Dif­fi­culty Switch

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

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.

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