living in a simulation

Thank God for Our Virtual Jobs

Photo: FuturLab via Steam

Everything needs cleaning in PowerWash Simulator. Our faceless, nameless protagonist, dressed in a turquoise hazmat suit, has a singular directive; purge this dirty world of all its grime. So, players pump a cocktail of purifiers into their hose and crank up the water pressure until the solution jets out of the nozzle like a laser beam. The solution melts through the filth clinging to the tool sheds, RVs, and playgrounds — whatever our hero is contracted to purify — until the surfaces reflect back at us with a gleaming mirror shine. All in a hard day’s work.

PowerWash Simulator has emerged as one of 2022’s most unlikely hits. It sold more than three million copies in the two months after its release date, despite a complete ambivalence towards every mainstream gaming precept. There are no enemies to thwart, no difficulty curve to conquer, and its titular fantasy doesn’t seem especially enviable; did anyone grow up dreaming of being a professional power washer? Dan Grodberg, who works in the emerging recreational cannabis sector, certainly did not, but the 23-year old has still found himself returning to the game all year. He believes PowerWash Simulator captures a relevant fantasy at a watershed moment in the history of American labor. Everyone seems to be reexamining their relationship to the job market, with a record number of Americans leaving the workforce entirely. Grodberg is familiar with that existential precarity, and he relishes the alternative set of values presented to our avatar in the hazmat suit. Imagine a world without the specter of mass layoffs, industrial frailty, dwindling wages, and the toxic jealousy of your peers. Imagine, if you will, what it’d be like to be satisfied with your job.

“In my industry things are shifting so rapidly. Nothing is really concrete about who’s actually being successful, or what long-term success even is. It’s hard to feel satisfied when you know that everything you accomplish might not pay off,” said Grodberg. “In PowerWash Simulator, I do my job, I get my money, and that’s all there is to it.”

PowerWash Simulator is the latest, and most successful entry in a long line of sedate, mundane simulation games — experiences that are more concerned with replicating the heuristic monotony of a trade industry, rather than manifesting any visceral Xbox thrills. Kirsty Rigden, co-CEO of FuturLab, the studio behind PowerWash Simulator, told me that she was inspired to make the game after purchasing a power washer herself, and binging a number of therapeutic housecleaning videos on the internet. “We were also trying to think of a first-person game we could make with our current small team,” said Rigden. “It’s a break from high-intensity activities. A place to concentrate and occupy oneself without any sense of stress.” It’s a tradition that dates back to the earliest heritage of PC gaming, when patriarchs all over the country purchased DOS copies of Microsoft Flight Simulator in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Digital piloting, much like digital power-washing, is a dulcet way to burn off a few hours. After takeoff, your plane cruises across the computer-blue sky indefinitely — miles away from bosses, deadlines, and performance audits — guided only by the rumble of the engine. It can conjure a feeling close to Zen, especially after a bad Monday afternoon.

Microsoft released a new edition of Flight Simulator in 2020, which was undoubtedly motivated by the trove of games gathering on its corner. Euro Truck Simulator, and its cousin American Truck Simulator, are both genuine sensations; countless gamers buffer themselves against the jagged edges of white-collar modernity by ferrying loads of lumber between Albuquerque and Anaheim. (Euro Truck Simulator has sold over 10 million copies, and 80 million pieces of DLC, since its 2012 release.) Lawn Mowing Simulator, which was released at the tail end of 2021, squares down the PowerWash formula into a deeply domestic fantasy. We take control of dads, dressed in ball caps and sunglasses, who sit atop ride-on lawnmowers as they criss-cross their wooly yards. (For a brief moment, Lawn Mowing Simulator had more concurrent viewers on Twitch than Call of Duty: Warzone.) There is also House Flipper, from the Polish studio Frozen District, which lets players slowly and methodically retrofit the boarded-up, roach-infested dwellings of their neighborhood. Frozen District is currently hard at work at a sequel, where the team will further refine the formula. The actual business of house flipping is rife with financial risks and requires deft capital management. But here, it’s as easy as cleaning up a mess.

“All games simplify reality in some way, and games like ours allow us to organize it and have it under control. I think we all need that kind of control over things, and it just relaxes us,” said Michał Lewandowski, a PR rep at Frozen District. “All of us would like to be able to do work that is satisfying, necessary, and stress-free. This is exactly what games such as House Flipper can give.”

I like my job, which makes me extraordinarily lucky compared to the average American. There are things I can complain about, sure, but I rarely find myself pining for the weekend or dreading Sunday evenings. So I was surprised to discover that I too was vulnerable to the same sort of serene aridity that Lewandowski, Rigden, and Grodberg speak about. My drug of choice is Farming Simulator 22, the latest game in a venerable series of video games that are each about managing a small, rural pasture in a European hamlet. I dove in over the summer and futzed around with the awkward controls and arcane systems for a long while, (mostly perplexed and slightly annoyed,) before one glorious evening, when the pleasures of this bucolic void finally clicked in my brain. The sun was dipping behind a few distant, green mountaintops as I was gently propelling a tractor — equipped with an automatic fertilizer — across a vast field of freshly planted corn.

It took forever. There are no shortcuts in farming, digital or otherwise, but the work still needs to be done. The tractor would approach the end of the pasture and slowly navigate a long, elliptical U-turn, and start sputtering the opposite way. No experience points, or rare cosmetic, or clandestine easter egg waited for me at the end of the checklist. I didn’t unlock any achievements to acknowledge my diligence. That is the splendor of the simulation boom; above everything else, these games are honest with our expectations.

“There was something remarkably soothing about it. It almost acted like having a fan on while I slept,” said A.J. Haefele, a sportswriter in Denver, who recalled his obsession with Lawn Mower Simulator. “The simplicity of ‘cut the grass’ and not having any other instructions felt nice.”

Haefele, like me, doesn’t hate his job, and he understands that — at the end of the day — Lawn Mower Simulator fabricates a career path far less appealing compared to what he already has. Would he press the reset button on his life to mow lawns for a living? Of course not, but Haefele does like dipping his toes into some playacted manual labor after a long night on the beat. “When I finish work and I’m still not tired, mowing some virtual lawns is really appealing as a means of shutting my brain down from the constant stimulation,” he said. “It’s almost the opposite of having an anti-work sentiment. I’m just looking for different work to gear down at the end of my day.”

The catharsis players find in a game like Lawn Mowing Simulator or PowerWash Simulator might be exclusive to those who make a living in the information sector. It is difficult for me to imagine an actual truck driver praising the same sort of rustic, uncomplicated appeal in Euro Truck Simulator that, say, an advertising agent might describe when they roleplay a career without a Master’s degree — far away from New York City — every night. The developers of these games aren’t necessarily promoting an elitist perspective on blue-collar artifice, (the team behind Farming Simulator are, more than anything else, huge nerds about modern farming technology,) but the subtext is unavoidable. Case in point: Grodberg tells me he has occasionally fantasized about exchanging his urbanite existence for a job that requires the full usage of his body. He hasn’t pulled the trigger, because he knows that wielding a power-washer in real life is probably a lot less meditative than it is on his computer. “It’s not an easy job by any means,” said Grodberg. “But it’s a different type of satisfaction at the end of the day.”

It’s a crisis we will all continue to face, as the job market, and the economy itself, grows increasingly intangible. The tech landscape is currently dominated by startups where young men and women mint digital currency and thousand-dollar JPEGs — all encoded on the eldritch, unknowable blockchain. Twitter, an eternally unprofitable company, can be purchased for $44 billion, with a sizable chunk leveraged by Wall Street banks. All of my friends seem to be either financial analysts or growth associates, and I have no idea what that means. 86 percent of young people aspire to be professional influencers. In 2022, you can’t blame anyone for staring at their hands and wondering what they actually do for a living. Thank god we have our virtual jobs, or else we’d be truly lost.

Thank God for Our Virtual Jobs