Back when mobile phones had number pads and an application was just a sheet of paper you filled out before a job interview, mobile gaming was commonly perceived as a cheap novelty. Munching a few pixels on Snake or shooting a few pesky Space Invaders was a neat but ultimately crude way to plug the spare few minutes left over in your day.
With the release of the first iPhone in 2007, however, mobile devices took an evolutionary leap forward. By virtue of having touch screens and motion sensors, smartphones became fully fledged gaming devices in their own right, and anyone who owned one now also had an entire library of innovative, exciting games at their fingertips. Gaming ceased to be a specialist hobby and budding gaming developers saw their audiences explode exponentially. With access to millions of new gamers all around the world, developers had to find ways to make their games stand out from all the noise on the App Store. So how do you appeal to a new mass audience? Simple!
Food, Glorious Food!
If sex is an advertiser’s No. 1 product shifter, then food isn’t far behind. A game developer inviting a consumer to buy its app would present something that, like sex, is fundamentally and universally appealing and can make the difference between the customer coughing up the change burning a hole in their pocket and walking away.
Finance website The Balance summed this up when discussing why sex and food are fantastic ways to sell a product:
It's been said that as human beings, we have a lizard or reptilian brain that responds to certain primal urges. Food is one. Sex and reproduction is definitely another.
In short, incorporating a fundamentally, universally appealing subject into your game makes it relevant to practically everyone using a mobile phone. But that's not the only reason gamers enjoy food in their games; we should also consider the incredibly pleasurable color palette such a subject can lend a game's aesthetic.
For the developers of Fruit Ninja, it was important to note that people know the texture of the fruits being thrown on screen, and that playing with them virtually has a sensory connection to our memory — making the game infinitely more pleasurable to play than a game about chopping, say, wood.
Perhaps most importantly, however, food isn't just appealing to everybody, it's also consumer friendly. By making games like Fruit Ninja food-centric, developers avoid alienating a younger audience without losing the inherent satisfaction of cleaving something in half and having kaleidoscopic colors blemish the screen.
The image above, for example, looks more like an orange juice commercial than anything remotely related to the violence of ninjas. In this way, food can not only give a game an immediate age-neutral appeal, but can also open it up to an entirely unadulterated audience. It's an advertising combo!
A Numbers Game
Food can also be incorporated into a game's addictive elements. The drive to hoard and accumulate wealth has been entrenching itself into the human condition since early hunter-gatherers swapped predation for agriculture. By offering players the chance to harvest lots and lots of (albeit virtual) crops and livestock, FarmVille sets itself apart on a subconscious and innate level from its competitors.
Not only does FarmVille appeal to the lizard part of our brain that likes food, but also the implacable bit of gray matter that relishes seeing numbers increase. While this can be an addictive element to the game, it's interesting to note that FarmVille is the most popular example of this (when considering games on Facebook), where the numbers directly relate to food, using harvests to level up and progress.
To use another example, substituting colored gems for an assortment of sweets may not seem like it would make much of a difference to a game's sales potential, but it gives Candy Crush an immediate connection with consumers. This is a line that goes straight to one of the most basic and primal human desires that Bejeweled will possibly never have.
Of course, there are plenty of apps that enjoy success without having a theme revolving around food, and to propose that the games mentioned are popular exclusively for this reason would be unjustly reductive. Nonetheless, it certainly does help explain why we invest so much of our lives in these arguably very shallow games.
With the question of how to make their games appeal to as many people as possible, game developers faced the equivalent of standing outside on a stormy night with an empty bottle; they had to discover and take advantage of one of the few things that everyone on Earth, regardless of their culture or background, shares an interest in. Considering the unprecedented success of games like Candy Crush and Fruit Ninja, it's clear from the App Store rankings that game developers bottled lightning.
Have you been bitten by the mobile gaming bug? If so, do you feel the universal appeal of food-related gaming?