How Germans do escapism

By Ned Donovan on October 21st, 2013

In one European country in 2009, Farming Simulator sold more copies than Grand Theft Auto IV. Its successor, Farming Simulator 2013, has sat in the top ten of games in that country since its release this year, and will likely do so for a long time. In the UK, the simulator is ranked at 243 in the video game charts. And yet the Germans love it. Why do our Teutonic friends play simulator games so much? Or, to put it more bluntly, why do Germans have such utterly terrible taste in video games?

In case you’re not aware, simulator games are characterised by poor graphics, cheap production values, no showiness as with blockbuster games. Most other games attempt to keep the user strung along with missions and distractions. Simulator games are just straightforward, hyper-realistic recreations of real-world scenarios.

Most games of the simulator genre released in Germany are given vicious reviews by the trade press, but this does not halt the ever-advancing simulator game hold on European markets. Even those with the lowest scores sell well, and the publishers continue to churn out similar titles with success each time. Germans – together with some other European gamers, it must be said – often stick their noses up at Call of Duty, and instead turn to the delights of Ski Region Simulator, which sold 50,000 copies.

But this does not answer the question as to why they are so popular in Germany. Excalibur Publishing, who created such titles like Chemical Spillage Simulation and are the leading publisher of such games, is based in the United Kingdom. But very few of their titles actually register on the charts in the UK. They are only continually successful in Germany. Like David Hasselhoff’s ability to hit number one only in Deutschland, the question as to how seems to be shrouded in mystery.

One explanation is censorship: German censors don’t like gore and usually remove the bloodiest content content from games sold on the continent, reducing story-heavy games into massive continuity errors. Perhaps with such a lack of narrative, Chemical Spillage Simulator is perfect for a German gamer.

Then there is the call of the mundane, which seems to be a reason behind the success of titles from companies like Excalibur. In an interview with the German website, GameStar.de, a player of Farming Simulator remarked, “I am fulfilling my childhood dream”. This man was not just a farmer in the game, but was one in the real world as well. After spending his entire day working the land, he turned on his PC to do it there, not simply for catharsis, but because he could have the farm of his dreams.

In the same article, a player of Bus Driver Simulator remarked that when returning from his day job of driving a bus, he would load up the game where “one may sometimes miss a stop, or hit a guardrail”, this seems to translate as “I can put passengers’ lives at risk in the game” which makes one think that perhaps simulator games are the only thing holding back German bus drivers recreating the movie Speed on their daily route.

To the armchair social scientist, simulator games present evidence that Germans love to work. Barring the fact that 89 per cent of Germans enjoy their jobs, compared to 60 per cent of British people, Germans seem to treat their commute home as simply a stepping stone between actually working, and virtually working. For the classic Flight Simulator, a German banker called Hans Krohn spent $20,000 and 15 years to create a home-built cockpit in his basement.

Occasionally a simulator game will break through the relative obscurity of the genre and become incredibly popular. This has become a lot more common with the advent of online games store Steam, and one example besides the well known Farming Simulator is Euro Truck Simulator. In the game you run a trucking company across Europe. You can spend hours planning and driving routes shipping apples from Paris to Newcastle, and people do. While Desert Bus was created by Penn and Teller as a joke, Eurotruck Simulator is totally serious, as are its players.

One argument could be made that veteran gamers are bored of AAA titles like the Call of Duty series, where the series has been squeezed dry by Activision and so instead are turning to independently developed titles and more previously neglected games. It is certainly the case that in the past few years, indie game sales have taken off. But this is certainly not the case in Germany, a country where 76 per cent of gamers use a PC and where AAA series still do not totally penetrate.

Badly made simulator games will always be a subject of ridicule, especially ones which seem absurd on the surface, especially when most of them feature identical engines with merely the vehicles changed. But the visuals are in some ways irrelevant: what appeals to them is that for a fleeting experience you can take up an “exotic” job, or you can behave badly in your current one. In a recent interview with Gama Sutra, a simulation game developer from the Czech Republic said in regard to Euro Truck Simulator that: “the more this job smells of adventure and distant horizons – plus it’s perhaps paying better than average in those countries”.

These games will never break into markets elsewhere in the world like they have in Germany, and some other European countries, but there will always be an obsessed following to ensure the developers will continue to make sequels. Strange, very strange.