by Meghan Watt
We all know that controlling a grizzled, battle-hardened marine with twenty-three weapons strapped to his back is fun. We can also agree that shuffling through office papers in a windowless cubicle from nine to five is not fun. So whose bright idea was it to combine gaming and work? And how is this terrifying combination such a success?
Look at Trauma Center. Wikipedia describes this as a “surgical simulation game.” Fascinating, right? And yet, this series has earned three titles. Harvest Moon, a farming simulation, has more than fifteen titles, not including the spin-offs. It’s a farming game for Chrissake! How does planting and managing crops appeal to gamers worldwide? That’s about as awesome as Animal Crossing‘s main objective: paying rent.
I never really questioned the success of such titles until two years ago when my boss caught me playing Phoenix Wright on my DS. He peered over my shoulder and asked what I was playing. I replied, “An attorney game. See, I’m a lawyer. And I’m defending this person right here.” At the time, I believe my defendant was a clown.
He didn’t get it. And honestly, I had no explanation. To an outsider, games like Trauma Center, Phoenix Wright, Harvest Moon and Cooking Mama don’t seem to make sense. If you’re playing as a plumber, you’re supposed to be battling spiked, fire-breathing turtle things and saving princesses, not fixing an old lady’s leaky faucet. But somewhere along the line, someone suggested that a guy just doing his job might not be a bad idea after all.
So after thorough research and lots of very hard thinking, I have deduced why these occupation simulators keep selling:
1. They’re not real.
Do not mistake these games for real simulators. Ever play Microsoft’s Flight Simulator? I strongly believe that a MFS master could expertly pilot an aircraft. Hands down. Just like in the movie Airplane… except different. However, after playing Viva Pinata, I am fairly certain that I could not successfully breed animals, much less the kind stuffed with candy.
I decided to test this theory with Trauma Center. Before your mind runs wild with gory mental images, allow me to mention that I did the experiment backwards. I made my dad, an orthopedic surgeon, try out one of the first levels of Trauma Center: Second Opinion. The magic healing goo and syringe of life didn’t really do it for him, and the operation ended in a bloody mess. Granted, my dad had only touched the Wii once (when he kicked my ass in Wii bowling), but he was at least able to confirm that Trauma Center has little to do with being a doctor.
2. It’s not work if you’re having fun.
Cooking Mama takes precision, timing, and awesome Wiimote skills. It does not require that you shop for ingredients, wait for the oven to preheat or clean the dishes. In other words, it removes the boring steps and replaces them with fun. In another experiment, Mitch forced Cooking Mama upon his cook mama, and she adored it. Not necessarily for its sim aspects, but more so because of the quick mini-games involved in slicing celery and cooking beef.
This doesn’t just go for simulators. For instance, if being a marine meant that you got to unleash thousands of bullets against alien hordes, we would all be enlisted. But Call of Duty, Gears of War, and all those other war games don’t make you wait for days on end, block off your water supply, and kill your best friend.
3. They have stories and other non-job-related elements.
Aside from Cooking Mama, each of these games have stories, complete with protagonists, growing relationships, villains, and all of those other lovely plot devices. Like every other game, you have to invest in your character, build and improve your skills and earn your victory.
For example, if you just had to look through precedents and yell “Objective!” a lot, we wouldn’t consider Phoenix Wright entertainment. But on top of defending your client, you have to deal with quirky characters, thrilling mysteries and bizarre psychic experiences. These oddities are what make Phoenix Wright a winning series.
4. The God Complex.
Playing a game that simply lives through a person’s every day life isn’t entertaining. Controlling various elements of life for your benefit, however, is astonishingly fun. This is what we call playing god.
Not all, but many of these simulators demand that you micromanage an entire society or world. You’re not just a gardener in Viva Pinata. You’re a gardener with the ability to create and manipulate life in whatever way you choose. Elephants with gym shoes and football helmets? No problem. An army of squirrels with monocles? That’s completely up to you.
This is what makes a game like The Sims work. You can put a pool table in the bathroom, make out with every woman in town or build a moat around the baby’s crib so the social worker can’t take him away. You are in control. Beautiful, beautiful control.
5. Not every job works.
Game developers have a lot of crazy ideas that somehow work, and I applaud them. Who thought you could combine Disney and Square Enix? What nutso French dude came up with rabbits with plungers? Why can a blue hedgehog run so fast?
But I also think game developers have their limits. Some jobs work as games: the entertaining, more thrilling occupations like attorney and surgeon and the micromanaging jobs like farmer, gardener, and governor. But until they come up with Accounting: Toxic Assets, I believe there are boundaries that cannot be crossed.