I remember around the time that the first Sims games launched having conversations with people where I was baffled by the appeal. Why would you play a game that focuses on all the most boring, tedious aspects of your own, real life?
Cooking, cleaning, going to work; these aren’t exactly the fantastic escapes you traditionally turn to video games for. Where are the space marines, the dragons, where is the high adventure and romance? Where, in other words, is the game?
Years later, after battling several rounds of crippling Sims addiction myself, I have a much better handle on the appeal of these kind of life simulations. These days, it’s primarily indie games that are finding the fun in what most people consider the most banal corners of their lives.
The explosion of crafting and survival games have made things like mining, or chopping wood, or even digging holes surprisingly engaging. And farming, never the most glamorous or high profile occupation, has been the subject of countless games and wildly different interpretations, from #Farmville to #FarmingSimulator, #FunkyBarn to #StardewValley.
So how is it that virtual versions of chores are somehow so much more interesting than the chores themselves? How are indie games taking things we’d only willingly do if we were being paid in our real lives and convince us to do them happily for free, often for hours of time at a stretch?
Well, there’s the obvious consideration, of course. Doing these things in games requires significantly less effort than doing them in real life. Ask any miner if they’d rather descend into a coal shaft and hack away with a pickaxe or play #Minecraft for a few hours and I think the results would be pretty predictable.
But just because something is easier doesn’t mean that it’s more fun. And in fact, if you asked most Minecraft players if the actual act of mining stone or dirt or ore blocks was fun, most would respond that no, that’s not the point.
Like any job or chore, the satisfaction rarely comes from the act of performing it. What satisfaction there is is usually derived from the results, and it’s in providing these results that games excel.
Unlike in real life, where a farmer may toil for months at a time before being seeing the (sometimes literal) fruit of their labors, or before being compensated, in a game like Stardew Valley the reward for your work can be reaped in a matter of minutes.
This sets up a reward schedule not unlike the one loot games like #Diablo (or slot machines) rely on to keep players clicking, except much more predictable. The product of your labor is almost immediately visible; in Stardew you can watch your crops flower in moments, in Minecraft you can tunnel through the earth or create vast structures in practically no time at all.
And the best of these games commingle predictable reward schedules like crop harvesting with variable ones; tunneling under your base in Minecraft you might stumble upon some valuable ore or gems, or a harvest in Stardew might yield some rare and valuable variety of the standard plant.
Take your joy
These little dopamine triggers go a long way towards making the actual labor part less unpleasant, and the way crafting games build those triggers into large gameplay structures amplifies the feeling of reward. So when you find that vein of diamond blocks, you’re not only rewarded by some variety in your mining and the opportunity to look at something shiny, you’re also rewarded with the knowledge that you’ve discovered a component piece of something larger.
Dopamine, you see, is released not only when something nice happens (finding the diamonds) but in anticipation of something happening (forging shiny new tools or weapons), giving you the burst of energy to keep chasing that next fix.
The lesson here is that games that glorify the mundane aren’t actually so different from games that transport us to magical realms or empower us to slay magnificent beasts. Even if a cursory glance makes them seem extremely different, they often rely on a lot of the same systems to motivate and entertain players. So the next time someone’s giving you a hard time for playing the latest Chore Simulator 20xx, you can fire back that harvesting your daffodils isn’t so different from harvesting alien skulls.