Good summer, people! It’s been exactly two months since the last post and it continues to be long and hot so I hope you’re drinking plenty of water. And copious amounts of sun cream wouldn’t go amiss.
Some of you may recognise the title of this entry as being from the 1981 philosophical work by the late French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard. His work explored the relationships between reality, hyper-reality, symbols and society and how they are interwoven. An interesting piece of trivia was that his work was required reading for the main cast of the film The Matrix.
I must apologise to Mr Baudrillard for liberally taking his title as it is similar to the topic discussion. I also promise that my post will be nowhere near as philosophical. Instead, I will be focusing on a particular genre of videogames known as simulation games.
When we play a videogame, whatever the genre, we are playing within its virtual environment and get immersed within it. For example, in first-person shooters, we are playing a representation of a soldier and fighting simulated battles. None of it is real (even if based on real-life events), but in the moment of playing, you feel like you are a soldier in the heat of battle.
The point was to highlight that in a videogame, it doesn’t matter much how realistic to reality it has to be. I’ve seen and played games taking place in the past, in the future, and in worlds that only exist in imagination. ‘The purpose of a game is to capture the attention of the player by conflict, motivation to win and a scoring element. The player has a sense of win or loss and gets a performance index in terms of score after the game. The desire to improve the performance and get a better score drives the player to get involved in the game more and more’ (Deshpande, 2008).
This is different with simulation games (or ‘simulators’). Their representation of recreating real-life activities or situations is markedly more realistic which resonates with a lot of people. They attempt to imitate our real world environment as best as possible in a variety of ways and different sub-genres. Simulators form a diverse genre of video games; examples of simulation games can include life simulation, dating sims (that is a thing), social simulators, even tactical shooters. Despite what I have said earlier, you do get some ‘interesting’ ideas for simulators. I am Bread has the player simulating a slice of bread in their ultimate goal to become toast. Then there is the infamous Goat Simulator. Not to be taken at all seriously but popular, players play as a goat as they cause havoc in an open-world map.
Simulators draw from a facet of what we may have experienced in our everyday lives, and that’s why they are true to the simulation (aside from being bread or a goat). Players can use the in-game tools and services to essentially ‘live another life’, to use Bethesda’s mantra for their games. How can we best define them? ‘Simulation games are those video or computer games that are concerned with playing out realistic situations in game settings. Examples of these types of games include taking care of virtual people or pets, such as Sims games, developing cities of societies like in Civilization or SimCity, and building amusement parks or zoos in games like Roller Coaster Tycoon or Zoo Tycoon. Some of these games can take hours to play, and they may be incredibly complex’ (Wisegeek).
Another interesting trait about simulators is, due to their emphasis on realism, that they can also be used as an educational tool. As Deshpande (2008) comments, ‘Simulation games follow the widely accepted “learning by doing” philosophy. Simulation game based learning is an extension of the problem-based learning paradigm, having all its inherent characteristics plus some additional advantages. The student can try out various strategies and alternatives and focus on the parameter of interest leaving the calculation and presentation work for the software. It is a more systematic and organised way of learning.’
You can substitute ‘student’ with ‘player’ and it will still apply. Simulators often rely on the player learning how the game works for they have a multitude of mechanics and tools to utilise. Once they’ve done that, they can then start experimenting. One of the most famous simulation games is The Sims series, which you could consider as both a life and social simulator. Immensely successful, the franchise has gone through four editions with nearly 200 million copies sold to its name. Players create and control virtual people (the ‘Sims’). The real incentive is that they have creative control on mapping out their virtual lives.
The simulation aspect comes from the everyday interactions that the player’s sims may experience. Sims will be in constant contact with other sims in the same way we would be in contact with friends, family, colleagues, or even strangers. Various expansion packs seek to add new content, locations and tools to further expand the immersion, such as adding nightlife, university education, and pets. As each edition of The Sims came out, more features are being added. In The Sims 2, players can map out their sim’s life careers and ambitions to mirror how we would in reality and satisfying their sims’ desires, ambitions and moods. For example, ‘The game allowed you to find work for sims, teach them to cook, tell them when to sleep and to find them mates or friends’ (WiseGeek).
Another popular sub-genre is construction and management simulations. These types of games commonly task the player with developing and maintaining some form of community, cities, or even empires. Some examples have already been mentioned, including famous titles Civilisation and SimCity. In this regard, players will be more heavily involved with the management than a real life manager would.
SimCity arguably is the most famous of this sub-genre. Created by Will Wright (who also created The Sims) and Maxis, players take on the role of building and maintain a city from scratch or a build-up city facing trouble. They start with nothing and eventually expand to large-scale metropolises. I remember playing Sim City 2000 and, while I was probably too young to appreciate at the time, the challenge of building a city and the sense of pride as it grew was one of the reasons I kept playing.
The player will have to account for economical challenges such as natural disasters, conflict, civil unrest, and economic downturn as potential hazards. Players will also be challenged to do some forward planning, especially when starting out. This is amplified by trying to manage a growing economy so the strain on resources is greater. Games of this sub-category usually have a ‘free-form’ construction mode so the player does not have to ‘unlock’ in-game skills or abilities; they are ready to utilise as they please. This encourages their creativity and problem-solving.
Simulators often do not have an end goal or a strict ‘game over’ but to be played continuously. ‘Some games aren’t played to win but are instead played because you can develop multiple right solutions or different permutations of the game depending on your choices. Other simulation games are structured on a more win/lose basis or require completing certain tasks before being able to advance to another level’ (WiseGeek). With SimCity, a game could go as long as a player wanted it to.
Why play simulators?
Simulators could be considered a niche genre owing to the mundane nature of controlling virtual people or flying a virtual plane or constructing virtual cities which may not appeal to a vast majority of people. Despite this, simulators do have a sizeable player base which suggests they have a certain appeal. We can try and categorise this appeal into different parts: learning, creativity, escapism.
Flight simulators are a popular example of a vehicle simulation game. Flying seems to be an ambition of many people, yet we can safely say that the majority of those people will not get the opportunity to fly a real plane. Flight sims try to re-create what it would be like to fly a plane – both for entertainment and training purposes. You may be familiar with those ‘pods’ which pivot and rock to simulate turbulence and disorientation. Marc Prensky (2001) writes, ‘the flight simulator is acknowledged, rightfully so, as a revolution in learning and training. Pilots and prospective pilots can spend hours and hours doing something remarkably close to actual flying, experiencing all sorts of scenarios and “what-ifs” in terms of weather, location, flying conditions, time of day and of course mechanical difficulties without risking either expensive planes or peoples’ lives.’
Not everyone will have a career as a pilot, or farmer, or construction manager. Simulators allow players to play the part in their own homes in what normally would be a life-threatening in reality. Dave Stevenson (2016) agrres: ‘the appeal of flying a virtual airliner is easy to comprehend: flying is expensive, flying something with more than one engine and passengers even more so.’ He spoke to Roger Curtiss, who works on the board of the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM) which offers aviation fans a community of pilots and air-traffic controllers from his home in Washington. “There are at least 100,000 members of VATSIM. Of those, I’d say at least 20,000 fly regularly.”
Microsoft Flight Simulator is considered the premier flight simulator, with the latest edition, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, released in 2006. While it is a game for entertainment purposes, it has found use as a training tool. ‘Mark Vanhoenacker is someone who knows the appeal of simulated aviation more than most. “I had the then-latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator on my computer and had a year or so when I really enjoyed it,” he said. In 2001, Vanhoenacker began training to become an actual pilot, and now works for British Airways. His book about the pleasures of flying, Skyfaring, was a Sunday Times bestseller. “Imagination is such a powerful thing, and I think no-one should be surprised if the satisfaction in operating a virtual flight may be a good proportion of that associated with flying an actual one,” he said (Stevenson, 2016).
Therefore, flight sims encompass two aspects: learning and competing. WiseGeek had mentioned a structure of completing certain tasks in order to advance. While there is strictly no end game, flight sims can implement certain goals, rules and challenges to keep the player engagned. Goals could include ‘learning to take off or to land successfully 10 times, or to deal with wind shear. Goals can be either be built-in to the game or self-or instructor imposed, but as soon as you add them, suddenly there is more engagement. We try things in play we might not try in life’ (Prensky, 2001). Having goals and tasks is a standard of games to create incentive and accomplishments. Adding these can work to bring even the most mundane and repetitive simulator certain compulsive obsessive nature to the game that keeps players, including myself, hooked.
Simulators present tools to the player to start being creative. One of the best and recent examples is Kerbal Space Program. They are tasked with directing the ‘Kerbals’, green humanoid aliens, into space. Players are able to design and create their rocket from multiple different parts. The designs they can build is impressive. As part of the fun experimentation, players have often created impractically large, top-heavy, counter-intuitive, or expensive spacecraft. They know would never succeed but that is part of the creativity that simulators can help to facilitate. The temptation to design a completely unrealistic spacecraft is almost too irresistible. I have seen videos of spacecraft that have far too many rockets attached, meaning once they lift off, the sheer force of them sends the spacecraft crashing back to the ground. Or there are designs that are structurally weak so that when it is loaded on the launching platform, it just collapses.
Once players have entered space, there is a lot of trial and error in improving their performance of their spacecraft to go further than before and to converse as much fuel as possible. They will have to account for positioning and trajectory of themselves and other celestial bodies, amongst other things. All-in-all, Kerbal Space Program is quite rich and detailed in its simulation of space travel. You do not have to be rocket scientist; the game is casual enough for players to enjoy. Its depiction of orbital physics, although it is not a perfect simulation, is quite detailed enough that it has been noticed and praised by the scientific and space community, including NASA. The scope players can work with makes it easy for them to buy into the simulation.
‘There’s also a lot to be said about the flow of simulator games. When playing Stardew Valley, for example, it’s easy to fall into a soothing rhythm of caring for your crops: harvest, sleep, repeat. Far from being boring, this kind of repetition creates opportunities to think creatively about efficiency and strategy. Beyond that, there’s something sweet about an extreme hobbyist who spends months perfecting a model train diorama or guiding trucks safely from Lindz to Berlin’ (Eddy, 2018). Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, proposed an idea he calls the Generativity Principle. ‘People like to immerse themselves into scenarios that they find interesting. Doing it in a safe, controlled environment is a fun way for people to experience vicariously, in a very participatory way, what it’s like to be in those scenarios. The Generativity Principle is how people use computer environments or computerised tools in ways that the designers didn’t anticipate’ (Stevenson, 2016).
In reference back to The Sims, Suler went on: ‘They would do strange things with it, like trap their Sims inside a swimming pool and watch them drown. You can see people expressing unconscious motivations by how they play the game and in particular how they tweak it in ways the designers didn’t anticipate. Games and play are ways that people develop skills. People develop their identity, express needs, and a part of growth is testing boundaries… the limits’ (Stevenson, 2016).
Videogames provide a means of escapism, simulators included. In a piece for the BBC, Ed Ram (2014) asked several people why they play simulators. ‘Dale Chapman works as an IT technician but has grown up living on a farm. He and his farming friends started playing Farm Simulator when they were at school. ‘When we get home from work we all get together on a group Skype call and we’ll play for hours. It’s sociable like that and we can all use our farming knowhow in the game… acts as a sort of release. Because I work in IT I don’t get as much time as I would like working on a farm, not as much as my friends anyway. I just love farming – it’s one of those things that’s just in the blood.’
Ram also interviewed Paul Fairhurst, commonly known by his online handle ‘Squirrel’.’By playing flight simulators, I can almost get the buzz one might feel of actually being a pilot. It’s like a tool that enables you to scratch an itch. You can come very close to flying without having to learn to actually fly a plane – or even leave the house. People often play driving games because they have a passion for or an interest in big machinery. The games are incredibly detailed, with traffic and buttons that behaves realistically – and a re-creation of physics that gives a real feeling of weight. I play a lot of Euro Truck Simulator 2. It’s about the novelty – everyone knows what long-haul trucks are and what they look like, but how often is it that you get inside one?’ (Ram, 2014).
We are going to revisit Squirrel and Euro Truck Simulator 2 as our case study, but for now, people also play simulators as a form of escapism; as Chapman mentioned, a ‘release’. Players can do things they are very unlikely to do in reality, and that forms another part of the appeal. ‘Flight Simulators are grounded (pun intended) in their realism as much as their spectacle. The thrill comes from accessing a world that is true to life, but out of reach for the average person. How many people can claim they have flown the Concorde on a transatlantic run? Even SimCity taps into a fundamental human desire to create and to see our efforts bear fruit’ (Eddy, 2018).
Euro Truck Simulator 2
Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a very popular vehicle simulator about…trucking. Players create their in-game profile and then hit the roads across Europe. The main gist of it is driving through a simulated Europe in a truck, delivering all forms of cargo, from vegetables to large and heavy machinery, to different companies.
Initially, players will be forced to work for other companies and being provided with a company truck. If the player delivers on time and doesn’t accrue any fines (e.g. speeding), they will make a profit and gain experience points. The longer the job, the more they stand to gain. In time, players will move on to the heavier and more dangerous cargo, such as explosives and hazardous materials. After a while, the player will have amassed enough money to start their own company.
One of the main highlights is the ability to own your own truck. To add to the realism, real companies and trucks are licensed, including Volvo, MAN, Iveco, and perhaps the most prestigious, Scania. That is when players are truly able to fully grow. With even more money, they can expand their business by buying garages across Europe and hiring AI drivers. From working for someone, they now have drivers working for them. Hire enough drivers and you can easily see your bank account rise.
Further personalisation comes from the ability to upgrade the truck, both mechanically and aesthetically. Players can make customisations to their truck to make it better for heavier loads, improve transmission speeds, or increase engine power. Additionally, players can also change the layout of the inside cabin (including adding various accessories such as bobble-head figures, sat-navs, fuzzy dice), and, importantly for a trucker, changing the paint scheme of their truck to make it more distinguishable.
The customisation of the truck is an important ‘ritual’. Players can spend a long time personalising their truck to their own tastes. Once I had enough in-game money and had set up my own company, I searched for my own truck – something with a powerful engine. My choice was a Scania Streamline series complete with 730hp engine. I spent a lot of time and money on figuring out what I liked, particularly in terms of the paint job. I settled for a neon-looking scheme of famous UK landmarks (flying the flag!).
The game is so popular, that it won two awards on Steam in 2016. Why is this? At its core, ETS2 is all about switching on the engine and driving. You do not have to be a real trucker and it does not require a lot from you to enjoy this game. ‘ETS2 is not a game for high-speed thrill seekers—you’re meant to follow the rules of the road in your huge cargo vehicle—but something to zone out to at the end of a long day. It may sound dull on paper, but its peaceful vibe and the ability to put on some tunes as you cruise the highway make for a surprisingly enjoyable experience’ (Eddy, 2018).
This concept creates a casual, easy-going driving experience. Of course, there are frustrating aspects such as the AI drivers doing things such as cutting you off or going very slow, or paying at tollbooth after tollbooth. This perhaps reflects real life as these things do occur (sadly so). But the carefree attitude of the game allows it to be generally a relaxed driving experienced, as Eddy mentioned, to unwind after a long day. Driving in real life can be seen as therapeutic and I can see how it would be the case here. Imagine just driving along long, steady roads through visually beautiful scenery – you can even listen to the radio or play your own music. There is something ‘real’ about driving a virtual truck. I have to say that I am ‘slightly’ addicted to the game, having been hooked to this concept.
We mentioned Squirrel earlier: how does he fit in? Squirrel is a YouTuber and Twitch streamer who initially started out with first-person shooters but then transitioned to simulators. His most popular series is with ETS2; he has done numerous YouTube videos and also the weekly Twitch ‘tradition’ of ‘Sunday Night Truckin’ where he averages 2000 regular views. He also plays Flight Simulator X, Train Simulator, Farm Simulator, and recently, Bus Simulator.
He has developed a steady following of like-minded people who are just as enthusiastic as he is with simulators. His commentary and persona gives the impression that viewers are with him on long trips. He says, ‘I just drove the truck and talked. People said it was a bit like sitting next to me in the cab for the ride. They enjoyed my company and could just put it on and do some homework or whatever.’
‘Squirrel welcomed Euro Truck Simulator’s realistic, slow-paced gameplay. It was just him, in a truck, on a road, describing the scenery to a couple hundred strangers online. In fact, many bought the game themselves and watched his channel as they played through it, commenting on his preferred truck or haul route’ (D’Anastasio, 2016). If you watch his Sunday stream, you will find a community that is inclusive and knowledgeable, actively discussing with Squirrel and each other on various topics. They will also comment and take pleasure on various mishaps on his trips, such as crashes or wrong turns.
The games he plays generally appeal more to older viewers. ‘The slower-paced simulation games Squirrel plays, which range from Construction Simulator to Bus Simulator, cater to Twitch’s older minority. The largest chunk of his fans are 25-34, significantly older than the typical Twitch viewer, who is 21. 18% are 35-44 and nearly 10% are older than 45’ (D’Anastasio, 2016). Some of his viewers are, or were, truckers themselves so it resonates with them personally.
Patience is needed for slower-paced games but to see Squirrel toil to get better equipment and machinery, his viewers get personally invested in watching him do this. He says, ‘If you stick around, there’s a lot more to the channel. It’s true that there’s grinding to do, but you’re trying to build up money, buy bigger tractors, bigger logging equipment. Everybody wants to see the better machinery and how quickly it can take down a field’ (D’Anastasio, 2016). Watching him try and tackle oversized cargo such as a 60 tonne baobab tree or a quad trailer is certainly amusing to see if he can pull it off (he does with great difficulty).
Cecilia D’Anastasio’s (2016) article, ‘The Biggest Farming Simulator Stream Brings Out Twitch’s Mature Side’:
Amit Deshpande’s (2008) article, ‘Simulation Games #1: Definition’:
Max Eddy’s (2018) article, ‘The Most Niche Simulation PC Games We Could Find’:
Marc Prensky’s (2001) article, ‘Simulations’: Are They Games?’:
Ed Ram’s (2014) article, ‘What’s the appeal of playing ‘mundane’ simulator games?’:
Dave Stevenson’s (2016) article, ‘Is this the real life? Why we love boring simulators’:
WiseGeek’s article, ‘What are Simulation Games?’: