The world of work is more uncertain and blurrier than it has ever been before. A “job for life” - common to the parents of Gen X and Millennials - now either sounds like an impossible absurdity, like spotting a Dodo on your way to the pub, or, worse, a threat.
Meanwhile, we’re all making the best we can of what’s left of the workplace, and technology has allowed whole new genres of work to thrive. While you and I may be weighing up the consequences of becoming a food delivery cyclist (in the “pro” column: super shredded thighs, bro), others have discovered that being a Youtube Content Creator is not just a legitimate way to make cash, with a chillingly ad-agency-tuned job title, but it will make them lots of the green stuff. It’ll bring fame, wealth and controversy along for the ride too.
In the world of the Online Celeb, being a douchebag is optional - but apparently it helps. And nothing enhances your douchebag status than extreme wealth, plus - as demonstrated by The Rich Kids Of Instagram - there is the added advantage that your wealthy status actually creates more money, and so on.
Say what you like about either of these groups of people, but by accident or design, they have found a way to make money by just having fun: playing video games, going shopping, reacting to things and then uploading a video of it with an accompanying “Youtube Face".
Essentially, they make money by doing what they’d do when not doing what the other 99% traditionally consider “work”. Their “play” has become their “work”. Of course it works a bit differently for us. Here's how your work will become your play. Maybe you won't be able to tell the difference, or care. Time to jump into the verisimulator.
What do people do if given endless free time with no financial constraints?
Sadly, you and I are probably not going to become wealthy by filming our day-to-day lives, unless you are the sort of person whose first reaction to stumbling across a dead body is to apologise to your fans for the video not being as “fun” as you intended. However, we do need to contend with the same murky re-balancing of work and play, because, as discussed ad nauseam on MONTAG previously, the machines are coming for your job.
Yet if you’re holding out for the dream of Universal Basic Income - the juicy state hand-out for everyone - well, you might actually be backing the right horse: test studies in Finland show that giving people UBI seems to deliver a net positive for society.
And yet. What are you gonna do with your time? What happens when you can choose exactly what to do with your life? What fills the gap?
X Marx the spot
Marx’s "Fragment on Machines”, as Kathryn explained recently, posits that “since capitalism relies on the surplus of labor and accelerates technology to accomplish this labor, it will eventually create the conditions of its own undoing: labor time will be reduced to almost nothing, and workers will be free to develop themselves as individuals.”
So… do people, without the pressure of needing to work to earn, choose a lifestyle of freedom, fun and games? Do they switch from Work to Play?
If the burgeoning genre of “verisimulation” games is anything to go by: no, not really.
A “verisimulator” is a game that is “stupefyingly like reality.” It’s a game that replicates, in excruciating detail, a reasonably common and achievable job, like driving a train or a truck. And they're much more popular than you'd believe.
A verisimulator is distinct to a Sim game like Sim City or The Sims, in that in the latter you are playing god and building worlds, where as in a verisimulator, you perform tightly-defined tasks in a world that already very much exists. In both cases you like out a fantasy of doing something you don’t get to do in your day-to-day life; it’s just that in verisimulators, you could do them if you really wanted to.
Bluntly put, verisimulators are intensely boring. And that’s just how their millions of fans like it.
The grandparent of verisimulator games is a mini game buried in a 90’s Sega Megadrive game that was never actually released to the public. Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors would have been released on the Sega Mega-CD if the developer of the game hadn’t gone bust just before launch. Allegedly, the game has cameos by Debbie Harry and Lou Reed, which, unless you hung around the Lower East Side in 1978, means that generally, the game is not much like real life.
But - the CD contained a bunch of mini-games designed by titular anti-heroes Penn and Teller, one of which was Desert Bus: a game where you had to drive a bus, in a straight line, across a desert, for eight hours without a break.
The snag? The steering is not quite centred, so the role of the "driver" is to correct the steering so that the bus doesn’t slowly veer off the road and crash. If you allow this to happen, the bus is towed back to the start, and you begin again.
For successful players, after having driven 400 miles in real time, your prize is to earn one point, and the opportunity to drive back to the start again. In real time. To win one more point.
The game gets really tricky on the way back, when the sun sets and the bus’s paltry lights cast a limited splash of light onto the road surface, making continuing in a straight line a little harder.
Occasionally, something exciting happens, like here when a bug splats against the screen.
Desert Bus is played strictly for the LOLs. For The Win. It’s couched in irony. It's a game with rolled-up jeans, art-brut tattoos, a waxed moustache and one of those little wool hats perched on the back of its head. No-one plays Desert Bus expecting it to be like driving a bus.
For that, you need one of the many modern bus-driving verisimulators, a desire to drive a bus without leaving your home, and a lot of patience.
Of those games which recreate in agonising detail the devastating mundanity of real-life bus-driving work, OMSI: The Bus Simulator reigns supreme. OMSI allows you to pick a route, and… drive a bus. You collect passengers every kilometre or so, taking their money, giving them the correct change, and pulling off into traffic again. It captures every single tiny detail of an utterly normal day of an utterly normal job, and lets you “play” (or should that be "work"?) it in real time.
Fans are breathless about the game’s accuracy: “You get to drive a very accurate, detailed, digital version of a real German omnibus. Nearly all the dashboard controls and buttons are fully operational. The engine noises are spectacularly-well done. They even captured the rickety windows and loose parts of the bus shaking and vibrating when going over bumps, which sounds extremely realistic.”
It’s easy to sneer at OMSI, but driving a bus is no more facile, boring or stupid than running around with a gun in Gears of War, and shooting virtual people in the head is no more pointless than dropping them off at bus stops and bidding them cheerio.
The market for these games is only limited by players’ desire to virtually experience severely ordinary work, although the games do lean quite a lot towards transportation-based roles.
Here’s the mighty Euro Truck Simulator 2, in which you can experience the thrills, spills and - one supposes, the gut-wrenching excitement - of driving a bus full of passengers to, for instance, Gdansk in a Marcopolo Paradiso G7 1800 DD.
In ETS2, you can enjoy every tiny gear change, squeak of the suspension and every tick-tock of the indicator as you trundle towards Gdansk. I note that the bus has clearly been maintained in a cosy and warm condition, judging by the number of female passengers who have chosen to wear tight jeans and crop-tops.
And if steering seems like too much of a drag, what about Train Simulator 2017? Who, honestly, has not wanted to drive a French TGV the 105km that lies between Marseille and Avignon?
And... if the idea of movement itself is boring, what about Car Mechanic Simulator 2018, where you can repair cars as a virtual mechanic in a perfectly and lovingly created car garage?
“At last you have the chance to experience your dream job - driving a truck”
To the outside world, the enjoyment of the verisimulator is almost impossible to understand. Often this bewilderment is expressed as bemusement, or downright amusement. In this “Let’s Play” video, two Polygon writers, one of whom sounds like Mike Diamond from the Beastie Boys, but probably isn’t, play American Truck Simulator, and - understandably - are unable to resist the temptation of playing it absurdly.
Their chaotic gameplay makes the game look like a version of Grand Theft Auto where you can only drive trucks, and where murder sprees are the result of disastrously ill-judged driving decisions.
Once writers Griffin and Justin get going, a weirdly hypnotic sense to the gameplay sets in. The sparse landscape zips past as they career down freeways and it’s not dissimilar to the weird soporific state you achieve after several hours of driving along an Autobahn without taking a break.
However, their guffaw-laden gameplay is not that of a typical American Truck Simulator gamer, and neither is their habit of crashing their truck into gas stations. Indeed, the forums for ATS are awash with gamers dissecting the game’s nuances.
Once again, discussions centre on the game’s realistic nature, and gamer MatzTruckz is impressed:
“The (gear) ratios and transmission/drivetrain physics are definitely close enough for manual 18-speed shifting. I just finished a few thousand miles today and really enjoyed it.”
Here’s where the gap that feels insurmountable to most appears. One avid gamer humblebragged about the hours he’d spent playing American Truck Simulator, claiming in excess of 300 hours of play behind the wheel. That’s the equivalent to about two months’ worth of real-life employment.
It doesn’t take a highly inquisitive mind to ask one simple question: why not just... become a bus driver? According to Stagecoach, one of the UK’s main bus operators, training to become a driver takes just a few days. Our friend who clocked in hundreds of hours could have earned a month’s wages of real money, in the real world, in that time.
So why is he and the many, many other verisimulator gamers doing it?
Making the dream virtual reality
People generally work for the fulfilment of a task well done, the feeling of being part of a team or community, and the sense that they are vaguely adding something to society. Perhaps verisimulators give gamers that feeling, albeit in a field that ticks a childhood ambition, that is not too distant to be utterly unimaginable.
Being repeatedly shot in a war game might be thrilling, but it's too extraordinary to feel real. But if you find driving a truck exciting, then a verisimulator offers an experience that is close enough to feel real, and just far enough away to feel viscerally thrilling.
Whatever the reason is, verisimulators certainly hint at a future that we’re all soon to inhabit: a future where our jobs either vanish or are suddenly not needed, or are deemed uncool. You’ll want to do something with your time, and if money is no longer an issue, why not pander to your true self and do what you really want?
Maybe driving a train, or a truck isn’t your fantasy, but be honest: is that really any kinkier than the life you truly yearn for?