Most days find Chris Carlo behind the wheel of a Kenworth T680 High-Roof Sleeper, pedal to the metal, logbook nearby.
Except that the freight Carlo unloads is virtual. So are the roads, and the truck.
The rig is part of “American Truck Simulator,” a computer and online game that lets players pilot an 18-wheeler down highways and city streets from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Carlo, 18, wanted to drive big rigs since sitting in a 2004 Freightliner Columbia at a truck show at age 5. But he’s autistic and says the disability affects his speech, making it impossible to hold a regular job.
Although the Ontario, Canada, teenager has his driver’s license and owns the Ford F-150 pickup truck parked in his parents’ driveway, he spends a lot of time in his bedroom, which he’s outfitted to resemble the inside of the Kenworth’s sleeper cab.
“I really enjoy it because it lets me experience my dream job, and I want to make it more authentic and realistic in whatever way I can,” Carlo wrote in an email interview.
Carlo is part of a truck-simulation game enthusiast community that numbers in the hundreds of thousands – if not more – and spans at least three continents. It includes long-haul truckers, retired drivers and people for whom playing a game is the closest they’ll ever come to steering a 40-ton semi on the open road or backing an 80-foot rig into a narrow loading dock.
It’s possible that hardcore players would take exception to using the word “pretend” to describe their pastime. Some become so adept at playing they apply their skills to landing a real-life trucking job.
A Small But Serious Gaming Niche
Gamers who play truck simulations, or sims, obsess over seemingly mundane details such as choosing a paint color for the cab of their virtual truck or which route to take to make a delivery on time. And the games can get addicting, as one Vice writer found out in 2015 when he tried one as a joke and ended up playing 30 hours straight.
Simulation games have existed for nearly as long as video games, but sims based on driving a truck didn’t appear until the early 2000s. Today, two of the most popular are “American Truck Simulator,” introduced in February, and “Euro Truck Simulator 2,” which debuted in 2013. These games – referred to as ATS and ETS2, respectively – are produced by Prague-based developer SCS Software, which gained acclaim in the late 1990s making “Deer Hunter” and “Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project.” The company’s first driving sim was “Hard Truck: 18 Wheels of Steel” in 2002.
To make the trucks in ATS and ETS2 as authentic as possible, SCS Software game designers attend trade shows such as the massive IAA 2016 European trucking industry exposition that took place in Hanover, Germany, in September. SCS Software also sends staff to truck manufacturers to collect information on new models, like their April 2016 visit to a Paccar plant in Mt. Vernon, Wash., that makes Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks.
The resulting authenticity attracts players across international markets, including Europe, North America and Brazil, according to Pavel Medek, SCS’s head of marketing. He also believes part of the appeal is the lack of violence, which makes the games appropriate for all ages. People play with family and friends, listen to internet radio through an in-game app while they play, “and of course [can] drink and drive safely,” he said.
The popularity of ATS and ETS2 has led other software developers to copy the games’ graphics and images. “[The] majority of those apps are fakes, frauds or tricks to get someone’s money,” Medek said.
In the universe of computer and online games, though, truck sims occupy a narrow niche. Far fewer people play them than other simulations, sports or first-person shooter games. ETS2 ranks 78th among simulation games by the number of people who’ve paid to play, with about 3.5 million users, according to the popular online game platform Steam. In the 10 months since ATS debuted, about 520,000 people have payed to play it on Steam. ATS also costs $19.99 to play and currently is Steam’s 99th most popular sim game.
When they’re not playing, truck-sim gamers congregate online to trade tips and watch walkthroughs, which are real-time or recorded game play that people make with voice-over narration to explain what they’re doing or to answer viewer questions.
Around 8,500 people subscribe to /r/trucksim, a Reddit subgroup devoted to swapping truck-sim accomplishments, tips and screen shots. Some hardcore truck-sim gamers connect with other players to form virtual trucking companies and compete against other teams of drivers.
Miklos Paitz started /r/trucksim in 2011 and currently co-moderates the group, a sideline from his job as a graphic designer at a printing company in Budapest, Hungary. Now 35, Paitz started playing driving games such as “Stunts” and “Test Drive” in middle school on a relative’s computer. When “18 Wheels of Steel” and the original “Euro Truck Simulator” appeared, he was hooked.
“I found the idea of simulating driving trucks with cargo and everything so fascinating, that it became one of the first games I purchased out of my allowance money,” he said.
Paitz plays 10 to 15 hours a week, generally to unwind after work. “It never fails to relax me to watch the endless highway roll past,” he said.
A Truck-Sim Broadcaster Named ‘Squirrel’
A British gamer who goes by the player handle “Squirrel,” has become something of truck-sim star since beginning to post walkthroughs of popular games over three years ago. A YouTube channel devoted to Squirrel’s truck-sim walkthroughs has 470,000 subscribers. Another 150,000 subscribers watch him on Twitch.tv, a social network for gamers. One ETS walkthrough he created in 2013 of a simulated Volvo FH16 truck pulling a 64-ton baobab tree has 1.7 million views. His 2013 ETS walkthrough of a super-size Kenworth W900L – the same truck that appeared in “Smokey and the Bandit” – has racked up 2.2 million page views.
The 40-something gamer quit his job as a software architect and consultant in 2015 after his walkthroughs became popular, and he now works full time as an online game broadcaster for truck sims and other simulation games.
The Next Best Thing to Driving in Real Life
Carlo dropped out of high school last year after repeated bullying about his condition. Since then, he’s made playing ATS a full-time endeavor.
It’s possible to play truck sims with only a computer, keyboard and single monitor, but aficionados add peripheral gaming equipment that better mimics a truck’s interior, including steering wheels, gear shifts and pedals.
Carlo’s setup consists of a Thrustmaster T500RS steering wheel, TH8A shifter gearbox and SKRS add-on 18-speed transmission knob. He configures three monitors to resemble a truck’s front and side windows, and positions two office chairs in front of them that serve as driver and passenger seats. Everything is inches away from his bed, which he assembled from Ikea furniture and refers to as his “sleeper.” The layout, he said, “gives more of a feel that I'm in a truck, not playing a game.”
When Carlo plays, he pretends to drive for Marten Transport Ltd., a 70-year-old carrier based in Mondovi, Wis. He schedules pickups and drop-offs and uses a logbook to note hours on the road, which are extensive.
“I try to live like I'm on the road as much as possible,” he said.
Carlo says his family supports his hobby, including his father, who plays flight simulators.
“Before truck sims I never really did anything,” he said. “Now [that] I have truck sims as a hobby, my life is way more interesting and better, which my family thinks is a really good thing,” he said.
He appreciates the camaraderie of other truck-sim players on /r/trucksim and the SCS Software-hosted online forum.
“The truck-sim community is supportive when it comes to how realistic I take ATS, unlike other people who just look down on me,” he said.