen could also become a family, so that they work together efficiently and with knowledge of one another’s limitations and strengths. I profess and practice (the best I can) to encourage self-discipline and time management, as they are just as important to a game maker as they are to someone juggling orders, balancing work and personal lives and doing everything that needs to be done “off the clock” for their career.

In many ways, his first trip to Japan changed his life. Long before his television career he went there for a job in a kitchen. After work he would explore the streets and alleys full of hidden restaurants looking for new things to eat. There was a sense of discovery in this activity, then, revealing to him that there was so much more to learn about. It was transformative. He realized he knew very little about our world. This sense of wonder and adventure mirrors the way I try to fill those creative voids I have experienced all my life. It mirrors the very nature of being a player, embarking on an adventure and ever-motivated to discover and learn. Even now I yearn to learn more about things that are relevant and adjacent to the work that I do. I know nothing and that is okay. That is a large part of what makes discovery so much fun and rewarding, after all. This man taught me this lesson and the other people in my life, related to game development or not, perpetuate it.

“I went there thinking there were a certain amount of primary colors. I came back knowing, in fact, there were 10 or 12 more.”

The updated edition of Kitchen Confidential, the book that pulled Tony into the spotlight by discussing, as the book’s blurb puts it, “Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, has an Afterword where he looks back on the book’s impact and success. At the time of its original release in 2000, being a “chef” didn’t have the same level of prestige it has today. Now, they are brands and personalities that accompany products you find at grocery and department stores. Local businesses glamorize their lead Chef on the front page of their website, waving them like a flag that represents their pride, soul and spirit. Alongside of this shift, the group “they” Tony refers to, the customers, are no longer uncaring and uninformed. We celebrate all types of food, criticize it on Yelp and are more inclined than ever to try our own hand at different new recipes and prepare meals for the week ahead of time.

The game industry has followed suit in many ways, right? The misconceptions about who plays games and what it takes to make them is for the uncaring and uninformed. We’ve long since passed the era of family members playing “casual” Facebook games and our parents spending hours in front of their smartphones playing Candy Crush. Like a kitchen in a modern day restaurant, we now expect more of the game making environment as makers and consumers. We celebrate the developers, artists, writers, designers and so on throughout social media, award shows and more. We like, follow and subscribe to these brands and hold on to these treasured indie discoveries and personalities. As makers, we do the same, if only to follow their achievements and the lessons they share through GDC talks, articles and Twitter .gifs.

As I’ve grown older I have realized that the itch I used to get about mysterious and hidden gems in games directly relates to my interests as a developer. I want to provide those moments of discovery, sure, but the very act of making a game leads me to these moments too. I learn new tools, new methods and new capabilities. I get to meet people who have shared these experiences and can provide more insight into ways to “scratch the itch”. Every event, be it a game showcase at a bar or a trip to a big budget conference, is another adventure into the big, wondrous world of unknowns and potential possibilities.

5 things that make a great chef according to Anthony Bourdain (that also work for making games):

  1. Be serious. Consistency is key.

  2. Aspire. Improve your skills and never stop learning.

  3. Be clean and organized. Keep your workspace clean (take notes, sketch, etc.).

  4. Be arrogant. Stick up for ideas and take chances (but be nice doing so).

  5. Have passion. Go all in, spend that time, put in the effort.

There I was, sitting around in my room for years, making and playing. Playing and making. Listening to this man narrate his way throughout the world, giving me a glimpse into all that is worldly and making my inability to “follow suit” a little less painful. His observations about food, life, people and doing right in the world ultimately aiding the formation of my own understanding and ethos. All of it stuck with me. There was a connection he was having with people around him. The world was his oyster, the food he would eat rebelliously to show off to his family that wouldn’t allow him to eat at the fancy “parent dinners” that went on when he was a child. Until recent years when I’ve been able to finally “follow suit”, I couldn’t make this connection. I’ve been meeting developers, composers, managers and directors. Through Netflix, I have been able to rewatch episodes of Tony’s shows and reminisce. I’ve been organizing community events, running the IGDA Detroit chapter and finding myself in new opportunities, leading a team and feeling more fulfilled and productive than ever. I feel connected now.

And yet, Tony is gone.

At the end of Kitchen Confidential’s updated edition, of the Afterword written in 2006, Tony discusses how he is most free between flights, sitting in a room alone, away from the world. With a drink in hand and the clarity of knowing what to do and where. He became free of the complexity of the world and the people in it in those moments, citing that “Human behavior remains a mystery to me”. 12 years later, I don’t know if I believe that. He might have been able to know people better than anyone.

My own connection with food stems from my relationship with my parents. “Fend For Yourself” night was commonplace, and while I typically cracked open a can of Campbell’s, spaghettios or cooked up a pack of Maruchan ramen, those times I went out to eat with my family were what I looked forward to. Every time. It meant we would all come together, laugh and enjoy a meal as a family. Not one subject to my Dad’s work schedule, my Mom’s responsibilities as guardian for my cousins, or my own tendency to hide away in my room to make and play. Food made my family stay a family for as long as it lasted.

In many ways, the community throughout Michigan and the projects we share are what brings us together. Game Development is the food that connects this family, as it were, and I look forward to every meal.

Thank you, Tony, for giving me something to reflect on. I hope my own journey and the journeys I provide in my games have some semblance of meaning for others in the way that your journey had meaning to me.

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