Science and Tech


Next Level: Simulator video games focused on real life are on the rise

Video games that focus on everyday tasks are increasing in popularity, which is reflecting a changing demographic of people taking part in gaming.
Posted at 8:47 PM, Feb 20, 2023

Video games tend to offer escapism by exploring the unimaginable; they allow gamers to tune out for a few hours by getting in the shoes of super-soldiers, the spurred boots of western rustlers or even stray household pets while living out their stories across sci-fi dystopias, vast fantasy worlds or the deep expanses of space.

But for some gamers, the escapism they're looking for is a bit more grounded — something that resembles a miniature economy of people performing jobs and being financially rewarded by their audience, which can total tens of thousands of viewers.

It may seem counterintuitive, but there's a growing demand for games that recreate strenuous real-world work. Understanding their motivation shows something about the evolving appeal of video games and how art imitating life can offer its own form of escapism, even in a virtual 9 to 5.

The virtual world of work simulators is a decades-old field that can be traced to the rise of the personal computer. Many of the earliest models shipped with some kind of flight simulator. One of the most popular, Microsoft Flight Simulator, was originally launched in 1982 and has given players worldwide the opportunity to take to the virtual skies ever since. 

Over time, the company continued to update the game. With improved graphics, satellite imagery, artificial intelligence and other open-source data, Microsoft generated an increasingly life-like representation of Earth for digital pilots to fly over, with accurate mountains, rivers and over 1.5 billion buildings. There's more than 460 kinds of aircraft to be piloted, and 1,600 airports to fly to and from.

"It used to be that to be in the mainstream of computer games, you had to be a certain kind of gamer playing certain kinds of games, and people used to make fun of these boring games or slow games," said Dr. Olli Tapio Leino, associate dean and associate professor of City University of Hong Kong's school of creative media. "This — what is commonly known as casual games — is sort of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the diversification of what computer games have become." 

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With the growth and advancement of these sorts of simulators, today there's no shortage of virtual jobs to be picked up. Recent games like Farming Simulator 22 — which, predictably, allow players to role play as farmers — have been huge smash hits with audiences. Farm Simulator's experience is so sophisticated that users have to figure out what equipment they need to buy in order to plant specific crops and how to best fertilize and harvest their grows. That's all in addition to selecting and taking care of a wide array of livestock for pastures.

Euro Truck Simulator and its American counterpart have found huge success in developing a simulator that re-creates the long-haul trucking experience. Beyond being able to customize a player's rig and choosing the cargo they want to carry, the games are built to scale based on maps of real trucking routes, meaning drivers have to figure out what roads they'll need to take to get to their destinations and how long those hours-long trips can take all in order to make deliveries on time.

There are much less complicated, more chore-intensive jobs to be done as well — like simulators that let players powerwash dirty public bathrooms, prepare elaborate dinners and even build virtual computers, all the way down to screwing out individual components of the devices.

In some cases, gamers and modders are retooling already popular games to open them up to more role-playing opportunities. Much of Grand Theft Auto V's continued success can be attributed to the increasing popularity of lobbies where participants are required to stay in character and perform certain roles within that universe, like acting as a police officer.

There's a sizable audience for people to live-stream their favorite streamers doing these mundane work games. During peak times, Farm Simulator 22 has seen as many as 90,000 concurrent viewers on Steam streams for the game. American Truck Simulator has hit that 90,000 mark on Twitch, while its European counterpart, Euro Truck Simulator, has racked up as many as 60,000 concurrent streamers. 

While there is some popular appeal to simulator games for their novelty, players who clock in consistent hours say there's a therapeutic or a zen-like element to completing work in a stress-free environment.

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"You'd expect a game tells you what to do — go get the key, go to that door, kill that monster. Mundane vehicle simulators don't do that. They are open-ended. You make them into what the what you want," Leino said. "Personally, I just find pleasure driving around — more or less — aimlessly, waiting to get stuck in the traffic jam, then turning on the CB radio and listening to other people complain about the antics of other players."

Leino notes that he's increasingly opted for the simulator experience, in part because of the role-playing nature of the game.

"It's this sort of ecosystem of different kind of activities which feed into each other in interesting ways, and it's all sort of bottom up. It's not top down created by the game designer. That's the beauty of it," Leino said. "Some people build their own realistic controller rig. Then there's the sort of social activities which get really interesting. People run virtual trucking companies where someone is the dispatcher and sends other players to missions around the game world."

On Reddit's trucking simulation subreddit, which boasts nearly 90,000 members, members show off their own custom cabin to enhance the trucking simulator experience. Some rigs are so realistic that they feature a standard wheel and pedals, gear shifters and several monitors to resemble switch panels and other parts of the dashboard. Some players even have infrared camera setups that allows them to turn their head and see out of their out of side windows, a second monitor.

"Much of that critique of virtual worlds was based on this sort of existential emptiness. EuroTruck is not existentially empty," Leino said. "You would call it player creativity or user-generated something, and the beauty of it: it's bottom up for the players, by the players, kind of thing."

The rise of the popularity of these simulation games can feel niche, as many popular streamers will play the most outrageous sounding simulators for the sake of more eyeballs on their stream. But it also shows a diversification in how consumers interact with video games and the cultural relevancy they have over society.

"Think of the nature of office work these days," Leino said. "What is it that we do in the office? We click on things on the screen, then we try to get better at it. We try to optimize our clicking. And that doesn't seem to be really much different from much of the computer games out there. It's just that these connections to different mechanisms of production and profit making slightly different from office work as we know it."

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