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Skyrim helped me fix my relationship with food

When eating is survival

Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Roast chickens, venison stew, apple dumplings, cabbages … these are the items that fill my Skyrim character’s bloated pouches. Though certainly not the most efficient way to play, I’ve always opted out of purchasing potions to restore health — although I’d certainly use them if I had them — and instead turned toward the stuff that’s lying around everywhere: food. Found scraps of food in Skyrim are a cheap way to keep health up, although you’re going to need lots of it to heal completely.

And I had loads of it. Food is power in Skyrim, whether it’s boar meat stripped right from the bone or a pile of cheese wheels stolen from the vendor next door.

This didn’t extend to my own reality. My body was shriveled, and my bones were as brittle as ice at the dawn of spring. Anorexia plagued me throughout my early 20s, bubbling up as an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with a bunch of connected events: a bad relationship, anxiety, and subsequently dropping out of college. A preoccupation with food — and eating just the right amount of it— consumed me whole.

Food as a mechanic

The life I lived in Skyrim as a towering Nord woman with closely cropped hair and battle-tested muscles had little parallel to my reality. I hid with my numbers, the calories in and the calories out, while my character in Skyrim fought.

I learned things through this fight, although they were things that would not click until much later in my recovery.

No video game, Skyrim included, had any sort of bearing on my eventual recovery; I did that. My family did that. Skyrim was an escape, a momentary lapse from the relentless math of diet that ate away at my own life. But it was a lapse that I needed, and a lapse with mechanics that unintentionally influenced letting go of my fear of food and releasing the control I clung to in my actual habits.

Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Games rarely make food mandatory, and Skyrim doesn’t force the issue on you. The game can be played without any attention given to the carrots and potatoes strewn across Skyrim’s taverns. Food’s mechanics of healing are no accident, however. Though they can be considered set dressings, food items in Skyrim are immersive, interactive objects designed to draw players into the world — to make the game feel like real life. Playing in Skyrim’s world means sustaining life, and as humans, we sustain life from food’s calories.

There are many ways to play Skyrim; the path I chose was pretty standard. I was a strong Nordic dragon-born with no use for magic — her weapons are enough — traveling through Skyrim’s main plotline as part of the Stormcloak rebellion. Some players choose to turn on modifications that make eating and sleeping necessary in Skyrim, but I never did.

I used food because it was there when potions weren’t. And that’s not because I didn’t have access to potions, as they’re dropped generously throughout the world. I’d just rather pick up interesting items, like boiled creme treat, apple dumplings and sweet rolls. Health restored from these items is always negligible: Boiled creme treats restore 10 health, with apple dumplings and sweet rolls restoring five. You’ve got to have a lot do any real healing.

I hoarded food items in Skyrim, piling any extras onto my companion, often until we were both too encumbered to move. At the time I didn’t draw any parallels between this behavior and my real-world issues with eating, although in retrospect this clearly wasn’t the easiest way to play.

Hunger scared me. I made sure I almost never felt it, which seems to surprise folks unfamiliar with eating disorders. I counted calories so that I could eat just enough to never feel hungry. Preparation — and thus, the food hoarding — ensured I’d have exactly what I needed when I needed it. Not one bit more or one bit less. I often found myself staggering in and out of grocery store aisles, picking up cereal boxes and cartons of almond milk just to count their numbers. Fiber, sugar, salt, and calories. Calories were the most important. These tallies meant more to me than just about anything else in my life.

Plus or minuses in my shopping basket became more important than keeping friends and graduating college. I just needed to never feel hungry.

The idea extended to always have what I needed in Skyrim, too — though restrictions on what made it into my character’s pouch were much looser than in life. And that was good.

A cabbage a day

Cabbages spilled from my character’s very deep pockets. I urged her into battle, seeking out whispers of a dragon just outside Whiterun. Though we’d already encountered a dragon very early on in the game, the rumors drew us in. I was eager to prove my character to Skyrim’s locals.

I had posited myself behind the swath of soldiers we followed into the suspected dragon location; I didn’t want to be caught off guard. But I am. The group of us, my character included, were struck by fire and knocked to the ground.

Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

And that’s when I remembered the cabbages … and the horse meat we nabbed off an enemy’s ride, the jug of milk we haggled with an innkeeper for and the leeks we snatched from a neighbor’s lot. Hiding behind tower ruins nearby, I spammed the hotkey I had bound to my food items. I was sure I was wearing off the letter on my keyboard.

Breathing heavy from battle, my character tore into the cabbage head, ripped slabs of flesh off her wad of horse meat and gulped down splashes of milk. It didn’t matter what was there. There was no right or wrong when restoring health from battle. Little or lots of health points, it didn’t matter. Food was survival.

Recognizing the patterns

It was a lesson I needed to learn, though it took much more than a video game to learn it. Being held so tightly in the depths of an illness makes these simple ideas hard to grasp. I found control in my eating disorder; that’s what it was always about. My brain rewired itself with an intense focus on food in efforts to convince itself that I had found the control I needed. I didn’t.

Recovering from an eating disorder is not as easy as realizing you must eat like a Nord woman besieged by a pack of dragons. They’re complex afflictions with ties to gender, sexuality, race and control. But these unintentional mechanical influences of these tiny pieces of massive games can resonate in ways the developers likely didn’t intend.

Being relatively careless in regards to what I stuffed into my Skyrim character’s mouth — because, you know, she needed it to survive — set a precedent for how I needed to approach my own life. Parallels weren’t always apparent to me, but as I entered recovery and realized how deeply I had damaged my body, food was survival. 100 health points or seven, a cabbage or a sweet roll … it doesn’t matter.

Nicole Carpenter is a freelance writer from Boston. Follow her on Twitter.

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