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Big rigs and buttons: Unpacking ‘American Truck Simulator’

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Instead of studying for finals last quarter, I spent my dead week driving cargo across the Central Valley in a semi-truck. Such was “American Truck Simulator” (2016). 

Loading screen from Steam page of American Truck Simulator

Sped up to the pace of one minute per second of gameplay, a 900-mile cross-state trip can be condensed to half an hour. The possibilities for where to go within the state are mostly confined to the central median of California, from coastal San Diego to Pacific Northwest-adjacent Redding. Driving through the roads most people “pass through to get to other places,” I found myself reliving a lot of mental geographies that were familiar to me growing up. When driving through Stockton, I recognized the faint outline of the bushes alongside 99, and found a sense of “home” in the weird, empty, and semi-pixelated city-town vibes of strip malls and palm trees. Much like the excitement I feel when I meet anyone from the Central Valley, it is reaffirming to see yourself represented, even in the smallest ways. This relaxing view of the Inland Empire and Central Valley reminded me of a quiet alternate reality where the only inhabitants were motor vehicles, kind of like the entire premise of the “Cars” franchise.

YouTube comments responding to the headquarters location of Fresno, California.

The mechanics of the game are fairly simple. With a 360-degree range, dragging your mouse allows you to see the entire span of the road as well as the inside of the truck container, bed and storage closets. Guiding you is a 2000s era navigational system (with the functionality of a TomTom), which also updates you with messages as things crop up, from damage fines to passing landmarks. As you drive past new towns, you unlock new potential headquarters and delivery locations.

Too fearful to venture past W-A-S-D or up-down-left-right, I stuck to automatic mechanics, as opposed to the more complicated ones that involved gear-shifting and physical wheels and pedals. (For anyone interested in reading more about gaming set-ups, r/AmericanTruckSimulator on Reddit boasts wheels, pedals, screens and keyboards that altogether cost several hundreds of dollars.) While these mechanics go largely unused, with driving being fairly straightforward when you’re going the same speed for hundreds of miles on a stretch, they become increasingly important at the end.

Parking is hell. It is in real life, and it is in this game. Players have the choice to choose between three levels of parking, each with varying levels of experience points awarded. When playing with a friend, I truly witnessed him trying for 40 minutes to park on the third level of difficulty (and only succeeding in the 15 minutes we worked together). After enough time failing, the GPS prompts you asking if you’d like to give up on the task of parking, reaping the cash rewards but unfortunately not leveling up your cargo. These mechanics offer the most challenging aspects of gameplay, which may appeal to most but certainly do not to me.

While the features themselves might seem a bit restrictive (they are), users have come up with their own ways to add their own touch to the game, customizing the landscape to the ways they like to play. A key feature that I hadn’t quite figured out was the presence of a radio: By dragging and dropping mp3s into a folder on your computer, you can listen to the music of your choice as you cruise along California. Self-sabotaging gamers might take pleasure in making the figureless trucker suffer by crashing into other vehicles or overdrawing loans from the bank and going bankrupt. Because the game itself is limited in the violence it is able to portray, much of these mechanics need to be edited in with sensationalized screenshots and ALL CAPS TITLES!!! on video editing software. These types of players often post their “gruesome” accidents and “murders” on YouTube, to the tune of <100 views.

More relaxed gamers seem to comprise the majority of the people who play, occasionally turning on the game to drift away and allow themselves to relax mindlessly; these videos, of smooth, commentary-less driving mimic the experience of gameplay for viewers in a meditative way that, for me, is basically the same as playing. While my awkward lack of gaming skill probably disqualifies me from considering myself a safe driver (with a few speeding tickets, accidents and parking brake mishaps), I feel like I am able to exist in this game on my own terms, setting my own goals for myself and achieving what it is I want to do, except for parking. 

As one progresses, the opportunity opens up not only to purchase a truck but to become your own small businessman, hiring and managing employees on their own independent cargo deliveries. Encoded subtly in this game mechanic, especially for the completionists, is a pseudo-American Dream: to work hard, save money, and eventually run a profitable business. The game presents an all-consuming work narrative, one mimicking the often 8+ hour shifts that truck drivers have to drive to meet employer demands. This can be a bit disconcerting in thinking about how proximate to the real life profession this game proclaims to be. Users online claim to understand a “simpler,” “more relaxing” and “less hectic” life on the road. This fetishization of blue-collar labor completely masks the toll it takes on real human beings: the burden on family and communities of support, the health consequences of a difficult life on the road with high stress and little sleep, and the constant pressure of knowing these deliveries matter — that failing, crashing and being late have consequences. Much like the discomfort I have begun to feel as the child of a farmer playing games about farming, like Animal Crossing or (in antiquity) FarmVille, I think it is important to consider the potential problems of playing games that are too close to real life. Overall, though, “American Truck Simulator” is not a bad game for the price of a Subway sandwich, and you absolutely know what you’re going to get.

(Special thanks to Ron Tep for convincing me to play this game. Perhaps one day we will be good at parking.)

Contact Julie Fukunaga at juliefa ‘at’ stanford.edu.