It’s raining, so I flick on the windshield wipers. The rain goes with my mood: cold and foul. I’ve been swearing at my computer screen, wondering if I should uninstall and reload, pretty sure the game is glitching to all hell, and searching for the one damn thing that would make this miserable experience worthwhile.
The truck itself somehow manages to be ungainly and nimble at the same time, like a sperm whale riding a Vespa.
Then I see it: a trash can.
My elation is difficult to describe. I’ve been playing Garbage Truck Simulator for over ninety minutes, and this is the first garbage can I’ve found. The world map is useless. The only indicator of where I should go is a straight yellow line that cuts directly through buildings, across rivers, and leads not to the trash I need to pick up, but to the city dump miles out of town. I spent twenty minutes trying to figure out how to leave the depot. The truck itself somehow manages to be ungainly and nimble at the same time, like a sperm whale riding a Vespa. The lack of precision is costly, since I get fined every time I damage property, run a red light, or exceed the speed limit. These fines are levied by omniscient, invisible policemen who dock your bank account the moment your speedometer nudges 41 kph. Crushing pedestrians nets you a fine of 100 Euros. On my first attempt at waste management I racked up 17 violations, lost 1,005 Euros in fines, and flipped my truck after riding up on a curb. After that, I learned it was best to drive like a sloth whacked on codeine. And then there was the lack of garbage. I’d always heard about the cleanliness of German cities, but come on.
But all that didn’t matter, because there was garbage now. “Garbage!” I crowed to my girlfriend across the room. “Honey, I found trash!”
She arched her eyebrows and smiled at me with concern and pity.
When I approached the trash can, I was supposed to be able to control the bin man on the back of my truck, but nothing happened. I pressed a button. I clicked the mouse. I pressed another button. I pressed every button and ground a layer of enamel off my teeth.
Increasingly frantic, I circled the bin like a diabetic dachshund trying to find a spot to lie down. Pedestrians died beneath my wheels, shrieking in German. I cared not.
The game crashed. My truck disappeared, leaving my mutton-chopped driver squatting in thin air, hands out as if holding a wheel. He looked like he was using a phantom toilet while reading an invisible newspaper.
Who would play this game? I wondered. In a medium where you can be a Space Marine or a Viking Lord, who would choose something so banal?
Lots of people, apparently, at least according to Daniella Mangold, PR rep for Buschbaum Media, which represents Astragon Publishing. Astragon’s simulation games are extremely popular in Europe. According to the company’s press releases, Farming Simulator 2012 sold 500,000 copies across France and Germany. That’s a strong showing for a niche indie game.
“There is a wide variety of gamers interested in simulator games,” says Mangold. “They come from all walks of life and belong to several age groups.” There’s a lot of crossover with model hobbyists, for instance, who like the opportunity to work with interactive versions of the trucks, trains, and airplanes that they build. These hobbyists aren’t attracted to videogames in general, but appreciate the attention to detail presented in sims. “Then we have a group of gamers that are actually doing the simulated jobs in real life: bus drivers, farmers, truck drivers, construction workers, etc.” These players, Mangold says, enjoy trying out types of machinery they haven’t yet worked with, or even play as a form of stress relief. Other players just like sampling a career that fascinated them as a child, but that they never pursued.
Older and younger gamers take to simulators as well. “Senior gamers appreciate the lack of time pressure these games offer,” says Mangold, while children enjoy driving vehicles they see in real life. Parents also appreciate them, since they see them as a wholesome alternative to games that might include violence and profanity.
I was still skeptical when I took to another Astragon game, Underground Mining Simulator. Unlike its cousin, Mining Simulator was less complex, and involved regularly switching vehicles between excavators, bulldozers, rail lines, and a platform for placing explosives. While Garbage Truck Simulator seemed like government training software gone wrong, Mining Simulator resembled playing with trucks in a sandbox. I still didn’t find it fun, and bugs plagued the experience, but at least I had no trouble figuring out where to go and what to do. According to Dirk Ohler, head of Product Management, Astragon tailors the level of detail to the platform and the vehicles represented: “Our main goal, especially for PC simulations, is to provide as much detail in a game as possible. Our Bus Simulator, for example, is a very highly detailed simulation, where you can control nearly everything up to the position of the seats.”
In fact, the level of detail makes me worry that I – and most American game journalists – aren’t fully objective when it comes to simulators. Yes, Garbage Truck was a buggy, unintuitive mess with zero momentum and dull gameplay, but its strokes of detail undermined my assumption that it was a cynical cash grab. There was a button for the windshield wipers. The headlights had a hi-beam setting. In the first person view, the dashboard of the truck was exquisitely rendered, from the steering wheel to the odometer and included working sun visors. This wasn’t shovelware – there was love in this game, and that filled me with doubt.
After all, hadn’t I, on some level, wanted it to be dull? When I scrolled through the website of Excalibur, the UK publisher that brings Astragon’s games to the English-speaking world, hadn’t I picked the most mundane titles I could get my hands on, passing up Space Shuttle Simulator and Dive to the Titanic because they seemed too interesting? How hard had I tried to fix the glitches, and could my computer have been to blame? In trying to understand why people played banal, blue collar job simulators, I had gravitated to games that I knew would reinforce my prejudices. Classic cultural chauvinism – or genre chauvinism at least – made me blunder into unfamiliar territory and demand what I’d come to expect from a game: narrative momentum, excitement, and user-friendly game controls. I’d dropped in like a stereotypical American tourist, making no attempt to understand my surroundings as I whined about the food and how no one spoke English instead of realizing that different didn’t necessarily mean bad. Maybe I had to engage more with the culture, stick around a bit, and try my best to go native.
I’d dropped in like a stereotypical American tourist, making no attempt to understand my surroundings as I whined about the food and how no one spoke English instead of realizing that different didn’t necessarily mean bad.
Because, make no mistake, simulators have their own subculture. Astragon games are mod-friendly, and there are communities of gamers who like adding extra vehicles and buildings or tending fields cooperatively on Farming Simulator‘s multiplayer servers. There are bizarrely wonderful peripherals, ranging from train controls to, and I must emphasize I’m not joking here, a tiny wooden ship’s wheel. Some people who have enviable amounts of money and free time even make full scale flight simulator rigs. Probably the most surreal artifact is Excalibur’s World of Simulations, a thinly-veiled product magazine à la the late, lamented, Nintendo Power. Inside, one can find interviews discussing the extensive research conducted during the development of London Underground Simulator and find out via a surprisingly honest review whether the bee-keeping option in Farming Simulator 2011 is worth the upgrade.
The foreignness of the magazine begets a sort of absurdist hilarity. It’s a portal to a state of play that I not only never knew existed, but I also still can’t understand. I would feel worse about reveling in the strangeness if the magazine itself didn’t have a sort of self-effacing humor: “This game’s title pretty much explains the concept,” reads the ad copy for Airport Firefighter Simulator, “as you play a firefighter at an airport and of course as it’s present in this magazine it is a simulator.”
Still, the opening article of World of Simulations makes a good point: Simulations aren’t a niche genre. The best-selling PC game series in history isn’t Call of Duty or World of Warcraft, it’s The Sims, a title that exemplifies the genre’s ability to let you do anything you want. Simulators “allow us to experience weird and wonderful activities,” it says, where you’re “left to experience an occupation, journey or experience to your heart’s content.”
Not my heart’s content, I thought as I read it. I’m a narrative guy, always have been. Even as a kid, my G.I. Joes were always rushing to diffuse a bomb or infiltrate a fortress – these games were for the kind of kids who played with Tonka trucks, moving dirt from one pile to another.
It was with resignation, then, that I sat down to play Farming Simulator 2012 for iPad. The controls were simple and the visuals a little flat, but I soon got down to the endless cycle of plowing, planting, and harvesting so that I could buy more fields to plow, plant, and harvest.
In Farming Simulator, much like in life, accomplishing work only leads to more and harder work. The progress was slow and fairly monotonous, and I came to appreciate the autopilot option that would plant or reap fields for me while I folded laundry or sat back with a glass of scotch, waiting for the opportunity to unload my grain and drive it to the silos or sell it when I could net the highest price. There was something mesmerizing about the way that combine harvester went back and forth in a perfect grid. Watching it harvest row by row, my mind started to wander in a sort of Zen calm.
My farmer, I decided, was named Friedrich. Friedrich lived in East Germany, outside Potsdam. His father had reclaimed the family land after reunification broke up the collectivist farms, but when his father died, Friedrich decided to stake his fortune on the small fields and rusting farm equipment. And why not? He was a jobless university graduate – a common story – and liked working with his hands. Life for Friedrich was calluses and diesel fumes, except for Wednesdays. Wednesdays he made his weekly grain delivery to the inn outside of town. The manager of the inn was an Irish ex-pat named Sarah, who had studied abroad in Germany one summer and stayed. She always brought Freidrich cider when he made his delivery, and he thought, just maybe, her smile was something more than cordial …
I stifled a yawn and looked at the clock. It was 2:00 AM. I’d been playing Farming Simulator 2012 for three hours.
Dear God, I thought. Three hours? Of farming? I mean, really, who plays these games? People like me, apparently. I’d become engrossed and lost track of time, just like when I’m blacksmithing in Skyrim, or searching for minerals in Minecraft – two things I never thought I’d find fun or addictive. Gamers love to perform work in a fantasy environment. It’s telling that people scoff at Farming Simulator yet look forward to the mechanically similar Harvest Moon. When we strip away what we think we like about games, sometimes we’re surprised by what actually engages us. We like to build, explore, and reap. We like to see the physical changes our labor creates, especially in an economy where many jobs have less concrete signs of accomplishment. Even collecting garbage is more tactile and outwardly useful than drafting memos or fixing code.
As I mused, I realized my fields had grown tall again. I went back to my iPad. Though I was going to work in five hours, I wanted to bring in one more harvest before I went to bed.
Robert Rath lives in Austin, Texas, where he spends his days playing Freelance Writer Simulator 2012. You can keep up with him at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter @RobWritesPulp.