Food and Video Games

Video games may be the art medium of the 21st century, but they’re also an advertising medium. Here are five notable games that promoted foods

Nouveau Pac Man Cuisine
Nouveau Pac Man Cuisine Image courtesy of Flickr user Orbital Joe

Have you ever considered video games to be works of art? A show called The Art of Video Games, opening Friday at the American Art Museum, moves beyond looking at games simply as a form of entertainment and draws our attention to how games are a design and storytelling medium—perhaps the art medium of the 21st century.

By the same token, have you ever stopped to think about how food figures into video games? Pac Man chows down on power pellets, Mario is a hardcore mushroom-monger, Donkey Kong a banana connoisseur. There have been games devoted to food fights or hamburger chefs being chased by manic pickles and sausages. Furthermore, ever since the video game boom of the late 1970s, games have been used as a means to advertise products—including edibles. While “advergaming” may be a recent piece of Internet age jargon to describe web-based games created to market a branded product, the concept has been kicking around since the dawn of video games. Here are a five notable games that were created to promote familiar foodstuffs.

Tapper (1983): Let’s start with arcade-era gaming. The premise of this one was simple: You are a bartender whose goal is to keep sliding beers down the bar to quench your customers’ thirst. This cabinet is noteworthy for its clever physical design: Bar-style beer taps are used to control your character and places to rest your drink. Players will also notice that the Budweiser logo is shown front-and-center and on the bar’s back wall. Although the game was initially meant to be installed in bars, it was re-tooled and re-christened Root Beer Tapper as a kid-appropriate game for arcades and home video gaming platforms.

Kool-Aid Man (1983): What’s notable about this game is how the marketers and the computer programmers behind the game clashed. Marketing wanted a single game that could be adapted to the variety of gaming systems then on the market, whereas programmers wanted to create multiple versions of the game, each one able to take advantage of each platform’s technical strengths. For those who bought the Atari 2600 version of the game, you played the Kool-Aid Man who had to thwart little round creatures called Thirsties who drank from a pool of water—if the water was depleted, the game ended. The Intellivision version was drastically different, with players controlling two children trapped in a haunted house being terrorized by Thirsties. If you collected the ingredients needed to make Kool-Aid, the Kool-Aid man characteristically busted through a wall to thwart the Thirsties.

The California Raisins (1988): The late 1980s and early 1990s were a great era for clay-animated television ads hawking food, and the chief ad mascots were the California Raisins. This Motown-esque group of singing raisins was featured in several television ads, a Christmas special and a Saturday morning cartoon show. The raisins released several albums and even inspired two video games. The first was a PC game in which you played a raisin whose friends were trapped in a cereal factory and it’s your job to rescue them.The second is the stuff of gaming apocrypha. Developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System and slated for release in 1991, it was cancelled at the last minute, perhaps in part due to the raisins’ waning popularity. I still think that’s doing pretty well for something as simple as dried fruit. (On a side note, the raisins’ claymation counterpart, the Dominos Noid, also graced PC screens.)

Chex Quest (1997): For a kid, finding a prize at the bottom of the cereal box is the ultimate payoff for eating breakfast every day. (Aside from all the associated health benefits.) While small toys are par for the course, the cereal box can also be a source for home gaming entertainment. The first video game packaged in a box of cereal also happened to have a food theme. Chex Quest was based on the then-popular Doom series of games, which was notorious for its extreme violence. Chex Quest, on the other hand, was totally kid friendly. You played as an anthropomorphized piece of Chex tasked with saving the planet from an invasion of slimy, green creatures—but instead of killing them, you zapped them with your gun and teleported them to another dimension.

Darkened Skye (2002): Released on the Nintendo Game Cube platform in 2002, you play Skye, a shepherdess charged with fighting the forces of darkness with your wits, weapons and… magic Skittles. Yes, you read that right. Turns out there are Skittle-laden rainbows that bring color and life to Skye’s world, and she unleashes the magic of said Skittles in her mission. What an epic extension of the “taste the rainbow” ad campaign!

All that said, perhaps the most perfect marriage of video games and the culinary world is the Super Nintoaster—the product of a gaming fan who gutted a toaster and replaced the heating elements with all the requisite circuitry and jacks to make a perfectly functional gaming systemPac Man shrimp dumplings, served at Red Farm restaurant in New York City, come in at a very close second.

The Art of Video Games will be at at the American Art Museum through September 30.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.