Playing nine to five: job simulators

by Louis Calvert

Playing nine to five: job simulators
May 23, 2020 Louis Calvert

While sports and action games tend to get the most publicity, there’s a genre of video game that can rack up the kind of play-time and fan loyalty that any triple-A game would kill for. The simulation game is generally a type of game that simulates, to varying degrees, aspects of real life or real activities. 

 

Simulation games date back to the mid 1980s and the category is surprisingly broad. Most sports and racing franchises like FIFA, NBA or F1 are simulation games, though most players don’t think of them that way. Similarly, a tactical shooter like Arma 3 might be called a battle simulation, even though most people would think of it and similar games as more first-person shooters (FPS). Games like Anno 2070 or Cities: Skylines deal with building and managing cities, even though there’s very little correlation between the actual activities in the game and any aspect of city governance in real life. To muddy the waters further many games bearing the title ‘simulation’ often stray into fantastical or speculative territory, like Stardew Valley, Kerbal Space Program, or Deliver us the Moon

The particular slice of the simulation game genre we’re going to explore here is much narrower: video games that are lovingly-crafted simulations of real jobs and real activities — specifically, the more mundane ‘everyday’ professions, rather than the cool sports star or ace fighter pilot professions! 

We’re talking real jobs, simulated.

A long time ago a game called Shenmue on the Sega Dreamcast featured a level of world-detail that was pretty astounding for the time. Late in the game, the protagonist Ryo needs cash — so he gets a job driving a forklift truck at a warehouse. All the player does is literally move boxes from one place to another (after warming up with a forklift truck race in the morning, because the skills involved in racing are the same required by forklift drivers, apparently). A friend still refers to Shenmue as “that game where you worked at a warehouse.” Fable II featured a range of jobs that you could do to earn rewards and levels like wood chopping or blacksmithing, although those were relatively short and mostly involved pressing a button in time; and many, many games feature ‘fishing’ or ‘hunting’ in some variation as side activities within the main framework of the game.

‘Job simulator’ in this case doesn’t include these types of minigames within a larger game, or the more whimsical titles like Bossa Studio’s Surgeon Simulator, a hilarious game where you try to perform surgery on a live patient in a very unstable environment using bonkers controls, sort of a modern twist on the board game Operation. Flight sims where you can pilot near-perfect recreations of real-world aircraft across stunning landscapes could also count as job simulators, but are excluded because many people are interested in flying aircraft for fun. This arguably includes the sub-genre of spaceflight sims, in which your main role is having the ‘job’ of being a space pilot, like the X and Elite franchises. Really, who doesn’t want to be a space pilot?

Many games that fall into the general category of job simulators are what might be considered ‘aspirational’ or maybe ‘desirable’ professions or activities. For the majority of players, being a pilot or a racing car driver in real life isn’t on the cards, or at least it’s as likely as my professional Pokémon trainer career taking off. Most of us will never have the opportunity to plan, build, and manage a city or pan for gold in the Yukon. While these are certainly jobs, they’re not what you might call ‘average’ jobs, activities, or careers that are within reach for most of us. However, that leaves plenty in the strange world of games that simulate, often in excruciating detail, elements of normal jobs and more routine activities. 

The highest-rated simulation game on Steam right now is SCS Software’s Eurotruck Simulator 2 (2012). This brilliant and strange game attempts to create a high-fidelity simulation of actually driving a truck around Europe. Those of you that aren’t up on the game might be thinking of something like Grand Theft Auto, where you’re ploughing through civilians and handbrake-turning your sixteen-wheeler around corners while dodging the fuzz. It’s not that. The objective here is to drive well, within the law, and safely arrive at your destination. 

Other games-that-are-jobs-in-real-life include farming simulation, the main example of which is cunningly titled Farming Simulator. Much like the trucking version, this one has you doing daily farming tasks like driving a combine harvester across fields, driving a tractor fertilising crops, and various other vehicular farm-related activities. In almost every entry into the ‘job simulator’ category, the environments are rendered in high detail, and the vehicles and equipment themselves have been lovingly recreated, often named and badged with license from the real-world manufacturers. It’s clear from even a quick browse at screenshots that these aren’t intended as jokes or comedy entries like Goat Simulator or Grass Simulator — these are carefully-made games by dedicated developers and played by people that genuinely enjoy them (and who often seem surprised by their own enjoyment).

Why do these games exist? More than that, why are they so popular with players?

If you take a look through the Steam reviews some words crop up over and over again: “extremely relaxing” and “interesting” being the main ones for Euro Truck Simulator 2, with an ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ 197,000 reviews. The American version, American Truck Simulator, has a ‘Very Positive’ 34,000 reviews. Farming Simulator 19 is slightly different — while there are certainly nods towards it being a relaxing and engaging game, most reviews seem to focus on the surprisingly engrossing technical aspects of farming and farm machinery. Interestingly, the reviews here often compare Farming Simulator to previous versions, indicating that many players are loyally buying successive games in the series. 

PC Building Simulator has a ‘Very Positive’ 14,000 ratings. The game itself appears to be exactly what you’d expect, but comments show that players use it for both fun and education. Many reviews echo this one:

 

“This game showed me the ropes of building a PC. $1000 real dollars, some very important lessons learned, and several days of my life later, I’ve actually built my own PC in real life. This game inspired me, taught me, introduced me to a real life benchmark program, and now allows my fantasies to run wild with dream PC possibilities. If you’re a techy kind of person and like to play simulator games. Get this game!!! 10/10”

– Nav, Steam Review, May 2019

 

For most people, doing DIY and housework is a bit of a chore. But Empyrean, the makers of House Flipper (2018), have cleverly realised that pretty much everyone loves the idea of renovating and redecorating, it’s only the depressing reality of the actual work and cost that tends to put a damper on the experience. House Flipper has you buying a cheap house in terrible condition and single-handedly renovating it. This includes some aspects of a Sims-like experience, but grounds it in a first-person viewpoint and has you physically knocking down walls, painting, rewiring, and even cleaning up afterwards. In every way it’s a simulation of many of the jobs you’d actually do if you were flipping a house. It’s gained over 17,000 positive reviews on Steam and sold as many as one million units. 

Speaking of cleaning up, Runestorm developed the surprisingly enjoyable game Viscera Cleanup Detail back in 2015, apparently tapping into the same part of the brain as House Flipper. You play a janitor who has to clean up after various action/horror film-style events, using the game’s physics engine to physically pick up the corpses and scrub the floors of all the blood and gore. The objective is to restore the room to pristine condition, and often it can take a long, long time to do so. Ironically, about the same amount of time it takes to actually hoover real floors and do the real washing up…

 

“I don’t know why I bought this I have 14 hours of just mopping”

– Warden, Steam Reviews

 

“Why do I like this game? It’s just clean, clean, clean. I need to clean my house not these game worlds…”

– Boxed Point, Steam Reviews

 

Obviously job simulation games are not for everyone — and definitely not something you’re likely to ever see in the top ten charts at Asda — but in an era when most games have more complex button combinations than your average SpaceX rocket launch, it’s perhaps nice to kick back and gently drive across a non-exploding road to somewhere or carefully assemble a detailed piece of machinery. There’s a strange serenity in making a neat turn in your tractor and nailing that perfect row. 

Both Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Farming Simulator 19 are, by anyone’s standard, extremely successful games, having sold over 5 million and 4 million copies respectively. To put this into perspective, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 reportedly sold just over 17 million units. Both franchises have spawned sequels and updates as well as gaining thousands of positive ratings on Steam and high scores in the gaming press.

 

“Unexpectedly engrossing. Heed the mockers and you’ll miss one of the PC’s finest and freshest driving games.”

85/100 – PC Gamer

 

“With its stellar gameplay and presentation, Euro Truck Simulator 2 set a new standard for the simulation genre.”

95/100 – Gaming Nexus

 

“There are titles in the simulation market which can be sold on the novelty factor alone, but tend to be disappointing games. Euro Truck Simulator 2 is not one of them, it is strangely cathartic, engaging and relaxing.”

True PC Gaming

Video games continue to offer surprising ways to entertain us. One of the interesting things that a game like Farming Simulator shows us is that as more and more people live in urbanised areas there’s an interest in learning about and experiencing rural lifestyles, even if it’s virtually. Similarly, given the opportunity to competitively shoot people in the face or drive racing cars, many people are choosing instead to drive trains or deliver packages. There’s no specific power fantasy (a phrase that’s annoyingly bandied around a lot in the gaming world) involved with farming, driving a delivery truck, mopping and cleaning, carefully restoring a house, or building a PC; they are mundane tasks that most of us can do with ease. Anyone who can play Euro Truck can theoretically play any other type of game they choose, so people are choosing and enjoying games that simulate ‘real life’ in various ways. 

Maybe there’s a commentary in there about how, if given the choice, many people would actually enjoy cleaning, cooking, delivering things, or making things; but due to financial reasons, or lack of confidence, or being exhausted after a hard day’s working a job they don’t like much, or just the practicality of location, they haven’t been able to do the things they’d really enjoy in real life. In utopian visions of the future, like Star Trek, it’s easy to wonder who does all the ‘mundane’ jobs like cooking and cleaning, and why anyone would do ‘normal’ jobs without pay. Well, perhaps they are the same kinds of people that do them for fun now.

 

“I loved trains when I was a child and I always dreamed of being a Train Driver, but unfortunately I can’t be one of them, so this game is my way to fulfill my dreams.”

– Doger_W, Train Sim World 2020

 

“This is very straight forward. The game is amazing, it is one of, if not my biggest stress relievers. I love this game.”

– Jim H, American Truck Simulator