So one of the basic things about technological change is that as new techniques come in, they make old techniques and technologies redundant. Sometimes those old techniques become the preserve of artisans or hobbyists, and sometimes they just sit in the archive. But there’s also this curious overlap, where contemporary tasks get picked up as leisure activities. If you want new clothes, the quickest and most efficient thing to do is go down to the shops – and yet people keep on sewing and knitting. If you want meat, it’s usually pretty easy to get it from the supermarket – and yet some people go out hunting. They use their leisure time to do a task that’s otherwise done more quickly and efficiently by the systems that society has put in place. That’s kinda interesting.
And – you know, obviously there are video games that fall into this category as well. There’s a genre of ‘job simulators’, if you like, where people use their leisure time to pretend that they’re at work. We’ve talked about some of these games before – things like Stardew Valley, where you pretend to run a farm, or Euro Truck Simulator, where you pretend to drive a truck round Europe. These games maybe aren’t the exact same as sewing or hunting – we could say that job simulators are about pretending to work in order to relax, while sewing and hunting are about doing actual work, but in an inefficient or maybe slightly old-fashioned way. Partly that’s about the outcomes, right – at the end of your knitting you’ve got a new cardigan, whereas at the end of Stardew Valley you’ve got two fake kids and pixel chests full of virtual mayonnaise. Even so, there’s maybe a common ground in that both activities are about finding pleasure in procedures or processes in and of themselves. People like knitting because they enjoy the process of knitting. They enjoy getting lost in the pattern of repeated movements. Similarly, people like Stardew Valley because they enjoy the process of farming or gardening (albeit in a stripped-back virtual form). They enjoy planting crops, and watering them and seeing them grow. They enjoy the process for itself, the process as divested from the demands of work and management and economic business objectives.
With that in mind, I want to turn to Rover Mechanic Simulator, which stretches this definition in some interesting ways. Firstly, it’s focused on a job that barely exists – that doesn’t exist, depending on how you look at it. In Rover Mechanic Simulator, as the title might suggest, you play a rover technician, living and working on Mars to fix up drones and robots. It’s not something that has the same nostalgia value as Stardew Valley, where you’re returning to nature and going back to simpler ways of life, outside the bustle of the city. Our strongest point of reference for Mars-based rover technicians is science fiction. It’s looking forward, rather than back – it’s about the new roles that might exist, rather than the old roles that we’re learning to treasure. And yet in terms of gameplay, it leans into the same cycles of routine and habit that characterise nostalgia-heavy games. A drone comes in, it’s one of a handful of models, you’ve maybe got some notes, and you have to figure out what’s wrong with it. You scan the individual parts, unscrew everything, make sure all the sand’s removed, 3D print any parts that need replacing, and then put it all back together. Rinse and repeat a couple dozen times until you become General of the Space Force (yes, really).
Because Rover Mechanic focuses so heavily on these routines and repeated behaviours, there’s a question about how seriously we should take the science fiction setting. Is the cycle of repeated behaviours inherently nostalgic and focused towards the past, or can it pivot towards exploring possible jobs of the future? Is the sci-fi setting offering a different spin on the job simulator genre, or is it a thinly disguised excuse to explore the same old familiar forms of labour, like sticking pictures of aliens on a mop to make janitor duty seem cool? In answering this question, there are maybe a couple other game mechanics that are worth considering. For example, the game features an upgrade system, where you can improve your skills and the time it takes to do things like unscrewing screws or air blasting the solar panels. On the one hand, these upgrades can make it quicker and easier to complete your tasks, but on the other hand – I mean, isn’t taking your time with these repetitive routines sort of the point of the game? There’s a point where you have to wonder if the game is trying to automate you out of existence.
And let’s draw a distinction here between improving efficiency and full automation, between improving and removing your job. Stardew Valley features a heap of ways of improving efficiency, and yet you never feel like you’re on the verge of being automated out of existence. For example, you can place sprinklers, which will do the job of watering your crops in the morning, saving you a bit of time. You can improve your tools so they chop or hoe quicker, again saving you a bit of time and energy. But there are still a whole range of essentially un-shorten-able things that remain part of the base experience – you still have to plant your crops yourself, you still have to hoe the ground where you want to place your seeds, you still have to say hello to your animals every morning. The efficiencies that you do create allow you to expand your operation, farming across a greater range of land with an increasing number of crops or animals, but they never obviate your role. They empower you to do more, and free you up to focus on higher-level strategy, such as the broader design and structure of your farm. In Rover Mechanic, on the other hand, the efficiencies feel invasive, carving chunks out of your routine without replacing them with anything more meaningful. Where previously you have to inspect everything yourself, one early upgrade will automatically identify any parts below a certain level of durability. The next upgrade level allows you to automatically reboot the rover at the end of your maintenance, rather than doing the mini-game to reboot it, and the next upgrade level after that automatically identifies every part of the rover regardless of its durability level. Two of the major parts of the game – the initial inspection and the reboot at the end – are entirely removed from your workflow. The other parts of the game, removing and re-assembling parts, can have their time requirements reduced by up to 90%, and 3D printing by 50%. Not only is most of your routine gutted or trivialised, the time that you’re saving doesn’t free you up for any higher-level work – there are no broader strategic decisions that you need to make. You’re a mechanic. It just means you can process a higher volume of rovers in the same amount of time, making more money for your boss while costing him the same amount in labour.
So there are probably some pretty complex things that we could pull out of that comparison. We could talk about how the perception of value is created and maintained in a workplace. We could talk about how you make people feel important and valued in their jobs, about the difference between empowerment and replacement. For now, I just want to note that the game characterises these changes as ‘upgrades’. Obviously you could argue that you don’t have to choose these upgrades, that you can avoid them, picking other options or refusing to upgrade at all – and I’d just note that even if you make those decisions, the game still describes the changes as ‘upgrades’. It presents them in a positive light, as a form of advancement and development. It frames them in a rhetoric of progress. Whether you accept those upgrades or not, the game frames you losing most of your job as ‘the way forward’. I think that speaks to the difference between Rover Mechanic and Stardew Valley. It’s maybe less about the setting, and more about the different ways in which jobs appear and disappear. Rover Mechanic is a game about having a pleasant, mundane job slip away from you. Stardew Valley is about the shift that comes with scaling up your production. In both cases, the ideas of futuristic jobs and nostalgia occupy different places in the dynamic of how your job appears and disappears. You can be living on Mars and fixing up rovers and doing all this advanced future stuff, and your job can still be automated out of existence. Not even the people fixing the robots will be safe.