Is this the real life? Why we love boring simulators
As I scuff the front wing of my Scania lorry into the side of a waiting Eurotunnel carriage for the second time, I reflect that my first experience driving a truck has not gone smoothly. There was the stockyard incident before I even hit the road, in which I clipped the corner of a warehouse then drove into a gatepost. A small collision with a coach on the M27 outside Southampton did little to settle my nerves, and a €550 speeding fine shortly before Dover would have been the final straw for a less committed trucker. Instead, this straw comes at the end of the drive, where precisely reversing a trailer into a parking bay for extra points proves to be a comedy of errors that makes the Benny Hill Show look like a funeral march.
Driving a lorry might not be top of your bucket list, but Euro Truck Simulator 2 has very positive reviews on download store Steam. “Euro Truck Simulator 2 isn’t a game you play,” begins one. “It’s a game that consumes you. It’s a drug.”
If it is a drug, Euro Truck Simulator 2 – ETS2, to its fans – is an over-the-counter sedative. You get extra points for driving efficiently and showing up on time, and lose points – and cash – for speeding, running red lights or not using your headlights properly. Crash the truck and your drive simply grinds to a halt, but no damage modelling means the simulation stops short of a satisfying wreck. At least SimCity had impromptu wildfires and occasional alien invasions.
A little later, I tried my hand at driving a train. Here, colliding with things is less likely – there’s no steering, after all – but stopping with sufficient accuracy to ensure that the passengers end up on a platform, as opposed to disembarking into a neighbouring field, poses a degree of difficulty stern enough to end the career aspirations of the most committed schoolboy.
My day spent in the further reaches of the simulation universe sees me span a career fair’s-worth of occupations. I spend a few peaceful but ultimately frustrating hours tooling about in World Ship Simulator, and then a bucolic hour in the company of Farming Simulator, which manages the impressive feat of being duller than even its name suggests. Finally, I consider finding a copy of Street Cleaning Simulator, but am discouraged by both its premise and the first two lines of a review on gamespot.com: “Street Cleaning Simulator is a broken, unrealistic mess that takes a relatively boring concept and makes it even worse.”
A little too real?
Simulator gaming’s appeal may seem opaque, but there are legions of fans who love nothing more than the idea of replicating real life – often in all its mundanity – on the small screen. ETS2 has more than 50,000 reviews online. Go for something more exotic – flying a plane, say – and the numbers soar. From his home in Deer Harbour, Washington, Roger Curtiss works on the board of the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM), which offers aviation fans a community of pilots and air-
traffic controllers. “There are at least 100,000 members of VATSIM,” he told me. “Of those, I’d say at least 20,000 fly regularly.”
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. “This is the next best thing,” said Curtiss.
Mark Vanhoenacker is someone who knows the appeal of simulated aviation more than most. He spent the first part of his career as a management consultant. “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, flying the 747 to countries all over the world. 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.
Their imaginations captured, some virtual pilots take things to their logical extreme, forming entire virtual airlines, complete with liveried aircraft, authentic routes and career progression, starting as first officers and graduating through the ranks. “These are people who are seeking structure in their flying,” said Curtiss. “It’s structure combined with the Walter Mitty experience of wanting to be an airline captain, even when you probably won’t be.”
To see how seriously some take the job of being a virtual pilot, visit British Airway’s virtual doppelgänger at bavirtual.co.uk. Here the requirements for incoming pilots are stringent: you have to fly at least once every 30 days, with no leave of absence available for the first three months. There’s an entrance exam, and pilots who want to fly long-haul routes are forbidden to use a flight simulator’s ability to accelerate time. Want to fly from London to LA? Bring snacks.
“Personally, [long-haul simulation] doesn’t appeal to me,” said Curtiss. “It’s surprising how many people do that.” He said many will kick off a long-haul flight, then leave their PC running, something that chimes with Vanhoenacker. “I rarely did long flights in real-time,” he said. “But occasionally I would be playing around first thing in the morning before starting work and I’d set up a flight from Boston to Heathrow. Then I’d get called away to meetings or a phone conference, and then I’d go out for lunch, and when I came back to my computer, having perhaps already forgotten about the flight I’d piloted up to cruising altitude, I was amazed to suddenly realise that I’d crossed the virtual Atlantic and could start thinking about an approach to Heathrow.”
Working out the appeal of long-haul simulation, or even run-of-the-mill tasks such as driving a lorry or ploughing a field, is best left to the professionals. John Suler is professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. “People like to immerse themselves into scenarios that they find interesting,” he said. Driving a truck, flying a plane or captaining an ocean liner is something most will never get to do. “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.”
Simulators also offer the opportunity to experiment in ways that would be life- threatening in reality. “This is what’s called the Generativity Principle,” said Suler. “The Generativity Principle is how people use computer environments or computerised tools in ways that the designers didn’t anticipate.”
He cites perhaps the most all-encompassing simulator of all. “Some people I spoke to would play The Sims,” he tells me. “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.” It could be that simulators give adults the chance to test boundaries in the same way children do. “Games and play are ways that people develop skills,” said Suler. “[People] develop their identity, express needs, and a part of growth is testing boundaries… the limits.”
Taking on new roles in simulations could even benefit gamers in the real world. “It’s called the transfer of learning,” said Suler. A 2007 study at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that people were friendlier and disclosed more about themselves when they were given an attractive avatar, and behaved more confidently when their avatar was taller. Its authors called this the Proteus effect, and noted “these behavioural changes may carry over to the physical world”.
“With simulators that are highly realistic, that really mimic the real world,” said Suler, “you can see more of that transfer of learning. I haven’t been in a flight simulator but I’ve heard that they are very realistic, and I’ve heard stories of pilots who, after doing flight simulation, come out from the simulator and expect to be stepping onto the tarmac of an airport.”
Both ETS2 and Farming Simulator offer experience points and equipment upgrades, but most flight simulators allow you a wide gamut of aircraft from the start. How can a simulator that lacks the mechanics of a game – points, rewards and new levels – possibly capture anyone’s attention? “If it’s not the kind of game where the person is challenged,” said Suler. When gamers don’t “have to figure out how the game works to win points or gain status in some kind of online group,” there may be something deeper at play. “My father loved to drive,” he said. “To me driving’s a mundane thing, but if people have a certain personality style where they like this idea of moving in the truck… they like the repetition, they like the rhythm of it, it does become a meditative activity for people.”
It may even be transcendental. “It’s not an uncommon phenomenon in truck drivers and airline pilots where they, while engaged in this rhythmical activity of moving and watching the lines in the roads move by… feel like they’ve left their body.” So Train Simulator could offer virtual Fat Controllers an out-of-body experience? “A steady rhythm with slight variations can be very hypnotic for people,” said Suler. “It’s a euphoric kind of feeling… transcending the situation.”
I tried to sell the idea to Roger Curtiss of VATSIM, who denied ever having had a transcendent experience himself. He did, however, remember one particularly committed pilot. “Every night he flew from Cleveland to Montreal, and he would just do that for a year. Same flight number, same aircraft, same route, he just flew that route every day.” More confirmation comes from Mark Vanhoenacker. “There’s certainly a meditative aspect to long flights as a passenger,” he agreed. “Maybe I was tapping into that a little as a virtual pilot.”
I keep my eyes peeled for a transcendent experience during my foray into hardcore simulation. It doesn’t come ploughing a field, and driving a train is far too stressful to do anything but panic about the next station. Piloting a ship is too dull, and I decide I don’t want to be the type of person who has his first out-of-body experience playing Street Cleaning Simulator.
Then, on my final excursion in ETS2, it happens. Not an out-of-body experience as such, but as the darkened countryside swoops past, the white lines flash beneath the windscreen and the wipers beat away droplets of rain, the deep chuckle of the diesel engine feels oddly relaxing and, as I accidentally drift onto the wrong side of the road, prompting a €100 fine and a collision with a small saloon, I almost get it. Perhaps perseverance is the key.