If you sometimes eat gluten-free without having a gluten allergy, or occasionally forgo that burger for a vegan meal option, you are engaging in dietary play. If you took it upon yourself to learn about the ketogenic, Whole30, or paleo diets and don’t actually follow any of them, yet still try to eat fewer carbs, more protein, and more carefully selected produce, you are also engaging in dietary play.
Recently, while conducting ethnographic work in the food space, my team was explicitly asked to exclude people from the research sample who had food sensitivities or allergies, as well as those who followed any specialized diet. The client wanted to focus on “mainstream” consumers – a challenge, considering today’s contemporary food culture, in which the growth in allergen-free products has far outstripped the demographic quotient of consumers with sensitivities. Part of the trouble has been the non-specific ranges offered by medical statistics, which indicate that anywhere from 4% to 30% of adults in the US have food allergies. There are many explanations for and implications of this divergence in the numbers, but here I’d like to focus on one of its broader cultural effects: consumer relationships to specialized diets.
A Commitment to not Committing
Fascinatingly, despite our attempt to identify “mainstream” consumers by excluding people who reported food sensitivities, we found that consumers consistently brought up their relationships to allergen-free and other specific ways of eating and drinking. People described how and why they were inspired by specialized diets. We spoke with people who associated gluten-free foods or meat alternatives with healthy eating, and we met people who admitted that they regularly consumed foods despite a suspected sensitivity to them. We also talked with people who learned all they could about specialized diets and certifications, but never intended to follow those dietary rules closely. Instead, they learned about specialized eating in order to distill guidelines or principles that they could use to direct a personalized sense of “eating well.”
How people borrow from a range of specialized diets, inconsistently and unsystematically, is a particularly confounding trend in the ways consumers interact with food. If many people don’t actually follow any particular diet closely, how does learning and reading about different ways of eating influence or inspire how, when, and why they consume what they do?
Play reinvents fun. By using the term “play” to understand the pleasure of building a commitment to not committing, thinkers across the social sciences and humanities have reconsidered what we, as consumers, think about as “fun” and where we go looking for it. So, what does a “playful commitment” look like?
In this context, “to play” is to have an awareness of a fixed set of expectations or “rules,” and to then use those rules as a reference point; by engaging with or bouncing off of our own understanding of the rules, we can cherry-pick which aspects we embrace, ignore, defy, or make fun of. The act of determining what direction to take that bounce can feel empowering – especially if it aligns with values or communities we want to align ourselves with.
Video game designer and play expert Ian Bogost describes how the fun of play is partly anchored in the limits that narrow our focus and the pleasure of stretching, bending, and selecting our way through defined parameters. According to his work, the labor of definition – that is, of deciding where, when, and how to look for what inspires us – is critical to what makes play fun.
Loving the Labor of Definition
What does this mean for food retail? It could mean that consumers are increasingly fueled by an interest-driven commitment to experiment through play – but you knew that already. Instead, the details of how and with what resources people develop and come to their most deliberate food choices can nuance what it looks like to play with food. Understanding how the idea of mainstream consumption is being shifted – not only by people who need it to shift, but, more importantly, by people who don’t – can help businesses determine market segmentation strategies that mirror and build on actual consumer experiences and practices.
The act of expressing interest by discerning boundaries seems to be what makes experimental play fun. There are two critical aspects of this. First, this act of discerning never happens only once. Instead, it is iterated, or recycled, as experiences and resources build on one another. For example, the Zone diet may inspire consumers to play with portion size and carb intake, but they may find it time consuming to prepare certain alternatives in a family-friendly way. This may lead them to revisit the shape and extent of their play in the future. Here, the fun comes from deciding what to learn about, how to borrow from it, how to incorporate it into everyday living, and how to revisit that set of decisions.
The second critical detail is in the environmental factors that make the act of defining and limiting feel so empowering to consumers. For the labor of definition to be meaningful, it also has to feel like an accomplishment – which it absolutely is in a world replete with a smorgasbord of choices and suggestions. As offerings and opportunities seem to proliferate, imposing limits becomes a powerful way to generate a sense of individualized, intentional action. What play means – and, by extension, what the fun of definition looks like – depends on how players understand and work with their worlds in order to also work against them.
So What? Putting the Fun into Fungible
Why is this important for food? Play may not just be about sensory delight. If fun is anchored in the pleasure of making decisions when one has a plethora of options to choose from, the field of play now involves the labor – the active series of tasks – of continually setting and revisiting limits. This ongoing project of redefinition balances plenty with individual agency, and knowledge with cherry-picking. The persistent lure of making playfully discontinuous choices shapes the human experience of what fun is and how it is situated.
If humans were consistently rational, insights research would not be necessary. Being part of this eminently human club of inconsistent conduct does not mean we are broken, volatile, or imperfect. Instead, it is an opportunity for understanding. It means that the ordinary things we do demonstrate the elastic and fungible ways that we interact with the wealth of suggestions that surround us. Defining why, where, and how we exercise that fungibility, while continually revisiting our experiences, is what fun feels like today.