Harley Hand often starts his day by getting in a combine and heading out to one of his fields. But it’s not a real combine, field or farm. He is one of several people who make a living playing the game Farm Simulator and streaming the game on platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Twitch.
“First, let me jump in a combine. We have a soybean harvest, guys. We have a big harvest, a bunch of fields that are ready to go,” Hand said to start a recent three-hour live stream of Farming Simulator to an audience of more than 200 people.
Even though only 1% of Americans are currently farmers, a lot of people still identify with the agricultural lifestyle, and Farming Simulator has become another place where that community has found a home.
Hand, who isn’t a farmer but comes from a rural background, said many of his interactions with his audience are about learning the ins and outs of farming.
“It’s a huge learning experience for a lot of people who come into my streams,” he said. “I have got a lot of people who know nothing about farming, and they come into the stream, and they are like, ‘Oh, really? That’s how that works.’ And it’s pretty cool.”
A full-time job
Playing the game can be a full-time job. Harley Hand and several other streamers play the video game online almost daily with hundreds of people watching. There is also a Farming Simulator esports competition that has sponsored teams competing for cash prizes up to $250,000, a lot more than what most farmers make in a year.
And some of the game’s most avid fans are farmers.
Shelby Walker, a southern Illinois native and currently a Ph.D. candidate in agriculture communications at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, researched the intersection between farmers and video games. Her work shows some people who drive a real tractor all day will unwind by driving a virtual one.
“The conditions on a farm aren’t always perfect. But within the game, the conditions are always perfect,” Walker said. “So it’s almost like this fantasy. I get to do things in the digital realm that I didn’t get to do in real life.”
Walker, who grew up as an active member of 4-H, said the game also plays an educational role by attracting people who may not be farmers but feel connected to agriculture.
“I definitely think farmers do see the positives of this being a way for many people who are not aren’t within the industry to experience the industry,” Walker said.
Community over occupation
That sense of an agricultural community may be at the heart of Farming Simulator’s appeal.
Harley Hand said that compared to other video games, the pace of Farming Simulator allows him time to connect with his audience.
“A game like farming simulator allows you to interact with the people who are watching you a lot better than if you are playing a game like Call of Duty. So you are really building a bunch of friendships, and you begin to get to know everyone who is there,” said Hand.
That’s evidenced by hearing Hand talk to his audience about financial difficulties, the birth of a child or viewers’ accomplishments in the game.
“I hate to hear that, brother. Hopefully everything gets better for you, dude,” Hand said during a recent stream to an audience member that had lost his home to foreclosure.
A real experience
Farming Simulator, by Giants Software, was first released in 2009 and been updated about every two years. It covers a lot of ground, including buying equipment, choosing crops, plowing, planting, fertilizing and harvesting. The “career” mode has farmers try to update their equipment, buy new land and expand their farms. There is also a forestry option.
The game has been lauded for its realism. A.K. Rahmig is a gamer and writer who has reviewed Farming Simulator for the website PC Invasion.
“The monotony, the tediousness, the length of time it takes to plow a field in farming sim, it does give you an appreciation for what real farmers have to do from my experience,” Rahmig said.
Even with that realism, there is room for improvement. In his review, Rahmig calls for the next update, due out later this year, to include natural phenomenon like tornados and infestations and focus more on watering crops and irrigation.
Still, Rhamig, who lives in the Bahamas, said Farming Simulator strongly appeals to those outside of agriculture.
“We don’t have major scale farming here. You’ll never see a John Deere tractor here, right? But it’s still cool to me. It’s still cool to see machines,” Rahmig said.
Realism vs. appeal
With each update, Farming Simulator has added more features. Some of them make the game more real, like the degradation of equipment in use that came in the 2019 version.
On the other hand, modifications and options also allow people to play incompletely unrealistic ways.
“You can harvest a field with a header that is 100 meters long, which is definitely not realistic. You can also harvest while driving 60 miles per hour. Definitely not realistic,” Hand said. “But it’s a lot of fun and really fun for people to watch.”
Those kinds of options can appeal to some players, but some real farmers want more options to make it even more realistic.
“Farmers I talked to would like to see the game be more realistic as far as adding in more weather conditions and things like that, ” Walker said. “On the other hand, it’s a game.”
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