Imagine that you spend most of your day ploughing fields, sowing seeds, spraying fertilisers or pesticides, harvesting crops, feeding livestock (if you have any), repairing fences, and maintaining a half-dozen different kinds of farm machinery. You do this every day, all year, in all weather. And then, in the evening, you sit down at a computer to do it all again – virtually.
Farming Simulator is a long-running video game series played by about a million people. The game’s creator, Giants Software, estimates that as many as a quarter of its players are connected to farming in some way, and around 8-10% are full-time, professional farmers.
“There’s a type of accomplishment, to grow and build and overcome 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 in the background, like trying to manage your budget, buy the land next to you, and get new equipment that will make your operation more efficient.”
Overcoming challenges in Farming Simulator is ‘a type of accomplishment’ … Nick Welker on his 10,000 acres. Photograph: Nick Welker
For Welker, the appeal lies in the feedback loops of growth and expansion, mechanics that he has also enjoyed in games such as FarmVille and as far back as 1993’s Sim Farm. Farming Simulator is simply more detailed in its representation of the business. “Your equipment can break down. You have rising costs,” he points out. “You can harvest the same crop as before and all of a sudden it’s not worth as much as you originally thought.”
Although not vast by US standards, Welker Farms is a substantial operation, one famed for its deployment of several Big Bud tractors, which are among the largest agricultural tractors in the world. Such equipment is expensive, however, and not available to all real-world farmers. Here, Farming Simulator can fill a different kind of gap.
The simulation game allows farmers to run large operations and expensive machinery, like Big Bud tractors, out of reach for their own business. Photograph: Focus Home Interactive
“One of the main reasons I play Farming Simulator is, 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 through Farming Simulator I can do that, with a lot 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 fulfilment for those unable to afford thousands of acres of land, or the largest or most technologically advanced farming machinery.
Some farmers see games like Farming Simulator as a connection to a lifestyle that has slowly been dying out. “Used to be 100 years ago, almost everyone either lived on a farm or had very close family that farmed,” Welker says. “Now the disconnect is getting greater and greater and fewer and fewer farmers are farming the same land.”
Relaxation therapy … Sam Manning virtually recreated Coldborough Park Farm in Herefordshire for Giants Software. Photograph: Sam Manning
In the UK, both gross farm income and individual holdings have declined by 50% in the last 40 years, forcing many farmers out of the industry.
In 2005, Sam Manning was forced to leave his family’s tenant farm. In Herefordshire, Coldborough Park farm had been managed by two generations of Manning’s family, and he’d worked on the farm since the age of 13. But the BSE crisis in 1997, combined with a sudden drop in wheat prices, meant the farm went from prosperous to struggling almost overnight. “The last harvest I actually worked for free in the end ’cause my dad didn’t have wages to pay anyone,” Manning says. It still wasn’t enough, and the following season, Manning was forced to find work elsewhere. “It was sad that it had to end like that.”
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 virtually recreate Coldborough Park. “You use real-life terrain data which you can get available online, and you use a combination of that with Google Earth, and that basically gives you a very rough approximation of the terrain of a certain area,” Manning says. “It was really satisfying to place the fields and the trees and the hedges in more or less the right places and suddenly see the map coming to life.”
For Manning, Farming Simulator amounts to what he calls “relaxation therapy”, a way to restore a part of him that he feels has been missing for a long time. Today, his map is far more than a spiritual salve. Coldborough Park became one of the most popular user-made maps for Farming Simulator 15. For Farming Simulator 17, Giants Software asked him to create a version of it specifically for the game’s launch. “I’m married, I’ve got two kids, I live in an ordinary house with an ordinary job. Having a big game company come to me and ask me to make something for them, I’m quite proud of how well it’s done,” he says.
A screenshot from Farming Simulator 19, which will be released this year. Photograph: Focus Home Interactive
Coldborough Park isn’t the only farm to receive a virtual makeover. A group of modders has just finished mapping the 10,000 acres of Montana’s Welker Farms, recreating it as a free map download for Farming Simulator 17. “It’s been a long time coming, and it’s just about done, but they basically have modelled all of our buildings and our farmyard to the tee,” Welker says. The map is so lifelike that a couple of local schools have requested permission to use it in their agricultural classes. “They have computer labs set up and they’re letting kids in the agricultural department play Farming Simulator in class, to educate them about how the farming life is.”
The relationship between farmers and Farming Simulator is growing stronger. Manufacturers are already lining up to see their farm vehicles featured in-game. But with the number of farms and farmers shrinking, Welker believes Farming Simulator’s role in introducing the mechanisms of farming to the next generation to be the most valuable.
“Our world is being played by thousands if not millions of kids,” he says. “They’re doing the things that we do, and they’re getting a kick out of it.”
Watch a trailer for Farming Simulator 17