Sunday September 25, 2016

The 'pop' culture of video game soda machines

Jess Morrissette has been curating a collection of pop machines in video games, like these from the game "Half Life".

Jess Morrissette has been curating a collection of pop machines in video games, like these from the game "Half Life". (@LNorwegians / Twitter )

Listen 6:13

Dr. Jess Morrissette is a professor of political science and Director of International Affairs at Marshalls University. He also loves playing video games and is an amateur game developer. Recently, he began to notice something in common in many of those virtual worlds. "One day," Jess says, "I decided to make an archive of every soda machine that's ever appeared in a video game." That archive became The Video Game Soda Machine Project

Besides being just a quirky catalog of screenshots, could the soda machines found in video games tell us something about our own world?

As Jess explains:

I first got interested in this idea while I was playing a game called Batman: Arkham Knight. And in this very dark, grim game I turned a corner and saw a really bright, colourful soda machine there in this very dark room. And I thought to myself, 'oh, that's kind of interesting aesthetically, how they've used that,' and I took a screenshot of it and posted it to Twitter with a little note saying, 'Hey, someone should start making a master list of all of these soda machines that appear in video games.' And from there it just started to grow and grow. 

The list has reached nearly 400 entries now across virtually every genre, dating back to video games from the early 80's, all the way through to games that have just been released over the last few weeks. 

Some of my favourite soda machines I've come across often times are either parodies or somehow satire of existing soft drink brands. 'Professor Doctor' from Fear 2 is aping Dr. Pepper to some degree. One of my real favourites comes from the Halo series where there's just a soda machine with a giant label saying 'sugar water'. Really tells it like it is.

I think there are a few reasons that soda machines are so prominent in video games. In some cases they're there for mechanical reasons, or game-play reasons. That is, they may dispense health, or something like that. They may even advance a story line. In the recently released Deux Ex: Mankind Divided, the whole centre is set against this backdrop of this dystopian future where the divide between humans and cybernetically advanced humans is widening and there's a lot of tension within society, and there you see soda machines that have very political slogans that are, for instance, saying, 'oh, this soda machine is for humans because at least we have real taste buds.'

But I think probably the most prominent reason that we see these soda machines pop up again in game after game is that they confer a sense of realism for the player. After all, in our lives we're surrounded often times by these sorts of vending machines. They're a hallmark of modernity. And in that sense, something as simple as a rectangle that says the word 'cola' on it is a way of grounding us in a world that we all recognize.

The soda machine itself as a standalone piece of technology that I think very much reflects the world that we live in today, in the sense that it's a symbol of convenience. It's a symbol of capitalism. The idea that you're never, in many urban or office settings, more than maybe a short 5-minute walk at any time from being able to get a hold of a soda, if you want it. In some ways I think also, it may symbolize some of the excesses of modern capitalist lifestyle. This isn't something that necessarily is terribly good for you. It's there. It's ubiquitous. But that doesn't necessarily mean that constant access to it is a terribly good thing.

I have given some thought to how I might make use of this data. As a political scientist, when I start to see a database come together, which is essentially what this project has generated, my mind immediately goes to, 'well how can I analyze this data?' And that's a question that I'm actually trying to work out a little bit more. Could this kind of research be important? It probably depends on what your definition of important is! Certainly, there's a wide range of journals out there today publishing work on video game studies, popular culture, on material culture, like how the stuff we interact with on a daily basis represents aspects of our cultural being. Making that leap, not just to talking about something that many people might see as somewhat frivolous, a soda machine, and saying , 'well now I'm going to talk about it in the context of these digital worlds. May seem like a bit of a stretch but I do think that there's certainly interesting research to be done on it.

Check out the archive at Jess's The Video Game Soda Machine Project