Chew On This: Cornspiracy Theories

'corn 3' by _-o-_ on Flickr
‘corn 3’ by _-o-_ on Flickr

Sorry about the lame joke in the title, but I couldn’t resist!

Hi, hello, and welcome back to Chew on This, a little column where we talk about food culture in games! Last time we talked a little bit about why food culture is important and asked about how you’ve worked it in to your games. Today, though, we’re gonna start out with just one crop to paint a clearer picture of how food and games can work together: corn! As a fair warning, this article gets in to some heavy statistics and food science-y things. Agree or disagree, the purpose of including them here is for your story hook inspiration and not to get into an agriculture debate!

With some obvious exceptions such as science fiction and other-worldly settings, corn is one crop that can and does easily make an appearance in most settings. For some perspective, in the United States alone over 400,000 farms are responsible for growing around 84 million acres of corn each year. That is a lot of corn.

Even if you don’t have any explanation for corn appearing in your setting, these concepts can be applied pretty easily to many other crops, and you could even replace the corn with something unique to your setting.

All In The Roots

Corn is a particularly interesting example of how “improvements” in agriculture, genetic modification, and other factors can add up to some peculiar results. In fact, a hundred years ago in 1903, there were over 300 different types of corn being grown in the United States. Now there’s just twelve, and over 85% of it is genetically modified (GMO).

As you can see, this gives you a pretty easy set up for some game concepts, the most easy and obvious being that the genetically modified corn or a long forgotten strain of it is responsible for some big disaster or event in your setting. Maybe the corn is the reasoning for a zombie outbreak, or a long-forgotten strain is the cure. It’s also possible that Monsanto or your world’s equivalent might be producing the GMO corn specifically to help control the population a la They Live or something like it.

Corn is used in all sorts of products and fed to all sorts of creatures, which we’ll touch on a little later, but this is an interesting thing to keep in mind as we look at the corn itself and the production and processing!

Where It Grows

Farms in general can provide a great backdrop for your game, in more ways than you might realize. Corn fields provide great cover for monsters and enemies and in general are tough to move through when the stalks are high, especially given the creepy crawlies that live there anyway. That’s also a lot of land area that could have things hiding underground! Who’s going to expect an entire city hidden miles beneath a corn field that relies on the corn itself to survive?

Consider the sorts of items that are found on farms as well: from the huge farm machinery to silos and other storage facilities, both of which are known to kill people every year. (Check out some of the search results!) These can help with your coverups, conspiracy theories, haunted locations, and so on. It’s also important to remember that corn is largely grown in areas such as the American Midwest, and in areas with similar climates. Other regions might grow other things, but if you want to have a corn-specific region, you may want to see what these parts of the world look like first.

In addition to the farmland basics, there’s also the typical crop circles for alien or supernatural games, which–aside from being great evidence of an incoming invasion–can work great for putting players through puzzles, allow them to scope out different parts of a corn field with ease (I wasn’t kidding about those stalks being difficult to work around!) or lure the player characters into a trap. You can also incorporate these same ideas into a corn maze instead of a dungeon–at least nobody will go hungry while trying to find the way out!

You also might consider that farms often come hand-in-hand with small towns in the middle of nowhere, which can also be great for supernatural elements and set an eerie stage for the rest of your game.

Where It Goes

Even though we tend to picture corn as the tasty yellow stuff on the cob (or sometimes the overpriced movie theater snack,) the stuff that is harvested goes to all different places, including dried starch, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, and animal feed. Considering where it all ends up, you have some pretty sizable story hooks just waiting to be tapped.

According to the EPA, of all the corn we harvest each year (84 MILLION acres!) about 80% of it goes to feeding livestock. A lot of this livestock isn’t really meant to eat corn in the first place, so this could yield some interesting results in a fantasy setting where everything isn’t quite what it seems! If cows and pigs and other traditional livestock can be affected by eating the wrong food, imagine if some unknowing farmer is keeping a dragon or a couple of displacer beasts out back and feeding them corn on the cob! Change of temperament? Mutations? Get creative with it! It could be that the more time a creature is left alone in a corn field, the more it changes and becomes more difficult to kill.

Another 12% of the corn goes to food for human consumption, and a lot of that goes in to sugars and high fructose corn syrup that can be attributed to obesity and other health issues. In the same way we humans use corn to fatten up cattle for slaughter, who says that another species or otherworldly life for isn’t using corn to fatten us up as well? Are humans all just the same as cattle fit for slaughter?

You can into some pretty fun ideas with where the corn ends up and how it affects your game, especially considering all of the places it goes beyond just edibles for humans and livestock. We use corn for ethanol fuel, but also in things like fireworks, drywall, crayons, antibiotics, and adhesives.

Hopefully some of these ideas have given you some inspiration for how you can work crops into your game, whether you choose corn or not. I thought that this would be a great place to start since corn is a very diverse crop that affects us in a pretty big way, but could easily be replaced by the made-up crop of your choice, or these things used to jump start further ideas.

If you have any more ideas about using corn in your game, I’d love to hear them! Otherwise, I’ll see you next time for more food related fun!

References & Suggested Resources:

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