Video GamesWhy I keep playing this "boring" simulator game
If hauling consumer goods as efficiently as possible interests you, but reality is preventing you from being a freight train conductor or trucker, these games are the next best thing to the open road.
I've been playing Farming Simulator for about two hours, and I'm lost on my own property. I have a map on my PDA, and my fields have been assigned numbers, but I forgot to keep track of which field is which. Instead of getting anything done, I'm driving around aimlessly, listening to the birds and the hum of my tractor and trying to remember where I'd planted some crops. It's not working. The scenery is nice, but not that nice, and I'm starting to get antsy.
The birdsong is interrupted by the buzz of my PDA. Someone at the country club that apparently abuts my brand new farm wants to know if I can drive a forklift over and help them move some seeds. I don't own a forklift attachment for my frontloader, but for some reason the payment for the country club job will just about cover its cost. Bored, and encouraged by the implied promise of more easy forklift work, I head over to the vehicle-and-attachment store and pick up a Wiedmann Pallet Fork, which I promptly attach to the front of my Weidemann 4270 CX100 T frontloader.
"Now I'm in business," I think, as I attempt a shortcut over the crest of a hill and spin out of control, irrevocably lodging my $26,000 Weidemann at the bottom of a ravine.
It was foolish to attempt the shortcut, to leave the robust road system that already existed in and around my land. I had to take out a loan to buy the farm, so I'm $40,000 in debt to the bank. I can't afford another frontloader. I got a little bored, which made me a little greedy. As a result of my greed, I'm left at the bottom of the ravine, wondering why anyone would choose to Simulate a Farm in a fidelity high enough to cause debt anxiety.
Farming Simulator is just one of a small genre of games built around simulating mundane, often tedious jobs. There's Euro Truck Simulator, in which the player can step into the mind of a European long-haul truck driver. Train Simulator lets you drive a train around. Flight simulators, of course, have existed for long enough and in enough forms that they are now a cornerstone of both actual military training and some of the most elaborate, gear-fetishizing bedroom computer rigs I have ever seen.
But why fill up a bachelor pad with twelve CRT monitors? Why spend 45 minutes plowing a virtual field in a computer-rendered version of an actual, commercially available plow? What kinds of enjoyment can be wrung from a persistent, low-key simulation that punishes rush jobs and consciously avoids the kinds of deviations from reality that most people associate with a good video game time?
Each of these simulators represents a system that emulates an actual, more exclusionary system. If transporting large amounts of consumer goods as efficiently as possible interests you, but real-world circumstances are preventing you from being a freight train conductor or trucker, these games are the next best thing to the open road.
These same systems can also be easily distilled into video game-sized goal/reward structures (plant wheat, harvest wheat, sell wheat to pay off loan), but they diverge from most other video games at their scale in that they don't require any learned or honed skill as much as they just reward old-fashioned diligence. I am a horrible driver, and I mastered the turning radius on my plow within about ten minutes; the rest of Farming Simulator's plowing experience left me literally and figuratively on cruise control, watching my canola reserves pile up and wondering how long it would take for me to afford some chickens.
IT'S ABOUT BUILDING in just enough of a feedback loop and a sense of progression. That's a basic psychological need that the games offer that school and work don't do as good a job of satisfying much of the time.
— Jamie Madigan, psychologist
After a couple fields' worth of trying to text some friends while plowing and wondering how profitable livestock might be, my technical mastery inevitably gave way to boredom. Tedium and toil are the centerpieces and defining traits of these simulations-- a game like Cart Life or Papers, Please might include its share of administrative drudgery, but they also inject challenge and story that imbues even the most mundane actions with narrative meaning. Farming Simulator, by contrast, lets the player choose between one of two farms, then encourages her to just kind of mill around the experience of owning a farm.
This baldfaced plain-ness, and its accompanying low stakes, is what these games have to offer. As far as I can tell, they are what a person is looking for, should they select to play these simulators over another game. They provide the gentlest possible vector to the experience of time passing.
Before choosing the easier of Farming Simulator's two farm locations (and its easiest difficulty level), I overestimated its complexity and spent over an hour finishing each of the game's tutorials. I eventually figured out that almost all of Farming Simulator's gameplay consists of climbing into a vehicle, attaching something (a plow, a crop sprayer, my poor forklift) to either the front or rear of the vehicle, then driving up and down a field in either first or second gear. Most of the vehicles have a third gear, but if you drive in third gear your attachment will uncouple. Depending on the task at hand, sometimes even second gear is too fast. The game informs you of this via a front-and-center popup as soon as you exceed the recommended speed.
The only thing I learned from Farming Simulator's tutorial is that a hay baler that emits classic rectangular bales discharges automatically, but if you're going for the big circular bales you have to unload the baler manually. I have no idea if that's true across the board, but it struck me immediately as something I'll eventually bring up in conversation like it's a core tenet of the farm experience.
Rewards and indicators of progress in real life are often delayed and separated from our actions. There may also be multiple inputs to every outcome, such that we're never sure how much was due to what we did and how much to other factors. Games clean all that up and let us draw a direct line from effort to action to outcome to reward. Even if it is a long line.
— Jamie Madigan, psychologist
More than the endless attaching and driving, I found myself interested in what Farming Simulator might have to teach me about the daily practicalities of farming, which in turn made me wonder to what extent these games act as guided tours of a vanishing working class for people like me (glasses, spends all day in front of a computer). There's a weird simulacra of authenticity there: "Let the children play with their toy guns," these games seem to say. "We've got work to do." Paradoxically, this realization made me feel like way more of a nerd than most video games ever have.
In an attempt to assuage my nerd guilt, I called one of the only lifer blue-collar workers I know. My father has been a roofer for 30 years (Local 9, Hartford, CT) and, as the person who introduced me to games in the first place, I figured he was in a unique position to comment on all of this. I started off by asking him if there was anything about roofing that might make for an interesting video game.
"Yeah, of course. You could mess up and fall off the roof. You could start fires. I've seen new guys start pretty big fires. I'd play that."
While grisly thresher incidents, track electrocutions, and other workplace injuries were left out of the simulations I played, I had to admit he had a point. A game that could simulate starting a fire on the roof of a skyscraper, getting called a rookie, and not being invited out for beers after the shift sounded great. Curious, I asked him to double down and describe what his job had in common with the kinds of video games he's enjoyed over the years.
"Work is still challenging sometimes. It's rarely fun, but I like when games are funny, and the people I work with are funny as hell."
Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness.
— Blaise Pascal, 1670
Until my dad pointed out how much he liked his coworkers, it hadn't occurred to me that all of these simulations force the player to operate in total isolation. Farming Simulator allows the player to hire silent, dronelike workers to drive certain vehicles, but in practice the interaction parses as creepy and not in any way like the joke-cracking job savior my dad had described. There are pedestrians walking on the sides of the road, but they aren't interactive at all. They can be walked or driven through like ghosts. The player is alone in the world.
I wondered if that solitude, and the lack of feeling beholden to anything except the task at hand, was part of the simulators' appeal. It was as though these games went out of their way to simulate the most humdrum parts of these relatively humdrum jobs. There's no country music or CB radio. There are no pesky rabbits to chase out of your fields with a pitchfork. There's just work, and your dollar amount going up little by little, and your gear eventually getting a little nicer. There's just a weird little microeconomic system that simulates a mostly-bygone era of unalienated labor and commerce that nostalgia has colored as romantic and a little sad.
The designers of these simulators have removed as many amenities and obstacles as they could; their aim seems to be to leave as little as possible in between the player and the task. The relationship between one's time investment and one's success is made as direct as it can possibly be, which is a rarity in video games or in anything else. I have watched a computer engineer from the deep South calmly stream about 45 minutes of field farming to 60 other people at 10:30PM on a Friday while his wife was upstairs making pizza. I have gotten so sick of Farming Simulator that I intentionally drove a tractor into a river, sinking and destroying it. Both are equally valid responses to the state of mundane productivity that the labor-sim structure engenders. Farming Simulator's ability to be a gratifying work experience and the fact that it's boring and stupid are two sides of the same coin.
There's an old, mostly outmoded school of video game thought that worships at the altar of slow, methodical progress and balks at instant gratification. The idea, back in the eighties and early nineties, was that spending as much time as possible on a video game both justified its purchase (and, therefore, its existence) and sweetened the players eventual reward. Almost three decades have passed since that style of game was in vogue, and now "gamifying" something means imbuing every possible nook of it with rewards and reminders of progress.
These simulator games, for all their tedium and ease, are quiet throwbacks, except they're smart enough to try and derive pleasure from the journey, rather than the toil or its result. They encourage the player to find satisfaction less from the pursuit of concrete ingame rewards than in things like the meditative repetition of spraying a field, or watching the sun set from the cab of a train. Stop focusing on whether the numbers will go up, and they'll go up. Focus on them too closely, and you end up like me, nearly crushed beneath your totaled frontloader at the bottom of a ravine on your own property.
He who will not give himself leisure to be thirsty can never find the true pleasure of drinking. Farces and tumbling tricks are pleasant to the spectators, but a wearisome toil to those by whom they are performed. And that this is so, we see that princes divert themselves sometimes in disguising their quality, awhile to depose themselves, and to stoop to the poor and ordinary way of living of the meanest of their people.
— Michael de Montaigne, 1580