Simulating the Mundane, And What It Means

One of the stranger backwaters of gaming is niche simulation: using lush 3D engines and expansive environments to simulate everyday tasks like driving a bus, fixing an airplane, collecting garbage, or planting corn. These are not training simulators (which are a different thing), but entertainment products.

Garbage Truck Simulator

I don’t mean strategy games, which have a puzzle-like quality requiring you to manage construction, money, markets, and other elements common to the “tycoon” genre. I mean a real-time simulator in which you get in a vehicle of some sort and then drive that vehicle to another point … and then do it again. And again.

The genre springs from Microsoft Flight Simulator, a title which mystified us in the early days of computer gaming because it was a flight game with a disturbing paucity of Nazis to shoot down. Flight sims were supposed to be combat sims. You took off, shot down bad guys or bombed your targets, and then landed. In MS Flight, you took off, flew in a straight line for an hour, and landed. They left out the best part!

But people loved it. It had a large, devoted audience of flight enthusiasts, and for a good reason: if you’re into flying, it recreates the experience with incredible precision, including the distinct flight characteristic of various aircraft, accurate instruments, weather conditions, thousands of airports both large and small, and a massive expanse of terrain.

Flight is not a mundane thing. It’s kind of wonderful, actually, especially in small craft, and the complexities of instrument flying and managing shifting conditions made MS Flight an interesting experience for air enthusiasts, and an exercise in high-tedium for everyone else. It became so realistic that it was usable for training.

But then we started getting sims based on things that weren’t particularly wonderful, at least to most of us. Here is a list of just the titles I actually have or have seen. There are far more, and I’m not counting combat, racing, or flight sims at all. That would push the number into the thousands, literally. Read what you can and marvel at the publisher hype:

  • Airport Ground Crew Simulation “is an exciting profession and technology simulation where you join a team of airport ground control workers to experience the important daily routine of servicing aircraft when they are parked at the terminal stand in readiness for take off or immediately after landing.”
  • Professional Farmer 2014 “takes the player to the countryside and gives hobby farmers full control in the comfort of their home.”
  • Farming Simulator 2014 Titanium Edition: “Welcome to the greatest farming simulation ever made! Farming Simulator 2013® Titanium invites you into the challenging world of a modern day farmer. Take on all the challenges of farming life, including animal husbandry (cows, chicken and sheep), crops, sales… it’s up to you to manage and grow your own farm in a huge open world,…
  • Agriculture Simulator 2013 is the “Best In Farming! An idyllic farming environment surrounded by inviting & untilled mountain panoramas set in the beautiful landscapes of Tuscany, The Alps and USA await all fans of the Agricultural Simulator series.”
  • Agricultural Simulator–Historical Farming: “Enjoy being a farmer between 1950 and 1970 in the Agricultural Simulator – Historical Farming. The game takes you to the good old days and you will experience the charming farming of the 60’s and 70’s. Fans of nostalgia and history will be glad to work with original designed machines and to till a field with well known Old-timer Tractors.”
  • Bus-Simulator 2012 asks you to “Catch the bus and let it take you to a detailed, virtual world. Are you ready to explore a picturesque German city behind the wheel of a realistically modeled, freely accessible bus? Then take a look at Bus Simulator 2012 by the well-known developer studio TML! Every technical detail of the original bus has been reproduced true-to-live.[sic]”
  • OMSI: Der Omnibussimulator is “a realistic omnibus simulator for home use. You are the driver and your job is to drive the bus and the passengers safely and on time through the surrounding traffic. Great effort has been made to recreate the vehicles as realistic as possible. So concerning handling and operation, the buses resemble their real-life counterparts to a very high degree. Especially functions like the gearbox control which simulates every detail of the original, the physical simulation of the air system, the fully working IBIS (Integrated Board Information System) and the extensive soundset (more than 100 single sounds per vehicle) create a high level of realism. Furthermore, the realistic and detailed scenery with dense traffic and animated objects contributes to the ‘omnibus experience for everyone. OMSI takes the player back to West-Berlin in the 1980s. The omnibus line 92 (today called M37) runs more than 11 kilometres through the Berlin district Spandau. The virtual bus driver will be provided with detailed models of the contemporary MAN doubledeckers SD200 and SD202 from different years of manufacture.”
  • OMSI 2 let’s you “relive the change taking place in Spandau between 1986 and 1994! OMSI 2 now replicates the exciting years following the German reunification and all the innovations and route expansions (line 137 to Falkensee) that came along with it.”
  • Euro Truck Simulator “has become the classic of the genre and is still relevant today. The first truck simulation game in a European setting, with European long haul trucks! Drive freight from London to Rome to Berlin to Madrid to Prague – and many more cities – in realistic vehicles.”
  • Euro Truck Simulator 2: “Travel across Europe as king of the road, a trucker who delivers important cargo across impressive distances! With dozens of cities to explore from the UK, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and many more, your endurance, skill and speed will all be pushed to their limits.”
  • Trucks & Trailers: “Put your truck driving skills to the test in Trucks & Trailers! Once you’ve completed basic training hopefully you’ll be up to mastering the wide variety of tasks that lie ahead. Manoeuvring these huge vehicles is not easy especially when you are up against the clock and make sure you deliver those valuable goods in pristine condition – your reputation depends on it!”
  • Ship Simulator Extremes: “VSTEP and Paradox are proud to announce the next installment of the acclaimed Ship Simulator series. With over 550K copies sold, the series returns to take you into the most extreme conditions on earth… Ever wonder how it feels to sail a half-million-ton supertanker through the perfect storm?”
  • New York Taxi Simulator lets you “start your career as a taxi driver in the city of New York and carry your customers safely and on time to their final destination. Good reliability and consistency will be rewarded. As one of the largest taxi operators you manage your own fleet, so take over the maintenance of the vehicles and enjoy the realistic driving experience.”
  • Garbage Truck Simulator 2011 has you “start with a small waste disposal truck and take over the truck driver’s role. Your driver can be individually designed by you and you can enjoy detailed controls and instruments in the cockpit-view and realistic street traffic. Drive your colleagues to the destination area quickly and safely with the aid of a navigation system. But watch out for traffic rules: The police’s radar systems can be mounted anywhere! Next to that, your car will break down, if damaged too severely, due to a realistic damage system. At your destination, you haul the containers to the truck, empty them with the push of a button and put them back in your truck. You will be enthused about the detailed animated controls for loading and unloading equipment. Your loading space is full? Then activate the compactor and make space for the remaining waste.”
  • Underground Mining Simulator: “Descend into the depths with the ultimate career challenge as you take on the role of a miner in Underground Mining Simulator. Explore coal, iron, salt and gold mines as you strive to extract your precious pickings. Mine the seams utilising both explosives and start of the art drilling equipment, including drills and an ultra-modern face tunnelling machine. Equip your mine with tilting side loaders and bulldozers as you take the fruits of your labours back to the surface.”
  • Trainz Simulator 12 [there are too many train and flight sims to list] “includes the most exciting new feature in the history of Trainz. The players have asked for it and we have delivered Trainz Multiplayer. Now players from all over the world can build, play and operate railroads together!”

My Uncle Jimmy was a farmer (and, no, his name wasn’t McDonald, Old or otherwise). If I’d told him that some day people will use $1500 machines to run $60 programs in order to simulate planting tomatoes, splitting wood, and collecting eggs, he would have thought I’d cracked.

Workplace sims are time-intensive, and lack the obvious drama or escapism essential for a good game. Users are sitting home performing rote, reptetitve tasks, and not even getting paid for it.

People put in the time to learn a combat flight sim because the life of a fighter pilot is dangerous and thrilling. Even Snoopy dreamed of being the World War I Flying Ace.

He never dreamed of driving the 137 bus line to Falkensee.

So what is the appeal of these sims for their fans? I’m not talking about planes or even trains, which have a romance to them, but tractors, garbage trucks, freight ships, buses, taxis, and backhoes? Do people dream of mowing golf courses (a Farm Simulator side job)?

And if so, who are these people? And what’s wrong with them?

The answer to the first question is: Europeans. The European market is by far the largest market for these games. And I don’t mean large in the sense of “largest segment of a small market.” I mean this: 

That’s Farming Simulator as the number 2 bestseller in all of Great Britain, ahead of major big-budget A-list action, role-playing, and strategy titles. You’ll also notice Euro Truck Simulator cracking the top 10, because apparently tens of thousands of Britons want to be German long-haul truck drivers.

All told, millions of copies have been sold in this niche of mundane sims. But why?

The most obvious answer is that dedicated hobbyists are strange, and Europe is full of them. Witness the train-spotting holiday.

But that’s not enough to drive a whole market.

The first thing to realize is that these are not “simple” sims. There is a great deal of nuance and detail to them. Plowing a field is more than just driving in a straight line (which is hard enough). And due to the nature of the sims, they develop a strangely pacific community, with a notable lack of trolls and teens. 

The effect. for those who cultivate the patience (and I am most definitely not one of them), is a kind of zen-like focus on minutiae that is the exact opposite of the big, bold, dramatic style of normal games. It’s more like those desktop zen gardens where you have a tiny rake a little rocks and have to focus on making everything just right.

Strange as it may seem, there’s also an element of escape in these mundane sims. There’s a mental burden to modern life, with its faster pace and inescapable mass media and communication noise, that turns the banal into the romantic. We are too much in our heads, and information overload creates an odd sense that the upwardly mobile middle class office worker might actually find great peace just running the combine or driving a bus.

And this isn’t wholly an illusion. Mike Rowe, host of the TV show dirty jobs, says the people he finds doing seemingly miserable work are more well-adjusted and content than the rat-racers he encounters in other parts of his life. Here’s what he had to say in an interview:

Interviewer: You also have said on the show that some of the happiest people you’ve ever met go home every day smelling bad because they work with stuff like sewage and garbage. Are you saying that workers you meet in dirty jobs are generally happier people than you meet in cleaner professions?

Rowe: It’s a generalization, but I’ll stand by it. Happiness is a tough, subjective thing to define. But I will say that after a couple hundred of these experiences, the thing I find is balance in the lives of people I’ve met. People with dirty jobs have a balance in their lives that I don’t see in my friends who are actuarial accountants and investment bankers.

They start their day clean; they wind up coming home dirty, but somehow they seem to be having a better time than the rest of us.

I have a lot of theories on that, but at base, it has to do with the sense of completing a task. So many “good” jobs these days don’t give you a sense of closure. For a lot of people in office work, the desk looks the same at 6 p.m. as it did at 6 a.m. How do you know when you are done?

People I work with — hey, they got a dead deer in the road. They do their work and it’s gone. You got a ditch to put in. In the morning, it’s not there. In the evening, it is. People with dirty jobs live in a world of constant feedback. For better or worse, they always know how they’re doing. That matters.

People in the building trades — the stone mason who can walk through town and point to structures he created. That’s a legacy. Even skilled factory work is really a rewarding thing when it is mastered. That’s the exact thing we don’t portray fairly in our culture today. Most manual work is now presented as some form of drudgery.

We shouldn’t try to draw a stark line between clean and dirty, hard and easy. These aren’t opposites; they’re different sides of the same thing. People with dirty jobs seem to have an innate understanding of that — and a better balance in life.

Simulation certainly doesn’t capture the meaning or productivity of true work, but Rowe’s observations may point to the romanticization some people attach to these jobs. There’s a peace and satisfaction found in simplicy.

Europe in particular, where these things are the most popular, has seen a radical disenchantment of everyday life. Their elite have “elevated” their culture to the point of decadence, and are left looking back on simple things with a peculiar longing. Using high-tech tools to simulate productive work, rather than actually doing productive work, is just another part of that decadence, but perhaps it points in a hopeful direction. Perhaps longing for something simple means someone’s gaze is being drawn in the right direction. It’s not that we all need, or even long, to be farmers or drivers, but that we’re lost something. This “something”–and the people who feel the loss often can’t define it–seems important.

Or perhaps it’s just an exercise is empty nostalgia.

In my family, almost all of the generation immediately before us worked hard labor and long hours. My father was a sheet metal worker, and he didn’t want me to get anywhere near that kind of work. I under that, and I know that what I do now is easier and pays better than what he did. I work indoors. My work isn’t dangerous. It doesn’t damage my body. Physically, it’s easy. Mentally, it’s not always that easy.

But I can tell you this much: at the end of the day, he was a happier man than I am.

Do I secretly long to bend metal into ductwork on construction sites? Would I pick up Sheet Metal Simulator 2014 to get a taste of that life?

No, of course not. But I think I understand the mindset that might. We’ve come a little too far too fast, and it’s left us feeling shorn from the roots connecting us to our past, and to the everyday labor than makes the ease of the modern world possible. We take too much for granted. Simulating things isn’t the answer, but in a very small way, maybe it can help us understand the question.