A busman’s video game? Meet the People Playing Their Own Career Work Simulators | Games
JThe cliché about video games is that they’re all about escapism. When people fire up a bloated PlayStation or PC, they do so to get lost in a mythical world or intergalactic conflict. They don’t come here to pressure wash a patio.
But increasingly, this orthodoxy is being tested. The runaway success of the work simulator, in which players take on seemingly mundane careers in the real world, shows that our relationship with games is much more complex. Type “job sim” into the search window of the PC Steam digital game store and a myriad of virtual job opportunities will open up. There are complex and precise simulations of farming, brewing beer, driving buses, building PCs, managing gas stations and selling houses, as well as more recognizable flight and train options. And if you do want to hose down a patio, there’s PowerWash Simulator, which became such a viral hit when it was released in July that it sold 3 million copies in two months.
And if you think everyone who plays these sims is always indulging in some form of escapism, tapping into jobs they’ve never attempted in real life, you’re wrong. Some of the most ardent fans of work simulations are people doing the work themselves: the literal busman’s vacation.
In retired army air dispatcher Frank Durrans’ bedroom, there’s a powerful PC with an ultrawide monitor and an array of complicated flight controllers. Stationed in Borneo during the Indonesian confrontation of the 1960s, he spent his military career in aeroplanes, dropping supplies for British troops stationed in the jungle along the Indonesian-Malaysian border. Now, every afternoon, he uses Microsoft Flight Simulator and explores the skies in a turboprop aircraft. “I mostly flew in old piston engines,” he says playing. “The Hastings and the Beverley, which was a huge plane. It could hold two 3-ton trucks, cargo and 38 fully equipped soldiers. We dropped 24 hour rations every day, ammunition and water if needed. We dropped live chickens and goats for the Gurkhas as they had to kill their own food. We dropped off cats in a Royal Marine DZ [drop zone] which was overrun with rats. There was nothing we couldn’t let go.
He tells these stories as his Cessna 172 rolls down the runway at Bournemouth Airport. He wants to show me a nice route along the coast to Cornwall, and meanwhile he talks about his experiences in the army; the game, with its amazing AI-based reconstruction of the Earth’s surface and its simulation of the very feel flight, seems to nourish his memories. “It definitely reminds me of the fun of flying,” he says, as he flies over Christchurch Harbour. “I used to have such an adrenaline rush. Things would just happen. On one occasion we took off from Kuching and an engine caught fire. I got on the intercom and the pilot yelled, “Empty the plane! We had to throw the cargo out the door—those big big boxes. You never knew what was going to happen.”
Richard Evans is a train conductor who has a hugely successful YouTube channel under the name Dad Rail – and he plays, yes, train simulators. Currently, it is the excellent Train Sim World 3, which offers a variety of routes and a dynamic weather system. He started playing train simulators when he was 12 and thinks they gave him a pretty good grounding in what the career would entail. “Simulators are great for learning signaling and safety systems as well as general train operations,” he says. “The big thing that taught me was the level of concentration required. Charge a two-hour run and sit still from the computer the whole time. Do not minimize the game to check social networks, do not get up to go to the bathroom, do not even change the view of the game to the outside of the taxi. Sit in view of the cabin and complete the route, then do it over and over again.
“Earlier this year I was tasked with learning the route from Brighton to Eastbourne. This is a route I have traveled several times on Train Sim World. Although you cannot learn the route fully on a simulator, what I had learned came in very handy when I stepped out into the cabin of a real train: I had a rough idea of the route and the names of the locations and the speed limits. ”
There’s also a social and investigative appeal to Evans. “I really enjoy driving routes and trains around the world and learning about operational differences. I developed a particular fondness for German railways while playing train simulation and learning about the different safety systems and how things are done differently.
“Through my live streams I have been able to connect with other railway workers from the UK and overseas, and we can share ideas and learn more about the railways and everyone’s trains. It’s very satisfying that as an English train driver I can hop on a German train and have a German train driver instruct me virtually throughout the game. I especially love driving the routes and trains I drive in real life, and compare and contrast the differences between the simulator and the real thing.
Jacob Spence’s father was a master craftsman and home builder, and as a child Jacob enjoyed visiting his father on site, observing heavy equipment operators at work. Later he worked with his father, learning all aspects of the construction trade and eventually operating these heavy machines himself. He is now also working in the field of education, looking for simulation training platforms. And he plays Construction Simulator. “I recently beta tested the next version of the game. While operating a large Caterpillar 349F excavator, I noticed realistic details such as the heavy feel of the machine, the real sounds of the engine and hydraulics, and the realistic range and speed of movement of machine components.I’m very happy to spend more time seeing how the earth-moving system has evolved, because the excavation system created by Weltenbauer for Construction Simulator in 2015 continues to stand out to this day.
Like Evans, Spence used the game as a learning tool (indeed, its developer Weltenbauer also makes industrial training software), using its dual-joystick setup to learn unfamiliar control configurations in new gear. And he too sees the social value of games. “The diverse community of gamers, some of whom are true operations engineers, learn a lot from each other simply by sharing their knowledge, life experiences, and gameplay. Player connections and multiplayer sessions are supported through a Discord community run by the game’s publisher, Astragon.
I ask Spence’s colleague Josh Miller about the game – he’s a guy who’s built ocean jetties, backfilled oilfield pits in Texas and worked in the world’s largest single-pit mine, Bingham Canyon . But the first time he saw a Liebherr drilling rig, which he would later work with in real life, was in Construction Simulator 2015. He, too, likes the multiplayer element of the game, working on sites with other fans. “Gaming is about spending time and having fun,” he says. “No deadlines, no angry bosses, just enjoying the machines and friends. The community is a big part of it, working as a team. Real dirt work is like that, in everyday situations […] It’s funny and we laugh. There’s a lot to be said for laughter at work or play.”
Thus, people play simulations of their own work for social and educational reasons; they do it to broaden their knowledge and experience of the roles they enjoy. But there is also something else: these sims are about nostalgia and reconnection; they remind players of what motivated them in the first place. “Construction Simulator brings back memories of working with my dad, especially the early days of classic CS when I was working around the village area with this old flatbed truck,” Spence says.
“My dad drove an old 1986 Toyota truck, which he converted to a flatbed when the flatbed rusted and he reinforced when the main frame rotted. He used all his tools until they fail and never wasted materials. He had a real way with all things physical and mechanical, which allowed him to work in many trades as a builder. I always had a hard time with understand how he did what he did and I was amazed every day that I worked with him. Those are days I will never forget.
Whatever we think of our jobs, they are part of our identity, and if we are lucky enough to have jobs that we love and that last, they form the framework of our lives. I think playing job simulators is like listening to records we loved when we were teenagers: they take us back in time. They rekindle formative moments. Durrans, who once flew over the jungles of Borneo, over Singapore, across the Far East, is now over 80, and as he flies over Bournemouth Airport at the end of our little journey , I ask him what flying means to him these days. .
“My pleasure is sailing,” he says. “I like to find my way and put myself in a perfect position to land without repositioning myself too much. One of my favorite things was flying from Berlin to the Scandinavian countries and then flying through Holland and Frankfurt – it was fascinating. I like being up there; it keeps the mind active. I was sick for a while after surgery and PC Pilot magazine offered me routes over Australia – they were beautiful, two hours of great sightseeing: Sydney Harbour, Great Barrier Reef …
“I fly every day. I will never give it up.