Space Sim Fans: Key Epiphanies

Earlier this year I made an autoethnographic research pitch. I wanted to investigate the culture of fans of the video game genre space sims – or games in which a predominant part of the gameplay was concerned with the simulation of piloting various space ships. These games typically consist of a large, open world with sandbox gameplay, where the player is free to pursue their own goals. The goal of autoethnography is to “describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience” (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2010). The bulk of my research consisted of observing my field network, a map I had made of the digital abodes of space sim fans, consisting of various field sites, from Reddit forums to YouTube channels and Discord servers. My plan was to observe this network and document (through screenshots and notes) key, recurring sentiments and compare them to my own experiences and epiphanies while being a fan of space sim games myself. On top of this I would also document comments I felt were particularly poignant or epiphanous on their own. I could then apply the knowledge gained from cataloguing these epiphanies to my ongoing digital media project: Twitter content creation for an in-development space sim game. I would craft a persona to match the culture of space sim fans, and develop content to appeal to them directly.

My field network.

Sentiments

My primary source of data were subreddits such as /r/spacesimgames and /r/truegaming. While the former was underpopulated and thus slow to observe, I utilised Google search terms to find particularly useful threads. I also observed many subreddits for specific games, such as /r/starfield and /r/starcitizen. Despite the fact that some of the threads I discovered were up to a decade old, I found that key sentiments had not changed much in that time, and were still relevant to my research.

The following sentiments I have documented and used to glean useful epiphanies, which I have listed at the bottom of this post.

Immersion

The most common sentiment I observed was that space sim fans wanted to be immersed in a vibrant, living universe; to feel like an insignificant cog in the wheel. This related to immersion but also to quality worldbuilding and game design. Jennet et al. (2008) “argue that immersion is experienced in one moment in time” and “involves a lack of awareness of time, a loss of awareness of the real world, involvement and a sense of being in the task environment.” Weibel and Wissmath (2011) describe two distinct concepts: spatial presence and flow: “whereas flow can be defined as immersion or involvement in an activity (i.e., the gaming action), presence rather refers to a sense of spatial immersion in a mediated environment.” Space sim fans appear to be seeking both the satisfaction of entering a flow state as well as the experience of spatial presence, but the latter seems more important based on the comments below. While these concepts are not unique to the space sim genre, they are nether the less core components, especially considering that space sims like Elite (1984) were some of the first open-world games offering the immersive experience that has since spawned titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Breath of the Wild.

An epiphanous comment from a deleted /r/spacesimgames user.

Below are a selection of relevant comments from anonymous users on my field sites:

  • “The thing that matters most to me, far and away from everything else, is immersion.”
  • “[I enjoy] The living universe feel that some sims provide.”
  • “[I want to see]  A big 3D sandbox galaxy/universe where commerce and conflict goes on with or without me.”
  • “As with all Sim genre games, enrichment is found in the details.”
  • “[I don’t enjoy] When the game evolves arund (sic) the player being some sort of galaxy saving hero. Let me be a small part of what happens, and MAYBE change the course of history.”
  • a vibrant universe is critical

Freedom/Exploration

While concepts of freedom or player agency are related to immersion, there were enough distinct comments about this element of what drives space sim fans that I felt the need to categorise it separately. At any rate, the idea of having a gigantic, simulated galaxy at a players disposal, with any variety of goals to achieve within, appears to be a core value that space sim fans seek. Open-world games in general give players the freedom to express themselves themselves, “free to explore what amounts to an enormous sandbox with no boundaries and few rules” (Muncy, 2015). Beautiful simulated views, such as nebulous backdrops or planetary rings were also important.

Relevant comments:

  • “Exploration and freedom to make any decision I want [is an aspect of space sims that I find enjoyable]”
  • “[I am looking for] A sense of wonder and exploration.”
  • “[I enjoy] Exploration, and the views modern space sims afford.”
  • “[I like] When the game gives you complete freedom to go wherever you want (similar like a TES game (Skyrim, Oblivion, etc))”

Narrative

While space sim fans are primarily looking for a deep and engaging sandbox experience, I observed many comments relating a desire for a deep, engrossing narrative to follow. Some commenters stressed that they wanted both options in their ideal game. A strong sentiment was that space sim fans “miss” a good story; or that space sim titles with compelling narratives haven’t existed since the early 2000s.

  • “I don’t understand why so many space sims have to be RPG Sandboxes where you “make your own story”. Give me a god damned story and campaign, that doesn’t stop me from necessarily following a career path of my choice and whether I want to be a pirate or not. Games that drive you to explore through urgency, and introduce the various “jobs” organically, are more fun.”
  • “I would love if there was a game like [Elite] combined with Skyrim. Have a main quest line with scripted story events you can follow, but you don’t need to. And have “random” side quest/jobs placed in the universe.”
  • “[I would love a space sim with] bioware/elderscrolls/witcher rpg level of story”
  • “Really craving a single player space fighting game with a good story. Games like Everspace are ok but not really scratching that itch. “

Physics Debate

The key debate of the space sim fan ethnography is that of Newtonian physics systems versus non-Newtonian physics systems. In short, “Newtonian physics” refers to Newton’s first law of motion, which states that an object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force“. In space sims, this refers to ship handling and control, as well as an unlimited top speed. There appears to be a small but very loud minority who only consider playing space sims with Newtonian physics, with the bulk of the ethnography preferring non-Newtonian physics systems as easier to control. A further minority consider Newtonian physics “unplayable”; or as not belonging in a video game.

  • “By and large, Newtonian physics is never implemented well. It seems over the last few years we’ve been inundated with developers who have taken a “normal” space sim, slapped Newtonian physics on it, and think it makes their game “hard core” or “high skill ceiling” or some other bullshit that they use to dismiss a need to actually design proper mechanics around the kinds of speeds and motions you’re going to hit using Newtonian physics.”
  • “I like both types of physics. If it came down to it though, think I prefer non-Newtonian. I like realism and all that, but some things I’m happy to be left to science fiction!”
  • “I don’t really care if it follows newtonian physics or whether it’s world war 2 dogfights in space.”
  • “I have yet to see a game that makes highly-Newtonian physics fun in a dogfight. “
  • “Newtonian is preferable.”
  • “Unless a game is very specifically designed completely around Newtonian physics/gameplay, it doesn’t need it.”
  • “Why not Newtonian Physics? Because they would be unplayable. Newtonian-esque physics, with a velocity ceiling would be great, and that’s what we’re getting [in Starfield].”

Grinding

Another common sentiment was the universal dislike of “grinding”, or “playing time spent doing repetitive tasks within a game to unlock a particular game item or to build the experience needed to progress smoothly through the game.” While space sim fans appreciated having gated experiences to unlock (such as the possibility of obtaining bigger or better ships to pilot) as they represent goals to strive for, the need to perform repetitive, boring tasks to achieve them was despised.

  • “[I don’t enjoy] Slow slogs and grinds doing things that aren’t fun.”
  • “Grinding. Grinding is not content. Full stop.”
  • “There’s the whole galaxy at ones disposal and absolutely nothing worthwile (sic) to do there. It’s just grinding, grinding and more grinding.”

Fantasy & Escapism

While this sentiment again relates to immersion, and the desire to be “lost” in a vibrant, living universe, it was a common enough occurrence that I created a distinct category. Rick Lane (2021) writing for Bit-Gamer quite accurately observes that “Space sims epitomise the wish-fulfilment element of games better than any other genre. One of the first genres to tap into that innate human desire to explore, space sims allowed us to escape confines of earth and investigate the far reaches of our solar system, our galaxy, and beyond.”

  • “[I want to be] able to live that scrappy “Han solo” fantasy.”

Flow State

While it was less important than more dominant sentiments of immersion, exploration & fantasy/escapism, comments like the above are common enough to note that there is a subsection of space sim fans who most enjoy “the grind”, and particularly the trucking of cargo from location to location. Many users mentioned that they used this type of gameplay to relax and unwind.

  • “I want a space trucking game where the pay is based on the volatility of the cargo and distance you’re carrying the cargo. The fun comes from the exploration and you might engage in light combat fending off pirates after your cargo, but you’re no combat cruiser.”
  • “I want to play a game where you’re just a space trucker, and everything is designed around traveling long distances, getting from A to B, and making enough money to cover fuel and supplies.”

Personal Epiphanies

When I compare the observed sentiments to my own epiphanies and core memories as a player of space sims, I am able to back them up with an additional source of data. Core memories I have include:

  • a sense of wonder and marvel playing Homeworld, with its beautiful backdrops and music, as well as Freelancer with it’s many systems to explore, as a child. This reaffirms my observed sentiment of ‘Freedom/Exploration’.
  • I have experienced both spatial presence and flow when playing space sims and other games, particularly VR space sims such as Elite Dangerous
  • I have experienced both space sims with no story and deep, engrossing stories. I concur with the observed sentiment on ‘Narrative’.
  • I have never experienced a Newtonian physics-based sim, but find a ‘middle-ground’ approach appealing

Results

The key sentiments I found upon observation of the space sim fan ethnography were:

  • Space sim fans are looking for a sense of freedom; a drive to explore and marvel.
  • They want to be immersed in a vibrant, living universe; to feel like a small part of it.
  • Space sim fans are looking for an engrossing, rich story; not just a sandbox experience.
  • A key debate is Newtonian physics systems versus non-Newtonian physics systems. Most space sim fans can enjoy both, but tend to prefer non-realistic, arcade-like physics. This suggests they are looking for an engaging experience rather than a particularly challenging one.
  • There is a strong dislike of “grinding”: or the repetition of unappealing tasks to save up currency in order to afford something desirable
  • They are looking to fulfil a fantasy; a genre play.
  • They are looking for satisfaction of efficiency; to enter a “flow state” by continuously becoming better at performing tasks.

Application

Now that I have collected the sentiments I was looking for and used them to glean key epiphanies relating to the culture of space sim fans, I am able to apply them to my digital artefact: the official Twitter account of the video game I am involved in producing & designing (which, at this stage, I have chosen to keep anonymous). I have been posting on the Twitter account consistently throughout my research; both curated content, as well as quote tweets and replies, and developing a persona as I go. With the above bolded epiphanies serving as a backdrop which informs every post I make, I feel better equipped to appeal to and market the game to space sim fans.

References

Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2010, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 10, < http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs1101108 >.

Jennett C, Cox AL, Cairns P, Dhoparee S, Epps A, Tijs T & Walton A 2008, ‘Measuring and defining the experience of immersion in games’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 66, Issue 9, pp. 641-661, ISSN 1071-581.

Muncy, J 2015, WIRED, ‘Open-World Games Are Changing the Way We Play’, accessed 21/09/2022, < https://www.wired.com/2015/12/open-world-games-2015/ >.

Weibel, D & Wissmath, B 2011, ‘Immersion in computer games: The role of spatial presence and flow’, International Journal of Computer Games Technology vol. 2011, viewed 20/09/2022, DOI: 10.1155/2011/282345.

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2 thoughts on “Space Sim Fans: Key Epiphanies

  1. Pingback: Space Sims: Scale, Immersion & Autoethnography | Welcome to the Thunderdome

  2. Pingback: Space Sims: Scale, Immersion & Autoethnography – Game Cultures

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