IImagine spending most of your day plowing fields, sowing seeds, spraying fertilizers or pesticides, harvesting crops, feeding livestock (if you have any), repairing fences, and maintain half a dozen different types of farm machinery. You do it every day, all year round, in all weathers. And then, in the evening, you sit down in front of a computer to redo everything – virtually.
farming simulator is a long-running video game series played by approximately one million people. The game’s creator, Giants Software, estimates that up to a quarter of its players are related to farming in some way, and around 8-10% are full-time professional farmers.
“There’s a type of achievement, growing, building and overcoming a challenge in the game,” says Nick Welker, of Welker Farms Inc, a 10,000-acre wheat farm in northern Montana. “Even though Farming Simulator is about farming, it’s also about all the dynamics behind it, like trying to manage your budget, buying the land next to you, and getting new equipment that will make your farm more efficient. “
For Welker, the appeal lies in the feedback loops of growth and expansion, mechanics he also enjoyed in games such as FarmVille and as early as 1993’s Sim Farm. Farming Simulator is simply more detailed in its representation of the trade. “Your equipment can break down. You have rising costs,” he points out. “You can reap the same crop as before and all of a sudden it’s not worth as much as you originally thought.”
Although not large by American standards, Welker Farms is a sizable operation, famous for its deployment of several Big Bud tractors, which are among the largest agricultural tractors in the world. However, such equipment is expensive and not available to all real-world farmers. Here, Farming Simulator can fill a different kind of void.
“One of the main reasons I play Farming Simulator is because in real life we don’t run a very large operation,” says Wade Kelley, who works on his family’s 500-acre corn farm in Tennessee. “But thanks to Farming Simulator I can do it, with lots of different equipment choices.” Playing on the mobile version of the game, Kelley creates large arable farms more like Welker’s than his own. In this way, Farming Simulator can act as a form of wish fulfillment for those who cannot afford thousands of acres of land, or the largest or most technologically advanced farm machinery.
Some farmers see games like Farming Simulator as a connection to a slowly dying way of life. “100 years ago, almost everyone lived on a farm or had a very close family who farmed,” Welker says. “Now the disconnect is getting bigger and fewer farmers are farming the same land.”
In the UK, both gross farm income and individual farms have fallen by 50% over the past 40 years, forcing many farmers out of the sector.
In 2005, Sam Manning was forced to leave his family farm. In Herefordshire, the Coldborough Park farm was run by two generations of Manning’s family, and he had worked on the farm since he was 13 years old. But the BSE crisis in 1997, combined with a sudden drop in wheat prices, meant the farm went from prosperous to struggling almost overnight. “Last harvest, I finally worked for free because my father had no salary to pay anyone,” Manning says. It still wasn’t enough and the next season Manning was forced to find work elsewhere. “It was sad that it ended like this.”
Manning has not worked on a farm since. But in 2011, he picked up a copy of Farming Simulator. Over the next few years, he used the game’s level editing tools to recreate Coldborough Park virtually. “You’re using actual terrain data that you can get online, and you’re using a combination of that with Google Earth, and it basically gives you a very rough approximation of the terrain of a certain area,” Manning says. “It was really satisfying to get the fields, trees, and hedges more or less in the right places and suddenly see the map come to life.”
For Manning, Farming Simulator amounts to what he calls “relaxation therapy,” a way to restore a long-missing part of himself. Today, his card is much more than a spiritual balm. Coldborough Park has become one of the most popular user-created maps for Farming Simulator 15. For Farming Simulator 17, Giants Software asked him to create a version of it especially for the game’s launch. I have two children, I live in an ordinary house with an ordinary job. When a big video game company comes to me and asks me to do something for them, I’m pretty proud of the quality of their work,” he says.
Coldborough Park isn’t the only farm to get a virtual makeover. A group of modders just finished mapping the 10,000 acres of Welker Farms in Montana, recreating them as a free downloadable map for Farming Simulator 17. We’ve got buildings and our farmyard all the way,” says Welker. The map is so realistic that a few local schools have asked permission to use it in their agriculture classes. “They have set up computer labs and they allow kids in the agriculture department to play Farming Simulator in the classroom, to educate them about farm life.”
The relationship between farmers and Farming Simulator is growing stronger. Manufacturers are already stand in line to see their farming vehicles featured in the game. But with the number of farms and farmers dwindling, Welker thinks Farming Simulator’s role in bringing farming mechanics to the next generation is most valuable.
“Our world is played by thousands, if not millions of children,” he says. “They do the things we do, and they profit from it.”