Rise of the Simulations: Why We Play At Hard Work

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Rise of the Simulations: Why We Play At Hard Work

Simulations have always been around on the PC gaming scene. Train and flight simulators have a long, illustrious history on the platform, stretching back decades. Flight sims, especially, were once the crown jewels of PC gaming for some. I knew several people in the early 00s who lived the yearly Microsoft Flight Simulator entry, snapping up each one at release and building PCs to keep up with the physics.

Despite their popularity, the strain of simulation represented by the trains and planes games were still fairly niche. They were also, notably, for hobbyists. Go to any model train store and you’ll see the same sort of dynamic: men and women who love everything about trains buying up things having to do with the focus of their adoration. The hobbyist simulations tended to shave off the connections to work involved with piloting big vehicles in favor of focusing exclusively on their mechanical workings. The notion of the games as being representative of real world jobs never really felt like it was concrete, if it was acknowledged at all.

Which is why the sudden return of the vehicle simulation, particularly the European strain, is so strange. It’s happened well after the golden age of flight and train sims, when those games moved staggering numbers of copies. More interesting, and in stark contrast to their predecessors, the current crop is inextricably tied up in notions of work.

These are the facts which should preface any examination. Work sims are still niche in the sense that there’s not a massive movement in gaming culture clamoring for them, as you see with RPGs, turn-based strategy games, and the like. When they do occasionally breakthrough, though, they sell a lot of copies and make a lot of noise.

Witness the sudden success of Spintires, which recently topped the Steam charts as a new, undiscounted game just prior to the Steam summer sale. In it, players drive old Soviet era work vehicles around expansive, dark forests. Its primary selling point is its realistic mud physics, meant to provide a new challenge to fans of driving games. And make no mistake, the mud and rocks are really impressive.

Underpinning the muck and dirt of Spintires, and absent from most of the writing on the game, is the simple premise that you’re working. You drive your truck to go pick up logs, which you take back to a camp for drop-off. That’s the point of the game. A colleague referred to the game as “stressful”, and it is, after a fashion. There’s something tense about hauling freight at the level of the worker, as opposed to that of management or “god”.

spintires screen.jpg Spintires

The same worker’s eye level experience is also available in the other big labor simulation, Euro Truck Simulator 2. It came out of nowhere in 2012 to big time critical and commercial success. For Euro Truck Simulator 2, the hook of doing work, in this case driving all over Europe dropping off various cargo for cash, is far purer than in Spintires. There’s no clever mechanic like Spintires’ realistic mud physics to fool anyone into thinking that the game’s not really about working a job. I wouldn’t even say that the driving is particularly great in Euro Truck Simulator 2; it’s by no means bad, but there’s no damage modeling or top notch driving physics. It is, simply and with no garnish, a game about being a truck driver. You literally just drive your truck around.

There’s a minor phenomenon surrounding ironic videos of work simulations. They follow the same pattern: in-game footage of something nominally boring (driving in a field of wheat, hooking up to a cargo car with your train engine, etc), a slowly building to a bass drop dubstep soundtrack, and flashing lights. Sometimes there’s a marijuana reference, a sly nudge and a wink to the fact that, although you don’t need to be high to play these games, it might help.

These works sims are weird, seems to be the message. And there is something weird about their rise, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the games. To be fair, some of them are a bit strange or, to be more precise, not very good games. The genre is typically churned out by small European studios on shoe string budgets. They’re not very pretty to look out and a fair number are buggy as anything you’ll play.

But maybe the weirdness is about us, the people playing them, whether ironically or seriously, more than the games. There’s something about the sudden spikes of popularity when a good work sim, like Spintires or Euro Truck Simulator 2, hits which speaks to a craving for the tangible mundaneness of work we can touch and feel.

We live in a post-industrial America, one where old notions of alienation of labor have been made to seem not radical enough by half through the increasing abstraction of our work. The factory worker of fifty years ago could at least touch the things he or she was creating, even if it was only a piece or two of a larger whole. Now, we’re coders, pounding out lines of a foreign language we might only partially understand in order to create intangible end products for companies skimming more and more of our compensation. Or we call an order to production, only for it to go halfway around the world for quick delivery to the stores we work at, with nothing produced or even handled by anyone we will ever know by processes we’re never really privy to.

euro truck simulator 2 screen.jpg Euro Truck Simulator 2

That’s if we work at all. As bad as many of our cities are, the spaces between them are crippled by a calculated abandonment of available work outside of Wal-Mart clerking and fast food assembly. Entire sections of the country are essentially on the dole right up until the time that the same folks who killed the industries that made those towns and small cities livable cut it off. As a culture, we’ve developed an utterly dysfunctional relationship with labor and our expectations of what it should be.

So maybe Spintires and Euro Truck Simulator 2 are weird European games which caught some fluke success because the lack of bugs and solid construction didn’t obscure the quirky fun on hand. Or maybe the work simulations and their simple, blue collar vision of work which is increasingly vanishing in large sections of the country speak to a deep dissatisfaction in how and why we work. It’s a way of connecting with a way of life well on its way to going away.

Call it the Dirty Jobs effect. Mike Rowe’s famous series was a hit on cable at least in part because there are now demographic swathes of people in this country who simply don’t interact with electricians, plumbers or farmers and find a certain satisfaction with interacting, albeit through the detached medium of television, with the proletariat. That fact lends itself to a possibly mixed takeaway. Maybe it’s simply gawking at the blue collar zoo for the viewers. Or maybe it’s from a vestigial class consciousness, a sense that we’re all beholden to the same machine and that maybe the truck driver is to be envied a little bit because at least he or she gets to get out of the cubicle.

I take the latter view, both when it comes to shows like Dirty Jobs and games like Spintires. Our politics of labor is so fragmented and atomized that our awareness of it comes bubbling up in tiny spurts in the corners of our pop culture. It’s not cohesive, but it’s there if you look.

None of which is to say that there is an impending flood of work simulations poised to rule the PC sales charts. Two games don’t precisely make a trend, though it should be noted that Euro Truck Simulator 2 is developing a sequel set in the United States; I’ll put out there that, when it releases, it’s liable to be one of the bestselling Steam releases that quarter.

And, of course, there’s the fact that there’s something to just playing a well-crafted game for its own sake. But the success of the ones which do break through means something, particularly in light of just how different they are from other chart toppers. The fact that so many found so much pleasure in the prosaic rhythm of simulated labor points to shifting notions of fun in an irregular, turbulent world of real life work.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.

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