Playing "Pac-Man" or "Super Mario Bros." earns you yellow M&M's and actual mushrooms.

snackade video game and snacks arcade
Credit: Courtesy of Snackade

In a matter of weeks, Adam Grant—along with friends and creative partners David McDonald and Huw Parkinson—devised the concept of Snackade, a “Wizard of Oz”-like activation that brings gaming’s proclivity towards consumption to life by letting you eat the foods you collect on screen.

The original idea for the interactive installation had been floating around the team’s mind for a while, but its creators finally had the impetus to construct it thanks to this year’s Sugar Mountain Festival. The annual single-day event held in Melbourne, Australia, showcases “the best in contemporary music, visual art, and new media.” The organizers reached out to the Snackade trio after seeing their work on Jafflechutes, Melbourne's first float-down eatery.

“For me, I think food is a part of our lives that’s still very structured,” Grant, a freelance creative and self-described occasional entrepreneur, tells Food & Wine. “We basically eat the same things at the same times in the same spaces day in, day out. You don’t need to deviate very far in order to find an interesting new way of doing things. And when you do … you’re almost guaranteed to generate a bit of interest.”

Deviating from eating norms is at the heart of Snackade, a simple, but ingenious concept whose edible responsiveness incorporates the building blocks of arcade play. The snack-dispensing video game structure lets players select (and collect) from up to six popular and more obscure games, including “Pac-Man,” “Super Mario Bros.,” “Donkey Kong Country,” “QuackShot,” and “Super Bonk.” The activation has several major parts, beyond its towering, castle-like structure: a video game console, a TV screen, a small hand-held net, and a conveyor belt.

snackade sign and video game
Credit: Courtesy of Blair Howard

Robotic voices count down to gameplay, and once your characters start collecting pellets, gold coins, and bananas, the real power of Snackade is unlocked. Grant tells Food & Wine that for “Pac-Man,” players can expect to see a yellow M&M for every dot, a chocolate gold coin for every power pellet, a giant marshmallow for each ghost and a cherry for every cherry. Each item appears on the conveyor belt as you earn it on screen, dropping right into a net, which can be held by your friend, an on-looker, or a member of the Snackade team. As they roll out, you can choose to let them fall into your net or eat as you play.

Some games have higher and faster rates of item collection as well as more elaborate power-ups. Grant reveals that they try to make the in-game-item, out-of-game item ratio as literal as possible, with nominal lag time between a player collecting on-screen and receiving it through the conveyor. But Grant also admits cooking up items can be somewhat challenging, with its human-run element playing a small role. Three people operate the installation at any given time—one person out front taking tickets and running demonstrations, one person driving the conveyor belt, and another loading the snacks as they’re picked up by the player. Players can’t see the two behind-the-scenes human-operators, but that’s part of the magic.

“We built Snackade to hide people working behind the screen not as a way to trick people, but as a way to maintain the illusion of automation,” Grant says. “I think people are quite used to understanding how technologies work—you know, popping the bonnet and seeing all the pipes and wires. There aren't many products around that still surprise us. By maintaining the illusion of automation, I think we allow people to feel a certain kind of wonder—if only for a moment until they’ve worked it out. It's like a big, chaotic magic trick with video games.”

video game snack dispenser as you play
Credit: Courtesy of Blair Howard

To address the challenges of real-life gameplay rewarding, Grant and the team got a little creative. That meant taking a few gambles early on with the conceptual design of Snackade, including the construction of a conveyor belt, which Grant built from scratch in around a month with the help of his 91-year-old grandfather, “despite having exactly zero experience building conveyor belts” himself. They also opted to use imagination and humor to enhance the food experience for both those playing and watching.

For example, as you make your way through “Mario Bros.,” mushrooms and invincibility stars can appear and be collected. Grant told IGN that for an item that “couldn’t be realistically supplied in its literal form, or isn’t edible at all,” the Snackade will roll out other options, including Chupa Chups lollipops, packets of Starburst, and sunflower seeds. As for the mushrooms, expect to see the real thing.

“The mushroom in ‘Mario Bros.’ was more a kind of joke,” Grant explains to Food & Wine. “Overall, the Mario games aren’t actually very well suited for Snackade, since most of the power-ups are kind of magical or weird, but we offer it anyway since it’s such a nostalgic favorite. The alternative to real mushrooms would be to bake cookies that look like mushrooms, but apart from not being great bakers, that never seemed like a very cost-effective option. Sending a lone button mushroom out on the conveyor belt usually gets a good laugh.”

Regardless of what you’re getting, Grant says that the quality of the food rewards is just as critical as the play experience, with the group working to offer a substantial range of goodies. To nail Snackade’s fun and authentic gaming-food spread the team played each featured game, ensuring all their tasty bases got covered. The Snackade creator even joked that he hasn’t “played this many video games since I was 10.”

As for the group’s future plans for Snackade, there is interest in bringing this out to other conventions and events. The idea of automation has also crossed the creators’ minds. The Snackade concept is somewhat something of science fiction or fantasy that gamers—including Grant—will admit they’ve probably had for a while. While automation would provide a chance to potentially enhance and scale up this kind of edible project, Grant shares that the human element makes Snackade special.

“We’ve put a bit of thought into how you could further automate it, but I do think there's a danger that you'd lose something in that process. Since there are real people behind the scenes of Snackade, were able to respond to a player’s actions in a very human way,” Grant says. “For example, if a player isn't doing particularly well in a level, we might decide to encourage them with random flurries of candy. Being able to go off-script every now and then feels like an important part of keeping it playful.”