To come home and spend the evening doing exactly what you did all day sounds like some Sisyphean punishment dreamt up by our corporate overlords. Yet it’s precisely what Christopher Edwards, a 47-year-old truck driver, does by choice.
Having downloaded American Truck Simulator out of curiosity, he quickly became hooked, lured in by the call of the road. He found himself transporting cargo all across the US, just as he does in reality. And Christopher is not the only one: there are many who, like him, play simulators that mimic their occupations, enjoying the chance to relive their daily lives in a virtual environment.
Of course, the initial mystery is why anyone would want to play a simulator in the first place. It’s true that when Flight Simulator, the first of its kind, allowed players to man a cockpit above a flat, featureless landscape it soon became a best-seller. But that was in 1979 and gaming was still in its infancy. Today, video games offer the chance to explore extraordinary worlds and perform impossible feats. Compared to such high-octane thrills, simulators, which put you in the mundane role of subway driver or street cleaner, remain baffling.
The uninitiated might assume this type of game is aimed at a niche audience of obsessives, and just 10 years ago they’d have been more or less correct. When the current largest simulator, Euro Truck Simulator 2, came out in 2012, it attracted a paltry few thousand players. Since then its fanbase has exploded: it now regularly racks up as many as 20,000 consecutive players and hovers around the 20 most played games on Steam, the main digital distributor of PC games.
The genre has proven it can be successful, so more sims are released each year. In 2018, Houseflipper gave players the chance to perform virtual DIY on a dilapidated building, while this year’s Cooking Simulator replicates an extensive kitchen with over 60 recipes to test your skills. Meanwhile, the proportion of the world’s surface you can drive an imaginary truck across is steadily growing. Just last month, an expansion for American Truck Simulator brought the arid shrublands and canyons of Utah into the game, while the recently released Road to the Black Sea for Euro Truck Simulator 2 unlocks much of Eastern Europe.
Christopher thinks simulators have taken off because their basic draw is the same as any other game: escapism, just of a different sort. “They offer a peek into what it’s like to do something different, even if it’s something you might not enjoy doing in the real world,” he says. “They’re like the real thing, but dumbed down to make it enjoyable.”
Yet, if the appeal of a simulator is trying out something realistic and relatable that you don’t – or can’t – do in real life, why would truckers play a trucking simulator? Why not fly a Boeing 747 or drive a steamroller instead?
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For some, the answer may be that a game which simulates your real job lets you be part of something that is familiar, yet different in important ways: a fictional version of your daily routine in which you have more freedom and control, perhaps even more success, than in the real world.
That’s why Jonas Printz, 35, now a transport planner after 13 years driving trucks in Scandinavia, enjoys Euro Truck Simulator 2. While he aims to get as close to the real trucking experience as possible, even taking into account factors the game doesn’t calculate, like weight and length regulations, he says the point is that he can decide exactly how he wants to play: “You are your own boss, you have the freedom to choose any truck, cargo or destination you want. You can make it easy – or hard.” Christopher plays American Truck Simulator to carry loads and operate vehicles he will never experience in real life, such as driving military equipment over the Cascade mountain range.
A no-stress, risk-free version of your job is understandably cathartic. Tyler Cheesewright, a 34-year-old farmer from New South Wales who enjoys growing, harvesting and selling crops in Farming Simulator 19 says: “It allows me to have fun farming, with no real-life consequences if I do something wrong.” Christopher echoes this view. “When traffic gets insane in the game, I can rage-quit for a month without fear of missing my next mortgage payment,” he jokes. Autonomy and experimentation are once again key: a player can deliberately flout the rules – creating a tractor drag race, say – with impunity.
People play games to experience mastery. Going from punching bag to dealer of death in the brutal adventure-RPG Dark Souls, or flawlessly finishing a particularly fiendish portion of a platformer like Super Mario Maker is a satisfying feeling. It may be even more enjoyable when you know your real-life skill is making you good at the game. Validation is a big part of the appeal. “I discovered that I had no problem doing things in the game that others were struggling with, because I have real world experience – like blind side backing a trailer around a corner without using an external camera,” Christopher notes, proudly.
Surprisingly, some simulators are so realistic that their players swear the skill transfer can occur the other way too – from the game to real life. Matthew Dwight, 20, a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, training to become a commercial pilot, believes his simulator of choice, Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D, mimics real life so well that it’s more of a useful tool than a game. “It’s a really good way to practise flying and getting to know planes, without having any real risk associated with it. You can do trial and error without any consequences.”
A simulator is generally a solitary experience, and for some that’s the appeal: a chance to switch off and relax. But if you’re a farmer or truck driver in real life, being on your own is not an escape, it’s part of the job. In both lines of work, loneliness can be a serious issue: both have disproportionately high depression and suicide rates. The benefits of linking up with like-minded people cannot be overestimated.
Though most are single-player games, simulators have a strong community aspect, with multiple forums and Facebook groups where people share stories and screenshots with each other. Euro Truck Simulator 2 also has Virtual Trucking Companies (VTCs). Similar to guilds (player-run clubs) in more traditional games, they allow users to work together and chat while they play.
For Michael Fase, a 22-year-old Dutch truck driver, who says finding friends in real life is difficult when you’re constantly on the move, this has been invaluable. “I can be away for weeks, sometimes,” he says. “I don’t feel lonely on the road really, but I chat with friends online every day.” Many of these come from VTCs Michael has been part of for years. “I’ve got friends in the UK and Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Singapore and a few in America as well that I would never have met without Euro Truck Simulator 2.”
A trucker playing at truck-driving or a farmer ploughing virtual fields might sound a bit bizarre, but when you scratch beneath the surface there’s an obvious logic. Some enjoy the chance to do their job with greater freedom. Some play to test their skills or learn new ones and others appreciate the sense of community, the feeling of being part of a group.
And yes, some of them are just really into trucks.