As an autistic gamer, I have over the years had a number of obsessive areas of interest which have overlapped at various times with video games. From an obsessive interest in Pokémon leading to me challenging myself to create a Living Shiny Dex, to video game adaptations of card games offering a financially safe place to engage in dack building and card collection, I have often used video games as an outlet for the part of my brain that likes to obsess over single topics for hours on end.
However, the last week or so, I’ve fallen back into one of my earliest autism obsessive interests, trains. Yes, I know, I’m a bit of an autism stereotype. I love trains as, in theory, they’re a mode of transport that moves on a fixed predictable path, taking a predictable amount of time to reach each destination, not deviating from their plan. They are a stable routine predictable mode of public transportation that rumbles just enough to be soothing white noise, and are part of a very orderly set of social rules.
The thing is, in the UK, this year has not been a good year for me to go on regular train journeys. I have not been able to ride a train in over a year, so when my obsession with trains returned recently, I had to turn to the next best thing, highly detailed train simulators.
So, this week on Access-Ability, I want to talk a little about playing simulator games as an autistic person. I’m going to talk about how they have been helpful for me during lockdown as a way to engage with an obsessive interest, but also talk about the ways that the simulator game pricing models can cause problems for some autistic players.
So, let’s start with the positives of playing simulator games as an autistic person.
Over the past week, I have been playing a huge amount of Train Simulator 2021. Despite the name, the game was actually developed back in 2009, and has basically just had updates and DLC added to it over the past 12 years. The underlying game has basically not changed since 2009, it’s visually rough in places, buggy, and doesn’t play nicely with modern PCs, but what it lacks in fidelity and polish it makes up for in detail and accuracy.
Train Simulator 2021 is a very accurate train driving simulator, where you take real time train journeys, across real world routes, in recreations of real world trains. For someone like me, whose obsessive interest in trains centres around specific train models and routes I have been on in the past, this is absolutely fantastic. I can drive a Class 450 train for example from Bournemouth to Southampton, a route I use to travel regularly, stopping at stations I grew up stopping at. I can move the camera outside the train and explore train stations I know very well, recognise tunnels and fields that show up where they should on my journey, and even control the train while sitting in passenger seating, where the seats are correctly modelled for the class of train.
In the front cabin, I can manage controlling the train using an accurate dashboard recreation that, while a little simplified in the aspects you need to interact with, in essence works the same as the real world train.
Train simulator 2021 has basically given me the ability to explore the journeys my brain is obsessing over, from the safety and comfort of my own home. The game is an accessible way to capture what I love about trains, at a time when it wouldn’t be safe for me to deal with my obsessions in person. The game has been a real obsession lifeline a year into lockdown. It has allowed me to surround myself with something familiar and routine, with myself in total control, and for someone obsessed with trains that has been just what I needed.
However, I said at the start of this video that simulator games, such as Train Simulator or Microsoft Flight Sim, can potentially cause issues for autiustic players due to their pricing and DLC structure. So, let’s talk a little about how it can be easy to spiral when it comes to spending on simulator games.
The base game of Train Simulator 2021 sells for £25, and comes with a small selection of real world trains and routes to explore. You’ve got a few routes to travel, a couple of steam trains, a couple of diesel trains, and a couple of electric trains. However, if you want to play specific routes you know from the real world, or use train models you know from the real world, those are sold at a premium, and they don’t come cheap.
The average single track and train DLC for Train Simulator 2021 costs anywhere from £15 to £35, for a single track and train added to the game. The game at this point features more than 700 DLC packs, and you can see how those prices could add up fast.
Now obviously, the intention is not that every player purchase every DLC for the game, but when the base game features the sparse amount of content that it does, it can be very tempting to add to it with content you have a personal connection with, after which it can be easy to spiral into further purchases if you’re in the middle of an obsessive episode. Adding your favourite four or five train lines to the game doesn’t feel like much, and suddenly you’ve spent nearly £150 on the base game and DLC.
Simulator games as a genre have always had a relationship with expensive DLC designed for players particularly interested in a specific niche. I get that the Bournemouth to Southampton route I love probably doesn’t sell enough copies to justify a lower price, and lovingly making niche train routes probably only works if you charge larger amounts to a smaller number of players who care about that niche piece of content, but it doesn’t change the fact that as much as I have been loving Train Simulator 2021 during this past week’s Train Obsession spell, I have spent more on it than I should have.
I will acknowledge here, the Train Simulator developers did send me some DLC codes for the game this week, which I very much do appreciate. But that didn’t stop me impulse buying DLC still. That’s how autism obsessive spells can be sometimes.
Now, to be clear, I am not comparing Simulator DLC directly to lootboxes, time saver DLC, or other predatory types of microtransactions. I don’t believe the Simulator DLC model is inherently built to be predatory, it’s one of the few game genres where I understand the necessity of the pricing structure, but what I am saying is that the kinds of people who get really into accurate simulator games are the kinds of people who have an obsessive level of interest in the subject material. This is anecdotal of course, but most of the people I have spoken to this week who are really into Train Simulator are other autistic people with an obsessive interest in trains. While it’s certainly not that game’s full audience, it’s definitely a sizable chunk of players, and that is something developers need to be aware of.
While I would wholeheartedly recommend Train Simulator 2021 to autistic players who, like me, are obsessed with real world trains and train journeys, I would suggest caution when purchasing DLC. Come to the game with a maximum spending limit in mind before you pick up the game, and try to be aware that if you go above that, you might be spending above your means. Apply caution when spending, perhaps instill a mandatory 12 hour wait before you purchase any DLC to see if the obsession persists, and keep an eye out for yourself falling into the obsessive need to complete a collection.
I understand that Simulator Games can’t really function without the expensive DLC model due to their niche nature as a genre, but they’re a potential financial trap for autistic gamers, and we need to play them carefully, lest obsession with trains step over the yellow line into obsession with buying trains.