Ian Bogost on why so-called ‘simulators’ so often reject reality
Back in 1982, a tagline for Microsoft Flight Simulator boasted, “If flying your IBM PC got any more realistic, you’d need a licence.” It was meant to appeal to real pilots and those who fancied themselves armchair aviators. I was neither, but I played Flight Simulator anyway. Well, I loaded and manipulated Flight Simulator; to say that I simulated flight would be a profound overstatement. In that sense, the advert rings true: Flight Simulator was realistic enough that it became as unyielding as a small aircraft’s cockpit to my inexpert hands.
The term ‘simulator’ has a troubled relationship with videogames. Traditionally, simulator has referred to complex, expensive software and hardware recreations of military and commercial equipment for training purposes. In these cases, simulators entail realism and detail and professionalism and seriousness. Videogames borrowed and altered the term, using it to refer to a serious enthusiast’s next best thing, something squarely between tool and entertainment. Games such as Flight Simulator and Train
Simulator remained niche products for years. But against all odds, in the era of pay-to-win mobile games and stylised open-world fantasy romps, simulators have experienced a resurgence. Dozens of such games have found their way onto shelves and Steam, including Airport Simulator, Farming Simulator, Car Mechanic Simulator, Skyscraper Simulator. Most of these games allow the player to pursue a virtual career in their chosen expertise, which involves the day-today activity of a mundane profession.
Most of the new simulators acknowledge the influence of Microsoft Flight Simulator, even if only by adopting the characteristically thin and oblique typography of its packaging. But in practice, today’s titles reveal a more complex relationship between the pleasure of games and the austerity of simulators. They are not simulations of their chosen subjects so much as they are representations of the difference between simulators and games.
Against all odds, in the era of stylised open-world fantasy romps, simulators have experienced a resurgence
Consider Euro Truck Simulator 2. It offers the usual invitation to a career (freight hauler), but the primary experience of the game is that of driving a tractor-trailer across the bucolic European countryside. For those accustomed to games such as GTA, the most notable sensation in Euro Truck
Simulator 2 is that of having to stay in the lanes, avoid collisions and follow basic traffic laws. Such activities are not optional as they might be in an open-world game, since infractions and vehicle damage severely impact the player’s ability to drive the truck to its goal and thereby advance in the game.
But as much as this enforcement of the basic rules of the road implements simulators’ tendency toward the severity of realism, the game also betrays that gravity. Finicky controls, cameras and physics make driving your euro truck difficult, such that even the smallest jostle might send the enormous machine lurching onto the railing, ragdoll style. The game finds the friction point where the gears of realism and fantasy grind into caricature. To play Euro Truck
Simulator 2 is not to play a simulator so much as it is to play the difference between a simulation and game, to toe the line between.
In entertainment games, simulators don’t depict reality so much as the disruption between the realism of commercial simulation and the abstraction of videogames. Three decades after Flight Simulator, a simulator is no longer a more detailed or a more realistic or a more professional interactive rendition of a profession. A so-called simulator is neither a simulator nor a game, but the difference between the two.
Creators and players seem to be aware of this strange design space and revel in occupying it. A new genre we might call ‘non-simulators’ has emerged, notable for claiming to be simulators by name while explicitly rejecting the premise of realism and detail in practice. The defining non-sim is Goat Simulator, in which players destroy an environment by controlling a goat. And the forthcoming Rock Simulator 2014 offers players the opportunity to “watch beautiful rocks in any location in the world”.
Both were born as jokes, but a marketplace of earnestly engaged players has nevertheless emerged. Why? We don’t really want to simulate goats and rocks – especially since neither activity is supported by the games anyway. Instead, players wearied by familiarity have embraced this new crop of simulators to experience a wilderness where games haven’t previously dared to settle.