What's the appeal of playing 'mundane' simulator games?

By Ed Ram
BBC News

Media caption,
From driving a truck across Europe to ploughing a field, why are people playing "real life" simulators?

Storming through forests astride dragons, commanding armies of vicious Cossacks, flying spaceships at unthinkable speeds - the possibilities are endless. Computer games can transport you anywhere - and let you do anything.

So, when you can dine out cheaply and conveniently on the most excitement-filled, exhilarating scenarios imaginable, doesn't it seem strange that many choose repetition, rigmarole and meticulous control for their digital fixes?

Whether it is managing a campsite, driving a long-haul lorry, mending a car or working a rubbish lorry, more and more people are passionately playing simulator games that accurately replicate everyday life.

But who is it that plays these games? And what makes people play them when you could just do the real thing?

Dale Chapman is 18 and lives in Helston in Cornwall. He 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.

Image source, Ed Ram

"When we get home from work we all get together on a group Skype call, one of us will set up a game and we'll play for hours.

"It's sociable like that and we can all use our farming knowhow in the game.

"Farm-Sim 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.

"It's all about the variation and the mods (the modifications - i.e. vehicles, trailers, maps, etc. that are made by the gaming community) that are available too.

"I've designed a tractor in the game that is pretty much exactly like the one that we drive on my friend's farm.

"I just love farming - it's one of those things that's just in the blood."

Image source, Farming Simulator 2013 Titanium Edition

10 simulator games to note:

  • Euro Truck Simulator 2 - Drive long-haul vehicles. Hugely popular and PC Gamers' Sim of the Year in 2012
  • Camping Manager - Build and manage your own vacation paradise
  • Bear Simulator - Still in development, the game will allow players to forage and explore the forest as a bear
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator - Perhaps the best-known of all the vehicle simulator game series
  • Farming Simulator - Cultivate land and livestock and manage your farm. Outsold Medal Of Honor in 2013
  • Street Cleaning Simulator 2013 - Remove dirt from roads with several different cleaning techniques
  • U-Bahn Simulator - Navigate Germany's metro systems
  • Arma 3 - Experience the realities of a military campaign
  • Vatsim - A flight simulator where live air traffic controllers will book your ultra-realistic flight paths
  • Viscera Cleanup Detail - Clear up the gore from first-person shooter games

Paul Fairhurst is 44 and lives near Chelmsford in Essex. He's an IT consultant and is married with three children. Known as Squirrel, he plays simulator games to vast audiences on a live YouTube stream.

Image source, Paul Fairhurst

"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?

"I don't want to give up my job or abandon my family to drive trucks in real life."

Media caption,
WATCH: Paul Fairhurst plays Euro Truck Simulator 2 in his YouTube video with over 90,000 hits

Victoria Warrender is 31 and lives in Stafford in the West Midlands. She has a benign tumour on her spine and scarring lesions in her brain. The disease, which causes fatigue, severe pain and practically no movement in her legs, forced her to give up a career as a session musician - playing the drums - four years ago.

"I always loved being able to drive and the sense of freedom that being on the road gave me. I love travelling around Europe too.

"So although I didn't initially like trucks especially, Euro Truck Simulator 2 allows me to see sights and do things I can't in real life because of my physical restrictions.

"It's a form of escapism.

"I also like the social side of military simulators like Arma 2 and 3 - they allow you to make friends and work with other players online.

"Sometimes the pain will be too much and I'll have to stop playing - but if the pain isn't overbearing then the games are so immersive you can go an hour and not realise that you have been distracted from the discomfort."

Image source, Arma 3

Gaming community

One of the appeals of simulator games is the massive online community. The farm simulator forum FS-UK has more than 150,000 registered members, around 2,000 people online at once and 15,000-20,000 active users.

Russell Peterson, who manages the FS-UK website asked its members why they play Farm Simulator:

4.6% - I'm too young to drive

6.7% - I'm a student wanting more experience

33.7% - I'm a farmer, but it's fun to play with friends on my days off

1.5% - I'm disabled and can't farm

1.8% - I'm retired but can't stop farming!

4% - I'm unemployed and missing driving tractors

35.6% - I'm not a farmer but it's fun to pretend

12.2% - Other reason

Total Voters: 329

Source: FS-UK forum

Andy Kelly is a 28-year-old journalist. He lives and works in Bath as a writer for PC Gamer magazine.

Image source, Take On Mars

"I installed Euro Truck Simulator 2 on my PC almost as a joke - I thought it would be the most boring game imaginable. But then I ended up playing it for 30 hours and counting.

"There's something hypnotic about simulators. I've played a lot of Take On Mars, which simulates Mars exploration with probes and rovers, and Kerbal Space Program, a simulation of the physics of space travel.

"Video games are becoming increasingly homogenised and predictable.

"Major publishers rarely take risks on anything that breaks away from safe sellers like first-person shooters, so another reason I love simulators is how different and rebelliously niche they are."

Tyler Wilson is 17 years old and a junior in Alliance High School in Nebraska in the US. He lives with his mother and sister and has wanted to be a farmer since he was five, but says there is no chance to follow his dream because his almost total loss of hearing means that it is unsafe to do so.

Image source, AliJ Photography

"Farming Simulator gives me the chance to operate heavy machinery with my own hands and teaches me about the realism of farming.

"It gives me an opportunity.

"I do play many different types of simulator games such as Agrar Simulator, Train Simulator, Demolition Simulator, Ski Resort Simulator and many others.

"But the reason why I play Farming Simulator is due to my hearing loss.

"In real life the machinery requires you to hear - I wouldn't be able to feel the vibration coming from a piece of equipment attached to a tractor if something went wrong."

Image source, Ski Region Simulator - Gold Edition

Watch more clips on the Click website. If you are in the UK you can watch the whole programme on BBC iPlayer.

More on this story