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‘It’s impossible to play for more than 30 minutes without feeling I’m about to die’: lawn-mowing games uncut
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‘It’s impossible to play for more than 30 minutes without feeling I’m about to die’: lawn-mowing games uncut

There’s a school of thought that insists video games are purely about escapism. Where else can you pretend you’re a US Marine Force Recon (Call of Duty), a heroic eco warrior preventing a dodgy company from draining a planet’s spiritual energy (Final Fantasy), or a football manager (Football Manager) – all from the comfort of your sofa?

But the antithesis of these thrills-and-spills experiences are the so-called anti-escapist games. Farming Simulator, PowerWash Simulator, Euro Truck Simulator – these hugely successful titles challenge the whole concept of interactive entertainment as something, well, exciting. Now we have what at first glance appears the most boring of all, Lawn Mowing Simulator.

Recreating the act of trimming grass is nothing new. Advanced Lawnmower Simulator for the ZX Spectrum came free on a Your Sinclair magazine cover tape in 1988. Written as an April fool joke by writer Duncan MacDonald, it mocked all the Jet Bike, BMX and Grand Prix simulators by budget game house Codemasters. In spite of this, Advanced Lawnmower Simulator spawned legions of clones and fans and even its own rubbish games competition where people still, to this day, try to write the worst game possible on the ZX Spectrum.

Lawn Mowing Simulator, created by Liverpool-based studio Skyhook Games, is not an April fool joke. It strives for realism and has its own unique gaggle of fans. But why would you want to play a game about something you could easily do in real life? As a journalist, I had to know, so I decided to consult some experts.

Lesson one – the joy of repetition

“It’s weird that this genre not only exists, but is so popular,” explains Krist Duro, editor-in-chief of Duuro Plays, a video game reviews website based in Albania – and the first person I could find who has actually played and somewhat enjoyed Lawn Mowing Simulator. “But you need to be wired in a particular way. I like repetitive tasks because they allow me to enter into a zen-like state. But the actual simulation part needs to be good.”

Duro namechecks some other simulators I’ve thankfully never heard of: Motorcycle Mechanic 2021, Car Mechanic Simulator, Construction Simulator, Ships Simulator. “These games are huge,” says Duro. “Farming Simulator has sold 25m physical copies and has 90m downloads. PowerWash Simulator sold more than 12m on consoles. As long as the simulators remain engaging, people will show up.”

Duro reviewed the latest VR version of Lawn Mowing Simulator but wasn’t a fan. “Your brain can’t accept that you’re moving in the game while in real life you’re staying still. It made it impossible to play for more than 30 minutes without feeling like I was about to die,” he says. But otherwise, he liked it.

Lesson two – psychology

“I’m a 30-year-old man and love nothing more than spending my Friday and Saturday evenings on Euro Truck Simulator driving around Europe. I even park up at the services [in the game] and go downstairs to make myself [actual] bacon sandwiches and a coffee. No wonder I’m single.”

This was a recent confession on Fesshole, where people anonymously share their sins on X. What attracts people to such boring simulators? Is it because humans thrive on familiarity and repetition?

Euro Truck Simulator – so realistic there’s probably an eight-hour wait at DoverView image in fullscreen

“There’s no one theory,” explains cognitive psychologist Dr Celia Hodent, author of The Gamer’s Brain, speaking from Los Angeles. “Video games focus on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation makes us do something we don’t care about, like working a boring job for the reward of getting paid. Video games are an autotelic activity” – that means they are played for the pleasure of playing, I must clarify for my own benefit – “where we are motivated to accomplish uninteresting tasks because we care about the reward once the quest is accomplished.”

“Humans are intrinsically motivated when activities satisfy our need for competence (sense of progression), autonomy (self-expression and meaningful choices), and relatedness (cooperating/competing with others). While there is no definitive answer as to why people are attracted to simulators, we have multiple theories – sense of control, progression, satisfaction to earn rewards – that can give us a framework to understand.”

I feel like I need a lie-down, but remain optimistic that I’ll have at least a sporting chance of understanding some of what my next expert is talking about.

Lesson three – history

Shahid Kamal Ahmad has been making video games since 1982. He was head of Strategic Content at Sony after working for 10 years at PlayStation. Decades before that as a young programmer, he ported Jet Set Willy from the ZX Spectrum to the Commodore 64. He points out that these oddly compelling simulations of real-life activities have been part of games since the beginning – they provide what space shooters and racing sims provide: a sense of completion – just with different graphics.

“Games mean you can dispense with the boring stuff,” he says. “Uncoiling the bloody long power cable takes time. I could do without getting the extension lead from indoors. Mowing the stripes, that’s closure. It’s the same reason people like wordsearch puzzles. Remember Hover Bovver on the C64 by Jeff Minter of Llamasoft? He turned lawn mowing into a game, except it wasn’t boring. He used the satisfying mechanics of lawn mowing with an English paradigm and that’s what made it charming.”

Hover BovverView image in fullscreen

I’d forgotten about Hover Bovver, which came out in 1983 and is integral to the history of the lawn-mowing sim. Best get Jeff on the blower to find out where it all started.

“We were going to a computer exhibition in Birmingham and I was staying with my mum, dad and a friend in this posh farmhouse,” he remembers. “This place has a well-kept garden, and at breakfast – the scrambled eggs were lovely – we looked out the window and saw the gardener pushing around a mower. Me and my dad started chucking this idea around: “You could make a game about that.” “You could have stolen your neighbour’s mower.” “You could set your dog on them.” The name was a nod to Qualcast whose adverts were aimed at its rival, Flymo: ‘It’s less bovver than a hover.’ I had the whole game designed in my head before I got home. It was a change from my normal laser-spitting camels.”

Lesson four – lawnmower expert

Carl Williams from the British Lawn Mower Racing Association has raced lawnmowers for 20 years, following in his father’s footsteps, as one of the cheapest ways to get into motor racing.

Williams certainly knows his mowers – from the class three ride-on Westwood Lawn Bug, to the 12½ horsepower Honda – and now I do too. 10-lap sprints are common, but the big event is the 12-hour endurance, the lawn-mowing equivalent of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Williams is more a fan of Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and not sure how a potential lawn-mowing racing game would work.

“Racing a lawnmower relies as much on steering as you shift your body weight around to keep the machine upright,” he says. “You’d need to add the physicality of bouncing around on a machine that has no suspension on a grass track.” Perhaps some sort of After Burner-style hydraulic arcade cabinet then?

I ask Williams if he appreciates the idea of Lawn Mowing Simulator. “I hate cutting my own grass,” he admits. “But I can see that someone may find that type of game quite therapeutic.”

Lesson five – real life

With my shoddy investigation into the history of the lawnmower game almost over, I decided it was time for my own “expert” take on what it’s actually like to play Lawn Mowing Simulator.

The first thing is to choose your lawnmower – and here’s where I wish I’d listened to Williams a bit more carefully. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between the Stiga 2084, Scag Turf Tiger II or Toro Z Master 7500-D, other than they are different colours. The mowing itself looks so realistic you can almost smell the freshly cut grass. But it takes ages to mow a lawn and I gave up after about half an hour – quite impressive for me. It could definitely use some Mario Kart-style power-ups and Hover Bovver-style interactions where you very nearly accidentally run over your nextdoor neighbour’s dog.

Rich Pelley takes one out for a spin.View image in fullscreen

But is it just like the real thing? I knew I should investigate. For this, I boarded a Hayter Harrier 56 Intek Edge 2800 RMP 100dB Autodrive petrol mower. My neighbours were certainly suspicious of why I suddenly offered to mow their grass out of the blue and for no apparent reason, and also asked if they’d take my photo. Luckily, they have no dog for me to run over.

I agree with simulation-game critic Duro that “repetitive tasks allow you to enter into a zen-like state”, even though it hurt my arms and I had to keep stopping to empty the cuttings in the bin. I agree with Ahmad, my gaming historian, that “mowing the stripes is closure”. There is, like Williams, my lawnmower expert said, something therapeutic about mowing. Sadly though, I lacked the “extrinsic motivation that makes us do something we don’t care about for the reward of getting paid”, suggested by Hodent, my psychologist, because I forget to ask my neighbours for any money.

Source: theguardian.com