Video games have a reputation for frenetic action, but there is a whole clasee of simulation games that fly in the face of that conventional wisdom. They don’t put you in an imaginative situation, hand you unlimited power, or raise your adrenaline by creating life-or-death conflict. They aren’t exciting. Instead, they’re intentionally repetitive simulations of mundane aspects of real life. Instead of thrills, they offer complexity, which for some gamers tiggers relaxation — and therein lies the magic.
It’s hard to explain exactly why so many players find it more fun and satisfying to drive a virtual bus route for hours than to stomp goombas or kill terrorists, but I guarantee, if you try out all of the games listed here, you’ll become dangerously addicted to at least one of ‘em.
Euro Truck Simulator 2 (2012)
This PC and MacOS trucking game is massively popular. It maintains an “overwhelmingly positive” rating on Steam, and critical reviews feature similar raves. Even though it’s been out for a decade, expansion packs are still being released. So what’s fun about hauling a truckload of air conditioners from Portugal to Lithuania? Everything! Relaxing highway driving sequences give way to sketchy urban driving, providing a kind of pace, and players get a sense of progress as they build a trucking empire from lowly roots.
Platforms: PC, Linus, MacOS
Gas Station Simulator (2021)
Have you ever wanted to run a service station in the middle of the desert? Me neither! But we both can see what it might be like with Gas Station Simulator. You’ll start off with a rundown little gas station in the middle of nowhere, and, through hard work and determination, turn it into a bigger, better gas station in the middle of nowhere. To get there, you’ll need to complete a series of repetitive tasks every day, like you would if it were an actual job. But unlike an actual job, Gas Station Simulator is well-paced, with a palpable sense of achievement and advancement built in to its narrative. (Neither experience provides health insurance.)
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Cities: Skylines (2015)
Cities: Skylines is my favourite video game of all time. In it, you build a city from scratch, dealing with all the minutia that entails, from planning sewage and electrical systems, to deciding tax rates and enacting city ordinances, to maintaining a workable industrial supply chain to transform natural resources into consumer goods. While it glosses over some details of civic planning, as a whole, Cities: Skyline is fun because of its complexity (SimCity this ain’t). Sure, it’s time consuming and tedious to create a road system free of traffic congestion, but when the goods get to the stores easily, and the people get to work with no hassle, it’s immensely satisfying.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, macOS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, Linux, Macintosh operating systems
Car Parking Simulator (2022)
This little indie game delivers exactly what it promises: The experience of parking cars. You’ll be able to park sedans, SUVs, and hatchbacks, and there’s even an unlockable Formula 1 car. And then park. Since this is a VR game, the novelty and fun comes from solving the puzzles that parking a car in a virtual space presents, and it gets pretty difficult, with later levels requiring a high degree of precision to avoid parking-related fender-benders. There’s a free-roam mode, traffic to contend with, and side-challenges to complete too. This is the best virtual reality game about parking cars on the market.
Platform: Microsoft Windows
The Political Process (2019)
Have you ever wanted to implement sound public policy on a local level by winning a city council seat within Pennsylvania’s 115th district? Finally you can. The Political Process simulates all aspects of a U.S. political career. You’ll start out running for local office in any of the US’s 3,000 counties. You’ll create a platform, garner public support, and watch the election returns come in. If you are elected, you’ll draft legislation and get it passed by caucusing with like-minded colleagues, vie for choice committee seats, and gain power until you eventually become president of the United States. This game’s “overwhelmingly positive” review aggregation on Steam is encouraging; I’m glad someone wants to understand how this stuff works.
Platform: Microsoft Windows
Like the name says, Unpacking is all about…unpacking. With simple, adorable graphics, the game tasks you with emptying cardboard boxes full of your possessions into an empty room, making it into your room by arranging everything just so. It takes a task you’ve probably done many times before and strips everything annoying about it away, leaving only the juicy, zen satisfaction of perfectly organising a space.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, macOS, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Farming Simulator 22 (2022)
Return to your agrarian roots with this comprehensive agriculture simulator. Ceaseless toil in the field can result in a burgeoning agri-empire or dustbowl-style poverty, depending on the decisions you make (and the weather.) The Farming Simulator franchise has been around since 2008, and the developers have constantly refined the gameplay, so by now it’s fully polished. Licensing agreements with farm equipment manufacturers allow you to use real-life harvesting machines, tractors, and more, and cross-platform multiplayer lets you farm with fellow hayseeds, no matter what systems they have.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, Windows, MacOS
Streamer Life Simulator (2020)
Like its inspiration YouTubers Life, Streamer Life Simulator is recursive as hell. In it, you are a person who sits around playing video games, trying to grow an audience from your streams. At the beginning of your journey, you have a wonky PC, a run-down house, a part-time job, and the dream of getting rich by playing video games. (Sound familiar?) You’ll play mini-games that spoof Counter-Strike, The Witcher, and other titles while interacting with your “fans” and keeping your feed running. I absolutely love that there are real streamers who get real views by playing Streamer Life Simulator and pretending to be streamers getting fake views.
Platforms: Android, Microsoft Windows, iOS
Workers and Resources: Soviet Republic (2019)
When I think “fun,” I think “managing the industrial supply chain of the Soviet Union.” Don’t you? The centrally planned economy of a communist empire is a perfect fit for a simulation game, because there are a lot fewer outside forces to interfere with your edicts in an autocracy. You alone will manage everything — transportation, education, industrial production, international trade, and more — and your nation will sink or swim based on your decisions. Maybe you are the comrade who can get it right, and guide a poor country to superpower status while building the workers’ paradise promised by Cold War propaganda.
Platform: Microsoft Windows
Hand Simulator (2017)
This game simulates what it is like to have hands. More specifically, it simulates what it would be like to have hands that you must control with a keyboard and mouse or VR controller. It turns out your real hands do very complicated things without you having to think about it, and it’s hilarious to try to control them consciously. Hand Simulator’s 12 levels find you piloting your impossible-to-manoeuvre meat-cudgels through simple tasks like milking a cow and playing chess. Maybe the highlight is a multiplayer wild west shootout where the winner is usually whoever manages to load the freakin’ gun first.
Platforms: Android, Microsoft Windows
Bus Simulator 21 (2021)
Bus Simulator 21 gives you the opportunity to lead the low-stakes, low-excitement life of a municipal bus driver. You can choose from 30 buses licensed from real manufacturers — from workaday rides to exotic double-deckers and e-buses — and run routes in both the U.S. and Europe. You either manage the bus system and pore over timetables, routes, and schedules, or leave the management to itself and just drive your route again and again, earning rewards for safely delivering passengers on-time. You can even customise your character to look like Ralph Kramden.
Platforms: Xbox Series X and Series S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 5
Viscera Cleanup Detail (2015)
If you’ve ever finished a battle in a gory shooter game and thought, “but who’s going to clean up this mess?” Viscera Cleanup Detail is the game for you. Unlike the rest of the games on this list, Viscera Cleanup Detail features an exotic sci-fi setting, but you won’t be exploring distant planets and fighting alien hordes. You’ll be cleaning the gore left behind from space-battles, industrial accidents, and more. Viscera Cleanup Detail gives you the satisfaction of transforming a space-station from a gooey, blood-spattered scene into a pristine showplace. Plus, you can play it in co-cop and scrub alien guts off the walls with a friend.
Platforms: macOS, Microsoft Windows
House Flipper (2018)
House Flipper is all about bringing order to chaos. It lets you buy and repair old, run-down houses. Once you’ve fixed the wiring, swept the floors, repainted the walls, and otherwise gone all Home Improvement on the place, you can sell your flipped digs for a healthy virtual profit. It’s a fun game, but I found that spending time fixing up a virtual house led to me thinking, “why aren’t I fixing up my actual house?”
Platforms: Android, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, macOS, iOS, Linux, Classic Mac OS
PowerWash Simulator (2021)
In PowerWash Simulator, you are the head of a power washing company in the town of Muckingham. Citizens hire you to wash things, you do it, then use your pay to upgrade your washing equipment, That’s pretty much it, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about the process of making dirty things clean again, like some kind of reverse Splatoon, and PowerWash Simulator scratches that simple itch so thoroughly, you might find yourself thirsting for the simple pleasures it provides.
Platform: Microsoft Windows