Blue-collar games were great in 2020 because they’re about perseverance

Before writing about games, I had a lot of different jobs. I sorted packages at a FedEx facility, I built delivery pallets at a Kroger distribution center, and I worked as a courier. Now that I spend all day at a desk thinking about video games, I definitely harbor a slight longing for something more physical. But games are actually fantastic at emulating the world of blue-collar jobs, and I found myself turning to that more this year than ever before. And I also realized that it’s because these games are so good at replicating a certain kind of real-world failure.

Games that look like work are nothing new. People have loved Farming Simulator and American Truck Simulator for years. But 2020 was especially good for this peculiar genre. PC gamers saw the return of the excellent Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise. And Focus Home Interactive launched SnowRunner and Hardspace: Shipbreaker, which are my top two games of the year.

SnowRunner and Hardspace helped highlight what I like about these games. A big part of that is the physics sandbox where I can come up with my own solutions for three-dimensional problems. But the genre is also part of a unique strand of games that don’t just ask the player to learn from their mistakes but instead ask players to live with their mistakes.

Lonely problem-solving work

While I’m calling them blue-collar games, people probably think of them more as work simulators. And I’m attracted to them because of the aspects about the work that they actually simulate. These games give you the tools you need to complete jobs, and they remove a lot of the quirks of learning to use expensive, powerful equipment. If you can use a controller or mouse-and-keyboard, then you can drive a truck, operate a crane, or cut apart a derelict spacecraft.

This provides a shortcut to competence. When you start one of these simulators, you already know how to interface with their tools and machinery — even if you still have to learn how they’ll behave. But that frees you and the games to get to the good stuff, which is using the tool and machinery to solve problems.

SnowRunner is a good example of this.

Saber Interactive developed SnowRunner, which is a followup to the Spintires and MudRunner games. It’s about using big trucks to deliver supplies across an unforgiving open-world terrain. As the name suggests, you are often hauling goods over snow or mud, which can impede your progress.

It’s the player’s job to use the various trucks in combination with one another to push through deep snow and mud.

In Hardspace, players meticulously cut apart ships according to strict procedures to avoid an “industrial accident” (read: a catastrophic explosion).

But in both games, you are alone. The only external threats come from the environment — and really from screwing up your job. This is not like other man-versus-environment games like survival sims, however. Instead, the experience is much more familiar.

Survival sims provide a sandbox for a world without jobs. Blue-collar games are playgrounds for recontextualizing our relationship to the jobs we have.

Meaningful mistakes

The most important way that work sims act as a analogue to real jobs is through mistakes.

These games are about fighting against physics and fending off the urge to take shortcuts. The environment is pushing against you or holding you back, and that can make you impatient. When I play these games, I start looking for ways to make up time. Like if I can get these next few cuts done before the shift ends, I’ll make a profit for the day — or maybe I’ll rush through the cuts without depressurizing the hull and cause a nuclear meltdown in microgravity.

Mistakes in these games are often mundane. Nothing is scintillating about a truck that is stuck in mud. But the magic of SnowRunner is that it lets you decide the fail state. Your character isn’t going to die if a truck gets stuck, so you can decide to keep pushing forward regardless of how difficult that becomes.

Of course, you could magically recall the vehicle back to your depot, but the game wants players to figure out how to get the truck moving again.

I always get myself into impossible situations in SnowRunner, but I also always want to work my way out of them as well. That’s true even when the process of pulling a truck free can take hours. That journey makes mistakes feel meaningful.

After all, we live without mistakes in life and at work.

Other games aren’t really like this. I appreciate games that treat failure as an opportunity to learn. Hades was one of my favorite games of the year, and I love games like Sekiro. But those games treat punishment as a return to zero or to a checkpoint. And while I like applying what I learned from my last death to a new, fresh run, work sims emulate what it’s like when you have to continue dealing with the baggage of your previous choices.

Other kinds of games are, rightfully, wary about making players feel the sting of a mistake, and this is exactly why I like games like SnowRunner. It gives me the chance to practice and play with perseverance. And this isn’t simply perseverance in the face of an insurmountable foe — it’s perseverance in the face of my own failures.

And I needed that in 2020. Really, I need everything that these games provide. After spending a year hiding from the outside world, I need to feel the realistic physics of moving through outside spaces. I need to see the tires deform the terrain in SnowRunner, and I need the zen act of peeling apart a space vessel in Hardspace.

But most of all, I needed a reminder that mistakes are not the end. I can carry them with me and still find ways to succeed.

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