In 2017, I decided to learn how to cook. My parents don’t cook much, so to teach myself, I signed up for one of those at-home meal-prep kits. Within weeks, I was hooked: when you work in an industry riddled by economic uncertainty and an unhealthy dependency on social media algorithms, there’s something particularly soothing about coming home at the end of the day and chopping onions.
Unlike writing an article and posting it to Twitter, if you follow a recipe in good faith, you get a fairly predictable result. Factor in the intense multi-tasking some recipes call for—like baking a piece of salmon for 15 minutes while reducing a sauce for five—and a finished dish brings with it a thrill of accomplishment.
It’s exactly that feeling—the satisfaction of successful time management—that drives Cooking Craze, a cartoonish freemium cooking game created by Russian developer EleFun Games. I downloaded it this fall, and got so obsessed that it nearly brought my actual cooking to a halt. So far, I’ve made hamburgers in New York, salmon tartare in Paris, panna cotta in Rome, and tapioca crepes in Rio. The premise is simple: you play a chef who travels from city to city, rapidly assembling different regional cuisines for a gaggle of impatient customers.
Successfully burning through the game has little to do with your actual kitchen skills, and everything to do with how quickly you are able to juggle cooking, grilling, garnishing, and serving multiple dishes simultaneously (though you can purchase higher quality ingredients and machinery in the game’s store). In some levels, you’re tasked with earning a certain amount of money within a finite amount of time, or serving a specific number of dishes. In others, the difference between winning and losing is not making your customers wait too long—something they will make abundantly clear, by flashing you nasty looks and (literally) turning into animals.
In 2015, researchers from New York University published a paper identifying the obscure region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex responsible for our ability to multitask. It’s called the thalamic reticular nucleus, and according to their study of rats, it acts as a “switchboard,” “limiting and filtering out sensory information that we don't want to pay attention to.” In other words, the study revealed, we’re not really carrying on multiple thought processes at once when we’re driving a car and talking on the phone at the same time; we’re simply moving back and forth between different stimuli.
When I play Cooking Craze, it feels like this mechanism is being pushed to its breaking point: especially after the first few restaurants, the challenges can require so much combined speed and in-the-moment decision-making (Icing or sprinkles? Pepperoni or olives?) that it feels impossible to keep up with any single customer, let alone anything or anyone going on in the world around you. If look up from your screen to greet someone who’s just walked in the room, you lose.
This can be a good thing, especially in a year like the last one: On nights when I was rattled by headlines of high-profile men using their power to abuse others, Tweets landing us on the brink of escalation, or clashes between my peers and actual nazis, Cooking Craze became a steadying after-work companion. When I experienced a small health scare, it was there in the doctor’s waiting room with me. When you’re reminded of something as big and terrifying as your own mortality, beating a difficult level can be a comforting reminder of the small things that are in your control.
Cooking Craze is by no means the only cooking-centric time management game of its kind. One of the first time management games, Tapper (1983), involved serving beer to customers at bar, and Diner Dash, which came out in 2004, popularized the basic prep-and-serve formula to which Cooking Craze adheres. There are countless free-to-play analogues for mobile on the market—among them celebrity chef-co-signed Restaurant Dash with Gordon Ramsay and Cooking Fever, which garnered more than 100 million downloads in 2017—though Cooking Craze, through sheer speed and chaos alone, is definitely the most engrossing.
At times, it can be hard to fight the inkling that the developers are knowingly taking advantage of this: some of the levels seem near-impossible to beat without shelling out extra money for an extra 30 seconds of playtime, and after conquering all the restaurants in a given country, Cooking Craze mysteriously deletes all of the money you’ve earned, making all of your hard work (and micro-payments) feel like they were for nought.
More than the embarrassing $100.47 I have paid out to Elefun since downloading it, though, I think the game’s greatest downside is precisely what drew me to it: how all-consuming it is.
When you open your phone and start playing it in the middle of a movie or a conversation with your partner, Cooking Craze always wins. It requires so much of your undivided attention that you end up missing out on the things that are worth devoting your time to, on the pockets of your life where you do exert a bit of agency.
That’s why, at the end of the day, I think real-life cooking will always be more rewarding than Cooking Craze: At the end of a level of Cooking Craze, all you get is more of the game itself. When you spend hours toiling away on a single loaf of burnt banana bread, at least you come away feeling like you’ve created something.