Jess Morrissette

Dr. Jess Morrissette is a Professor of Political Science and Director of International Affairs at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where he studies the politics of games and popular culture. His research includes work on bureaucracies and modernity in Papers, Please, patriarchal play and sex positivity in the Leisure Suit Larry series, and the labor economics of the coal mining industry as depicted in Fallout 76.

Contact information:
morrissette at

I'd Like to Buy the World a Nuka-Cola: The Purposes and Meanings of Video Game Soda Machines

by Jess Morrissette


Anyone who has spent significant time playing video games has likely encountered a virtual soda machine. Whether it's a Nuka-Cola machine in the Fallout games, a Grog machine in the Monkey Island series, or any number of other examples, soda machines are surprisingly ubiquitous throughout the medium. Why do soda machines appear so frequently in video games? What purposes do they serve? What values do they represent? This article identifies depictions of soda vending machines in games and analyzes the roles -- commercial, aesthetic, ludic and narrative -- played by these machines. It goes on to argue that soda machines serve a crucial purpose in grounding video games in a world we recognize as like our own, while simultaneously reinforcing the consumerist values of modern capitalism. The paper draws on data from The Video Game Soda Machine Project, a website cataloging more than 3,000 soda machines across every major platform and genre.

Keywords: soda machines, archaeogaming, presence, capitalism, consumerism



Even in today's crazy world, Nuka-Cola is still the number one choice of refreshment among Armageddon's survivors.

-- Sierra Petrovita, Fallout 3

Nestled in the shadow of a crumbling highway overpass in the harsh post-nuclear landscape of Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland is the tiny settlement of Girdershade. Despite consisting of only two houses -- each occupied by a single resident -- the ramshackle "town" is nevertheless home to a noteworthy cultural landmark. While players can explore barely disguised stand-ins for the Smithsonian museums in the game's re-creation of a decimated Washington, D.C., no visit to the Capital Wasteland is complete without a stop at Girdershade's renowned Nuka-Cola Museum. Housed in a dilapidated one-room shack and curated by ardent cola enthusiast Sierra Petrovita, the museum celebrates the history of Nuka-Cola, a fictional beverage in the Fallout universe. After hitting the market in 2044, Sierra explains that Nuka-Cola "quickly became the world's most popular soft drink." When players first visit Sierra's museum, she insists on a guided tour, boasting, "I have one of the... no, the best Nuka-Cola collection in the Capital Wasteland." After a few minutes spent showcasing her assemblage of Nuka-Cola memorabilia, the tour culminates in Sierra's "pride and joy": her barely scratched Nuka-Cola vending machine. "By 2067," she informs the player, "a Nuka-Cola machine such as this rare pristine model could be found on almost every street in America." Should the player interrupt the tour and select a dialogue option rudely insinuating that perhaps Sierra is crazy, she cheerfully responds, "Sure am! Crazy for the taste of Nuka-Cola! Hahahaha!" (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008).

Soda machines may be difficult to come by in the post-apocalyptic Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3, but they are a prominent fixture in video games spanning nearly every major genre and platform. From machines selling Juggernog and Double Tap Root Beer in the Call of Duty series to the delightfully named Handsomeman Executive Cola in Killer7 (Grasshopper Manufacture, 2005) to anachronistic Grog vending machines in the pirate-themed Monkey Island games, virtual soda machines appear in any number of forms across literally hundreds of video games. Why do soda machines appear so frequently in games? What purposes do they serve in these games, and what values do they represent? In addition to fulfilling various commercial, aesthetic, ludic and narrative functions, I argue that vending machines play a crucial role in creating a sense of place in which players can more readily immerse themselves. Soda machines, along with other recurring video game props, connect virtual spaces to a reality we recognize as like our own. The fact that reconstructing our reality in digital spaces so frequently involves the placement of soda machines -- objects as emblematic of brand-consciousness, consumerism, and commercialization as any other artifact of the modern era, if not more so -- further suggests that these vending units reinforce a specific set of capitalist values. In turn, this article’s goal is to offer insight into why developers through the decades have so consistently incorporated virtual soda machines into their games.


To collect data for this study, I launched the Video Game Soda Machine Project (hereafter VGSM Project), a website dedicated to visually cataloging examples of soda machines in video games. The site is accessible to the public and includes both screenshots I have collected from video games myself, as well images submitted by visitors via email and social media. For the purposes of this research, I have defined a soda machine as a self-contained automatic machine that dispenses soft drinks in exchange for payment (Seagrave, 2002, p. 1). This includes functional analogs of contemporary soda machines found in video games set in the past, future, and any number of science fiction or fantasy settings. For instance, the Grog machine from Monkey Island mimics both the appearance and functionality of modern soda machines despite existing anachronistically in a game set during the "Golden Age of Piracy" of the 17th and 18th centuries. Similarly, the Value-Rep Nanite-Driven Replicators that appear in sci-fi shooter System Shock 2 (Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios, 1999) construct and dispense cans of ZAP soda on demand in exchange for nanites, the game's futuristic currency. While I have excluded other vending machines (e.g. water, coffee, snack, and cigarette machines) from the collection, many of the present study's claims would apply equally to these non-soda units.

What constitutes a video game in the context of the VGSM Project? While Wolf (2001) rightly notes that defining what is meant by the term "video game" is "more complicated than it first appears" (p. 14), the VGSM Project casts a wide net to include interactive electronic entertainment originating on numerous platforms: arcade machines, home consoles, personal computers, handheld gaming systems, mobile devices, web browsers, the backseat entertainment systems of certain Chrysler minivans, and beyond. In the case of Catch-a-Coke, a 1983 collaboration between Bandai and the Coca-Cola Company, a simple LCD game featuring a Coca-Cola vending machine was mounted into actual Coca-Cola vending machines, providing customers with a few moments of gaming distraction while they waited for their drinks to dispense. Thus, Catch-a-Coke represents perhaps the lone example of a video game soda machine that was also part of a soda machine video game.

Working within these parameters, the VGSM Project has documented 3,362 soda machines from more than 1,500 different games since its launch in September 2016, spanning every major video genre and platform [1]. The abundance of data points not only offers a wide variety of cases to assess, but also serves as a testament to the frequency with which soda machines appear in video games. In turn, the goal of this study is to report on the findings of the VGSM Project, highlighting the various commercial, aesthetic, ludic and narrative purposes these soda machines serve, as well illuminating their broader socio-cultural meaning. To this end, I will engage in a qualitative, critical analysis of the soda machines collected at the VGSM Project. More specifically, my approach is patterned on the "object inventory" methodology advanced by Consalvo and Dutton (2006). As the authors contend, "A useful way for researchers to understand the role that objects can play in a game is to create an object inventory that catalogues all known objects that can be found, bought, stolen or created, and produce a detailed list or spreadsheet that lists various properties of each item" (Consalvo and Dutton, 2006). They go on to suggest:

Creating such an inventory can help the researcher ask larger questions about the game such as: What role or importance do objects have in the game? Is the player encouraged to collect "stuff" for the sake of having it, or is there utility in most objects? What can be inferred about the economic structure of the game from the pricing of objects, their relative scarcity or abundance? Are objects valued more than people or interactions in the game? (Consalvo and Dutton, 2006)

While the authors' object inventory approach focuses primarily on game items the player can claim and possess, I contend this general methodology -- identifying examples of items in video games, interrogating these examples to elucidate the items' purposes, and then reflecting on the items' broader diegetic and non-diegetic meanings -- is also an appropriate fit for studying environmental objects like soda machines [2].

The project also draws on the emerging theories and practices of archaeogaming. Simply put, archaeogaming is the application of archaeological methods to video game environments. As Reinhard (2018) notes, archaeogaming approaches games as "archaeological sites, landscapes, and artifacts, and the game-spaces held within those media can also be understood archaeologically as digital built environments containing their own material culture" (p. 2). By cataloging and studying virtual vending machines as artifacts of material culture in immaterial spaces -- much like a traditional archaeologist might investigate physical artifacts in the real world -- we can contemplate both their purposes and the values they represent. Each of these digital artifacts has its own internal narrative, which, Reinhard (2018) argues, not only includes details of their creation and use, but also "the intangibles of memory and meaning" (p. 163).

Finally, the VGSM Project represents an exercise in metagaming (Boluk and LeMieux, 2017). That is, it makes a game out of a game -- or, rather, a game out of more than 1,500 games. The act of tracking down thousands of virtual vending machines figuratively and literally gamifies data collection, shifting the focus of play away from "winning" games and instead toward meta-objectives like identifying a game that features a soda machine, obtaining that game, and then progressing through it far enough to capture a screenshot of the soda machine. The fun, as they say, is in the hunt. Therefore, by repurposing play around this set of meta-objectives, the ludic approach of the VGSM Project essentially "undermines the authority of videogames as authored objects" (Boluk and LeMieux, 2017, p. 25) and opens the door to critical analysis.

The Purposes of Video Game Soda Machines

The following section develops a typology of the various commercial, aesthetic, ludic and narrative purposes soda machines serve in video games. I go on to argue that these virtual soda machines play a crucial role in grounding games in a world we recognize as fundamentally similar to our own -- a touchstone of modernity, even in games set outside the modern era. I will begin by exploring examples of video game soda machines that serve as a form of commercial product placement for real-world beverage companies.

Commercial Purposes: Product Placement and Advergames

Spending on in-game advertising has exponentially increased over the past decade to form what is now a multibillion-dollar industry. In 2019, advertisers spent $3.25 billion on in-game ads in the United States alone, with that figure expected to climb to $3.7 billion by the end of 2020 (Wodinsky, 2019). As Martí-Parreñoa et al. (2017) note, "By placing brands and products in video games, marketers expect to influence cognitive, affective, and conative consumer outcomes including brand salience, brand recall, brand recognition, brand attitude, brand choice or purchase intention" (p. 55). In turn, Chen and Ringel (2001) situate in-game advertising on a continuum ranging from games that attempt to associate a brand or product with the activity featured in the game (associative integration) to games that prominently feature the product itself in gameplay (illustrative integration) or allow players to experience the product in some capacity within the confines of the virtual space (demonstrative integration). Whether it takes the form of product placement on a virtual billboard, banner advertisements in a mobile game, or digital simulacra of real-world products, Martí-Parreñoa et al. (2017) suggest in-game advertising offers certain advantages in brand exposure over more traditional media like television or magazines, since "video game players can spend hours, months, and even years playing their favorite video games" (p. 56). Furthermore, at least one informal survey of gamers suggests that respondents prefer games that feature familiar brands (Kline et al., 2003, p. 236).

Considering the rapid growth of in-game advertising and the fact that Coca-Cola and Pepsi each spend approximately $4 billion annually to advertise across various media (Trefis Team, 2016), it is perhaps surprising how seldom soda machines appear in video games as forms of product placement for actual soft drink brands. Of the 3,362 soda machines currently archived at the VGSM Project, only 72 are representations of actual soda brands [3]. Examples include a Coca-Cola vending machine in Shenmue (Sega AM2, 1999), a Pepsi machine in Maniac Mansion (Lucasfilm Games, 1987), Powerade machines in Tony Hawk's American Wasteland (Neversoft Entertainment, 2005), Dr Pepper machines in PlayStation Home (SCE London Studio, 2008), and a Monster Energy machine in Dave Mirra BMX Challenge (Left Field Productions, 2006). Returning to Chen and Ringel's (2001) typology of in-game advertising, these cases run the gamut from associative integration that attempts to connect soda brands to exciting activities like NBA basketball and skateboarding to more interactive forms of demonstrative integration that allow players to purchase and drink name-brand beverages from virtual soda machines.

Figure 1: A Coca-Cola vending machine from the Japanese release of Shenmue for the Sega Dreamcast (Sega AM2, 1999).

In other instances, these soda machines appear in so-called advergames -- that is, games "specifically designed for a brand with the aim of conveying an advertising message" (de la Hera, 2019, p. 31). For instance, Minna no Golf Portable: Coca-Cola Special Edition (Clap Hanz, Ltd., 2005) is an advergame spin-off from the Hot Shots Golf series in which Coca-Cola vending machines are placed alongside the tee boxes and characters swing oversized bottles of Coke instead of golf clubs. Similarly, in Mr. Pibb: The 3D Interactive Game (BrandGames, 1998), players encounter Mr. Pibb machines throughout the game as they consume the titular soft drink and defeat zombies with the subsequent belches [4]. Nevertheless, product placement featuring actual soda brands still constitutes fewer than 2 percent of the machines documented at the VGSM Project. Generic soft drink machines and soda machines featuring fictional brands are far more prevalent in the collection; hence, players are far more likely to see a character reach for a refreshing Nuka-Cola and its ilk than an ice-cold Coke or Pepsi.

Aesthetic Purposes: Looking at Soda Machines

El-Nasr, et al. (2007) define game aesthetics as the "sensory phenomena that the player encounters in the game: the visual, aural and haptic (and embodied) experience of gameplay." Whether it is a virtual soda machine's colorful branding or the satisfying "KA-THUNK!" of a can falling into the dispensing tray, the most immediate level of engagement between players and video game soda machines is on the aesthetic -- often visual -- level. In turn, the prevalence of soda machines in video games is perhaps explained in part by the relative ease with which they are visually depicted in virtual environments. For instance, 1985 Enix platformer Brain Breaker for the Sharp X1 -- one of the earliest examples cataloged at the VGSM Project -- depicts its soda machines as two-dimensional rectangles, only 8 pixels wide by 16 pixels tall. Occupying less than one percent of Brain Breaker's screen real estate and rendered in only six colors, key aesthetic elements that signify "soda machine" are nevertheless visible, including four varieties of soda (distinguished by color), a coin slot, a dispensing tray, and a Coke-inspired "wave" logo. Similarly, the 16-pixel by 32-pixel soft drink machines of Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version (Figure 2) draw on the comparatively austere monochrome palette of the original Game Boy to capture many of the same aesthetic signifiers.

Figure 2: A monochrome soft drink machine from Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version for the Nintendo Game Boy (Game Freak, 1996).

While more recent games often depict environmental objects at higher resolutions and in three dimensions, rendering a soda machine in a three-dimensional space is often simply a matter of mapping a 2D texture featuring familiar soda machine elements onto a boxlike 3D model. Adam Gregory, former designer at Wide Games, describes a soda machine in a 3D game environment as a "simple function expressed as the bare minimum geometry. A cube that does something" (personal communication, 31 March 2018). That is not to say representing soda machines in 2D or 3D games is easy, but the mechanical form of a vending machine does offer a degree of geometric uniformity lacking in any number of organic, irregular, and/or asymmetrical environmental props.

Aesthetically speaking, video game soda machines -- much like actual soda machines -- are intended to catch the player's eye. Colorful and often brightly lit, they provide a vibrant pop that stands in contrast to their surroundings. This is particularly the case in contemporary games that employ more naturalistic, desaturated color palettes to communicate realism to players (Tulleken, 2015). The Sprinkle Fizz soda machine from Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady Studios, 2015), the first entry at the VGSM Project, fits this mold. After hours spent creeping around the shadows of Gotham City, turning a corner and encountering a luminous soda machine emblazoned in shades of cotton candy pink and blue certainly constitutes a departure from the game's overwhelmingly gray and gloomy environs. Moreover, in addition to providing artists with an opportunity to diversify a game's color palette with more saturated hues, units like Arkham Knight's Sprinkle Fizz machine often serve as sources of environmental lighting as a result of their backlit panels and buttons.

The variations in color and lighting provided by objects like soda machines offer game designers "yet another powerful design material to manipulate along with sound, character, narrative, game challenge, genre, etc., when creating satisfying and whole gameplay experiences" (El-Nasr, et al., 2007). Careful manipulation of color and lighting on the part of game designers can not only enrich the visual experience, but also establish mood and evoke emotion [5]. El-Nasr, et al. (2007) argue that variations in color patterns and lighting over time can both build and release projected tension in players. For instance, the visual contrast of shifting from dark to bright -- or from a desaturated to a saturated color palette -- tends to heighten tension. The inverse, moving from bright to dark or saturated to desaturated, releases that tension. El-Nasr, et al. (2007) go on to suggest the survival horror genre in particular relies on this technique of alternating between bright and dark sequences to manipulate narrative tension in their audiences. In turn, the VGSM Project's collection supports these findings. Brightly lit soda machines are frequently used as a source of atmospheric environmental lighting in Capcom's Resident Evil series and numerous other games in which unfathomable horrors lurk in the shadows just beyond the flickering glow of a Juicy Raccoon vending machine.

Ludic Purposes: Playing with Soda Machines

Whereas some video game soda machines exist largely to fulfill aesthetic purposes, others introduce an interactive element that integrates them into gameplay. Jumping on top of a soda machine may help the player reach an otherwise inaccessible location. Punching a soda machine may cause it to spew out coins. Telekinetically levitating a soda machine into the air may transform it into a deadly weapon to use against one's foes. These ludic roles vary widely across games and genres, but the most common way soda machines are incorporated into gameplay is as a means of dispensing health and/or power-ups to players in the form of beverages. For instance, at the end of each level in Data East's 1991 brawler Crude Buster (a.k.a. Two Crude and Two Crude Dudes), one of the starring mercenaries punches a Power Cola machine to dispense a health-replenishing can of soda (Figure 3). Similarly, purchasing a Nuka-Cola from a vending machine in the Fallout series and drinking it restores a portion of the protagonist's health [6]. In some cases, the acts of vending and drinking are implied rather than depicted on screen; players simply stand in front of a soda machine and press the "interact" button to restore the eponymous hero's health in Duke Nukem: The Manhattan Project (Sunstorm Interactive, 2002).

Figure 3: Power Cola machines restore health at the end of each level in Crude Buster (Data East, 1991).

Soda machines also commonly dispense power-ups to players, granting them any number of special abilities. For example, imbibing a rare Nuka-Cola Quantum from one of the machines in Fallout 3 grants bonus action points, which temporarily allow the player to execute additional moves during a combat turn. In Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee (Oddworld Inhabitants Inc., 2001), vending machines -- dispenzahs in the parlance of Oddworld -- peddle drinks that empower the protagonist to run faster or zap his foes with lightning bolts. The zombie game mode that appears in various installments of the Call of Duty series is rife with soda machines that offer a wide selection of Perk-a-Colas, including Double Tap Root Beer (increased accuracy), PhD Flopper (immunity from explosive damage), and Mule Kick (extra weapon-carrying capacity). As is so often the case for those of us in the real world, video game characters frequently turn to soda machines when they need a little pick-me-up.

In addition to providing health and power-ups, soda machines fill a wide array of ludic purposes across various genres. For example, video game soda machines may serve as a(n):

  • element in a quest (Fallout 3, Bethesda Game Studios, 2008);
  • end-of-level objective (Pepsiman, KID Corp., 1999);
  • means of obstructing player movement or progress (Rocky Interactive Horror Show, Online Entertainment, 1999);
  • source of cover during tactical combat (Homefront, Kaos Studios, 2011) or concealment during stealth-based gameplay (Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, Funcom, 2006);
  • oasis of refreshment for thirsty NPCs (Zoo Tycoon, Blue Fang Games, 2001);
  • method of generating revenue from NPCs (Batman: Arkham Underworld, Turbine, 2016);
  • interior decoration (Scarface: The World Is Yours, Radical Entertainment, 2006) that can occasionally tip over, crushing and killing the player (The Sims 3, The Sims Studio, 2009);
  • weapon that players can hurl at foes to inflict bonus damage (Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax, Ecole Software and French-Bread, 2014);
  • backstage prop that inflicts bonus damage when players body slam an opponent into it (WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011, Yuke's Co. Ltd., 2010);
  • ambulatory, anthropomorphic enemy (Rockabilly Beatdown, Rumblecade, 2016) or ally (Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic Games, 2017);
  • vessel for ghostly possession (Geist, n-Space, 2005);
  • wearable "costume" (PlayStation Home, SCE London Studio, 2008);
  • save point (City Shrouded in Shadow, Granzella, 2017);
  • obstacle players can leap over while slam dunking a basketball (NBA Street V3, Electronic Arts Canada, 2005).

While this list is far from comprehensive, it nevertheless gives an indication of the creative -- and, at times, outrageous -- ways designers have integrated soda machines into gameplay.

Narrative Purposes: Telling Stories with Soda Machines

In certain instances, video game developers have also relied on soda machines to help tell their stories, leveraging them as part of an assortment of narrative techniques. For example, the following scene from Deus Ex, a 2000 action roleplaying game developed by Ion Storm, relies on an overheard conversation about a soda machine mishap/conspiracy as a means of implicit characterization for Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann, two of the player's allies:

Anna: "Are you sure you pressed the right button?"
Gunther: "I do not make mistakes of that kind."
Anna: "Your hand might have slipped."
Gunther: "No. I wanted orange. It gave me lemon-lime."
Anna: "The machine would not make a mistake…"
Gunther: "It's the maintenance man. He knows I like orange."
Anna: "So you think the staff has some kind of plot…"
Gunther: "Yes. They do it on purpose." (Ion Storm, 2000)

This back-and-forth helps establish Anna as a reasonable, pragmatic character and Gunther as stubborn and conspiracy-minded, if perhaps "not the most intelligent agent at UNATCO" (Ion Storm, 2000). A later installment in the series, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided employs slogans found on its soda machines to advance the game's central theme of the growing societal tensions between baseline humans and mechanically augmented humans. "Machines cannot taste, but your tongue does. Keep it real," urges a Popa Cola machine. An Ishanti energy drink dispenser boasts, "They may have batteries, but we got this" (Eidos Montréal, 2016).

Survival horror game NightCry (Playism, 2016) relies on a soda machine as part of a crucial plot twist early in the game; when a drink machine bloodily devours a supporting character, it is the first clear sign that the protagonist's weeklong voyage aboard a luxury ocean liner is going to be anything but a vacation. In Konbini (Pedrono and Beaurepaire, 2017), looking at the soda machine outside an abandoned convenience store triggers a flashback to an earlier visit when the store was still open, and the protagonist purchased an especially memorable lemonade. A soda machine literally serves as the setting of Do Not Fall (XPEC Entertainment, 2014); that is, the entire game takes place inside a soda machine. Finally, drink machines can form intertextual connections between games, whether it is the frequent reappearance of a familiar brand like Nuka-Cola throughout the various installments of the Fallout series, or cameos from Bingo Cola machines in otherwise unrelated games designed by Ragnar Tørnquist, including The Longest Journey (Funcom, 2000) and The Secret World (Funcom, 2012).

Notably, virtual soda machines often provide opportunities to parody actual soft drink brands. For example, the Boca-Bola vending machine from Chewy: ESC from F5 (New Generation Software, 1995) is a lazily disguised parody of Coca-Cola. Professor Doctor from F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin (Monolith Productions, 2009) clearly evokes Dr Pepper. Fountain View (Hitman, IO Interactive, 2016) and Mountain Screw (Rise of the Triad, Interceptor Entertainment, 2013) both serve as fictional stand-ins for Mountain Dew. In other instances, vending machines aim for satire with brand names like Sugar Water (Halo 2: Anniversary, Bungie, 2014), Teeth Poison (Dead Matter, Quantum Integrity Software, in development), and "deliciously infectious" eCola (Grand Theft Auto series).

Establishing Presence

I argue that the commercial, aesthetic, ludic, and narrative functions of soda machines coalesce to serve a vital purpose: grounding video games in a reality players recognize as fundamentally like their own. Certainly, soda machines are a fixture of everyday life in many developed countries -- particularly in Japan and the United States, two countries at the center of the video game industry. In 2017, there were more than 7 million vending machines in the United States alone, which generated over $73 million in revenue. Soft drink sales accounted for more than half of these returns ("Vending Machine Industry Statistics," 2017). Many of us are surrounded by vending machines in our daily lives, so it stands to reason that vending machines would figure prominently into digital games that attempt to re-create our physical world with varying degrees of realism. If a game's developers want a game to feel "real" to players, a soda machine on a subway platform can go a long way toward making that happen. Not only is a soda machine instantly recognizable to players, but they can anticipate the range of likely interactions with that machine. As players, we expect to see soda machines, and we know what to do with one when we see it.

The overall sense of "being there" in a virtual environment, toward which soda machines and any number of other game design elements contribute, is known as presence (McMahan 2003, p. 68). Writing about virtual reality technology, Lombard and Ditton (1997) argue that a strong sense of presence provides users with a mediated experience that seems "very much like it is not mediated" -- one that "seems truly 'natural,' 'immediate,' 'direct,' and 'real.'" Slater (2009) advances a similar concept in the form of place illusion, "the feeling of being in the place depicted by the virtual environment (even though you know that you are not there)." While a subtle distinction exists, McMahan (2003) notes that the concept of presence is often used synonymously with immersion, which she defines as a sense that the game world is "real and complete" (p. 68).

Of particular relevance to the present study, Lombard and Ditton (1997) emphasize realism as a significant component in establishing a sense of presence. They define realism as "the degree to which a medium can produce seemingly accurate representations of objects, events, and people -- representations that look, sound, and/or feel like the 'real' thing" (Lombard and Ditton, 1997). Adding to this concept, Fencott (2001) discusses the importance of sureties -- "mundane details that are somehow highly predictable" -- in virtual environments, offering "unremarkable objects such as lamp posts and street furniture" as examples (p. 28). The VGSM Project provides evidence that soda machines take on this role as sureties in hundreds of video games, cluttering virtual environments ranging from train stations to space stations. They serve as familiar, predictable objects that connect gaming environments to players' actual lives, thus creating a sense of realism and, just as importantly, strengthening presence. In turn, something as simple as a red rectangle on screen with the word "cola" on it has a powerful capacity for grounding players in a world they immediately recognize as real.

Perhaps the most striking instance of a video game leveraging soda machines to establish this sense of presence comes in Quest for Bush (also known as Night of Bush Capturing). This 2006 first-person shooter was developed by the Global Islamic Media Front, an organization tied to al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups, as a propaganda and recruiting tool. The player assumes the role of an insurgent carrying out a campaign of violence against American foes using a variety of weapons. A 2006 article in The Washington Post described the game as follows:

It's the latest -- and most extreme -- addition to a small but growing list of Islamic video games, monitored by the Defense Department and much blogged about in gaming circles. Some are free, others are not. Either way, they champion issues from an Islamic perspective, in stark contrast to many Western-made games that generally cast Muslims and Arabs as the bad guys. Furthermore, they underscore a brewing game-design war between East and West, a simmering tension of who's writing (and rewriting) history. (Vargas, 2006)

Notably, while battling American soldiers through a series of underground tunnels in the game's third level ("Jihad Growing Up"), the player encounters a Pepsi machine (Figure 4).

Figure 4: A Pepsi vending machine from Quest for Bush (Global Islamic Media Front, 2006)

The mere fact that even the developers of an al-Qaeda propaganda game chose to include a vending machine that dispenses a popular American cola -- while perhaps engaging in a sly critique of Western capitalism in the process -- speaks volumes about how video games can establish a sense of presence [7]. How does the player know the game's rather crude graphics are meant to represent an actual American military base? Because there's a Pepsi machine, of course!

The Meanings of Video Game Soda Machines

If soda machines so often serve as a touchstone of modernity in video games, what does that say about modernity? In other words, if we know what video game soda machines do, what do they mean? I assert that video game soda machines, in addition to establishing a sense of presence, fundamentally reflect and reinforce the consumerist values of modern capitalism. These game environments are "real" only insomuch as they reproduce the same signifiers of neoliberalism that surround gamers on a daily basis. In essence, they mirror players' internalized values concerning notions like free markets, competition, and consumerist ideals of personal fulfillment (Bailes, 2019, p. 3). "By taking part in an online market system that is like the one they experience in the real world," Schulzke (2014) argues, "players do not experience the discomfort of a world radically unlike their own" (p. 27). Or, as Dye-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) wryly observe, "Welcome to your second life -- much like the first." After all, players can easily suspend disbelief when it comes to games featuring dragons, zombies, and blue hedgehogs in tennis shoes. But a world without capitalism? That’s a stretch.

Actual soda machines and the beverages they dispense exemplify several defining facets of contemporary capitalism: consumerism, advertising, brand affinity, conspicuous consumption, convenience, impulse buying, disposability, and shopping as a cultural practice. Moreover, soda machines arguably represent the excesses of neoliberalism by commodifying carbonated sugar water -- a concoction with negligible intrinsic value -- and marketing it to thirsty consumers. These critiques appear in even sharper relief in the context of video game soda machines. A diet cola may have minimal intrinsic value in the real world, but in a video game, it is nothing more than an image on a digital display -- a cluster of pixels incapable quenching the player's thirst or providing a much-needed caffeine boost. Yet, as the VGSM Project attests, thousands of soda machines dot the video game landscape. Returning to the Fallout series, the consistent presence of Nuka-Cola presents a telling commentary on the centrality of soda machines to modern life. Bowman (2016) goes so far as to suggest that "Bethesda has created a world that, despite being visibly destroyed, is also a manifestation of the permeation of capitalist ideology into every aspect of our lives." Even after a massive nuclear holocaust that killed hundreds of millions of people, the world of Fallout still has Nuka-Cola machines, and those machines are still stocked with Nuka-Cola. Sure, a lot of that cola is radioactive, but what else are you going to drink -- water?

Scholars have explored "ludocapitalism" (Dibbell, 2006), the intersection of capitalism and video games, from a variety of perspectives. As Dye-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) contend, "A media that once seemed all fun is increasingly revealing itself as a school for labor, an instrument of rulership, and a laboratory for the fantasies of advanced techno-capital." Stallabrass (1996) describes video games as a "capitalist and deeply conservative form of culture" (p. 107). Payne and Fleisch (2019) suggest that games have the capacity to "reflect, internalize, and articulate reigning beliefs about free market capitalism" (p. 167). Writing about the "gotta catch 'em all" ethos of the Pokémon series, Allison (2006) claims that capitalism "is both mimicked and (re)constructed in the forms of play/consumption" (p. 331). She goes on to describe how Pokémon embodies the "addictive capitalism" of the millennial era:

Getting addicted to the rush of acquisition constitutes part of the pleasure in Pokémon. And the fetishistic quality it socializes into kids is not dissimilar to what Ōhira Ken has described as the emergent Japanese subject in contemporary times -- people who, ill adept at human relationships, are compulsive consumers and taxonomers of brand-name goods invested with value and intimacy." (Allison, 2006, p. 337)

Perhaps, as Brogan (2016) suggests, video game soda machines resonate with players in part because "they express a feeling of pleasure on demand -- the possibility of getting what we want when we want it. In that respect, they may not be unlike video games themselves."

Given this context, it's not surprising that soda machines figure so prominently in video games. Like any other cultural artifact, we would expect to see video games "reassert, rehearse, and reinforce" (Dye-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009) values like consumerism through signifiers such as soda machines. In fact, as Castronova (2005) argues, "Nothing makes a world feel more alive than an active market system" (p. 172). The introduction of player-controlled vending machines in the multiplayer action RPG Fallout 76 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2018) bears out Castronova's claim. Following a difficult launch in 2018, Bethesda updated the game in May 2019 to allow players to build vending machines at their camps and sell items they scavenge from the Appalachian wasteland to one another. As a result, a thriving in-game economy emerged where players exchanged everything from Nuka-Cola to shoulder-mounter nuclear weapons for bottlecaps, the game's primary currency. Driven by the forces of supply and demand and frequently characterized by arbitrage and artificial, this vending machine economy mimics many of the defining features of real-world markets. Moreover, Fallout 76's vending machines created a reason for players to visit one another's camps, spurring social interaction in a multiplayer game that, up to that point, had paradoxically been characterized by a sense of isolation. Payne and Fleisch (2019) note similar patterns in the Borderlands series, where vending machines emerge not only as a hub for the buying and selling of equipment, but also the exchange of gaming capital (Consalvo, 2019) in the form of player interaction and knowledge-sharing.

While I would contend the vast majority of the soda machines that appear in games do not reflect a conscious attempt on the part of developers to reinforce consumerist values, in certain instances this process of socialization is arguably more deliberate. The aforementioned cases of product placement featuring actual soda brands in video games clearly represent intentional efforts to boost brand awareness and loyalty -- in exchange for beverage companies underwriting a portion of these games' development costs. We can also look to the niche genre of "educational" vending machine games available for mobile platforms as a decidedly more blatant example of socialization. I Can Do It -- Vending Machine (Figure 5) is a game for Android and iOS devices that promises players "the experience of buying drinks from a vending machine" (App Store, 2015). The iOS App Store describes the gameplay experience as follows: "Put in the money... press the button... ta-da! I bought my own drink! No matter how many you buy, your mom and dad won't get mad. Buy as many drinks as you want in this simulation" (App Store, 2015).

Figure5: A promotional image for I Can Do It -- Vending Machine (Digital Gene, 2015).

Similarly, an Android game titled simply Vending Machine (Inclusive Technology HelpKidzLearn, 2017) is "designed to provide a great opportunity for discussion and the development of everyday day [sic] vocabulary associated with using a vending machine" (Play Store, 2017). Soda Crush Vending Machine (Chief Gamer, 2017), a game for Android and iOS, goes so far as to describe itself as "better then [sic] any lesson in school" (Play Store, 2017). The description continues: "People always say that soda is bad for you. It's bad for you [sic] teeth, bad for your health and it's expensive. Well we've got news for you: It's not that bad if you get to learn how to handle money, right?" (Play Store, 2017).

These mobile games and others like them frame virtual interactions with soda machines as educational experiences for young children. While counting money is certainly an important skill replicated in any number of childhood play experiences from toy cash registers to the board game Monopoly, these educational titles serve as noteworthy examples of how video game soda machines can actively promote the internalization of consumerist norms associated with modern capitalist societies. De la Hera (2019) notes that "it has been made clear that persuasion through digital games can in many cases remain unnoticed by players, a question that becomes especially sensitive if these games are designed to influence the attitude and behavior of young target audiences” (p. 198). The added fact that such games often rely on bowdlerized versions of actual soda brands with familiar color branding and logos -- for instance, Koala Cola and Panda fruit-flavored soda as stand-ins for Coca-Cola and Fanta, respectively, in I Can Do It -- Vending Machine -- only further underscores the socializing role video game soda machines can play.


As its collection has steadily grown, The Video Game Soda Machine Project has received occasional coverage from media outlets such as National Public Radio, Game Informer, Slate, The A.V. Club, and Food & Wine. While some of this reporting likely reflects the popular "person does curious thing on the internet" journalistic trope, it also suggests soda machines are a memorable enough part of video game history to merit broader attention. This is further reinforced by the fact that video game soda machines and the fictional drinks they dispense have increasingly "crossed over" into the real world. To promote Fallout 4's release in 2015, Bethesda Softworks partnered with Jones Soda to sell bottles of Nuka-Cola Quantum -- a repackaged version of Jones's existing berry lemonade flavor -- on the shelves of Target (Good, 2015). A similar 2016 promotional campaign involved giving away bottles of Wiz's Energizing Elixir with purchases of Final Fantasy XV (Gurwin, 2016). In 2015, Activision released the $199.99 "Juggernog Edition" of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, which packaged along with the game a fully functional mini-refrigerator styled after the series' Juggernog soda machines (Sarkar, 2015). Bethesda followed suit in 2016 with a replica Nuka-Cola machine mini-fridge to promote Fallout 4 (Fallon, 2017). Lest we dismiss these crossovers as little more than cogs in a massive promotional machine, a February 2020 search of Etsy, an online store specializing in handmade goods, revealed 574 listings for unofficial Nuka-Cola merchandise -- including multiple replica vending machines.

Future avenues of research into video game soda machines might focus in greater depth on oppositional readings of these digital texts. While this study argues that soda machines typically reflect consumerist values, several games use soda machines to challenge, satirize, or otherwise disrupt this dominant discourse. For instance, drink machines labeled "Carbonated Sugar" in True Crime: New York City (Luxoflux, 2005) lay bare through satire the commodification and branding of what is ultimately a nutritionally empty product. Future research might also apply the present study's methodology -- assessing the commercial, aesthetic, ludic, and narrative purposes of items in video games -- to other environmental objects. Sites similar to the Video Game Soda Machine Project have already cataloged in-game items ranging from paintings to traffic cones to toilets. Exploring how these objects fit into game environments, how they are incorporated into gameplay, and how they are used to tell stories could offer worthwhile points of comparison.

Sierra Petrovita, steadfast curator of Girdershade's Nuka-Cola Museum in Fallout 3, returns in Nuka-World, the sixth downloadable content pack for Fallout 4. Players encounter her while she is vacationing at the titular Nuka-World, a massive theme park dedicated to all things Nuka-Cola -- "the happiest place on earth," at least according to Sierra. Through a convoluted series of events involving a scavenger hunt and the cryogenically preserved head of Nuka-Cola inventor John-Caleb Bradberton, players find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with Sierra, breaking into Bradberton's office to steal the carefully guarded secret formula for Nuka-Cola. "I guess sometimes I just take all this Nuka-Cola stuff so seriously!" Sierra exclaims as they embark upon the heist (Bethesda Softworks, 2015). The present study suggests that video game soda machines, too, merit serious attention. More than mere background decorations, devoid of meaning, these soda machines help establish a sense of presence in virtual environments, serving as familiar signifiers of "reality" even in the most fantastical settings. In doing so, they also reinforce the consumerist values of modern capitalism by replicating in video games the same models of commodification, branding, and consumption that surround players in their daily lives. Perhaps, as Sierra Petrovita claims, there's nothing in the world quite like an ice-cold Nuka-Cola, but the pervasiveness of soda machines suggests they are a meaningful artifact of modernity -- not only in our world, but also in the games we play.



[1] These totals reflect the Video Game Soda Machine Project's collection as of 5 February 2020.

[2] For another example of video game analysis using a similar methodology, see Fothergill and Flick's "Chickens in Video Games: Archaeology and Ethics Inform upon Complex Relationships." In this study, the authors' approach involves: "1) undertaking identification of video games with portrayals of chickens and 'chicken-like' entities and analyzing the roles which those beings play in the context of the game; and 2) examining findings through the lens of past human-animal relationships" (Fothergill and Flick, 2017, p. 56).

[3] This number likely inflates the prevalence of soda machine product placement, since some entries presumably involve the uncompensated use of trademarked brands without the permission of the beverage companies whose products are represented (e.g. the Mountain Dew machine from GAME OF THE YEAR: 420BLAZEIT vs. xxXilluminatiXxx [wow/10 #rekt edition] Montage Parody The Game, a free indie first-person shooter).

[4] See Bogost (2007) for an in-depth exploration of the persuasive power of advertising and product placement in video games.

[5] See Valdez and Mehrabian (1994) for a thorough overview of the effects of color on emotions.

[6] Notably, consuming Nuka-Cola also has its potential pitfalls in the Fallout series. In Fallout and Fallout 2, it is possible for the protagonist to become addicted to Nuka-Cola and suffer withdrawal symptoms if he or she fails to consume the soft drink frequently enough. In later installments of the series, Nuka-Cola is slightly irradiated; drinking too much can eventually begin to deplete the protagonist’s Endurance, Strength, and Agility statistics.

[7] Quest for Bush is based on a 2003 game by Petrilla Entertainment titled Quest for Saddam, which tasks players with assassinating former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. One of the levels in Quest for Saddam features, perhaps unsurprisingly, a Coca-Cola machine. These politicized presentations of soda machines in video games give new meaning to the phrase “cola wars.”



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