The Strangely Relaxing Charms of American Truck Simulator
I’m in a tractor trailer on the I-5, traveling through Oregon on my way to Bellingham Washington, where I’m dropping off a load of lumber. As the driver’s buffered voice outlines route information and cargo weight, the diesel engine growls. I wash dishes and pretend I’m rolling through the gentle hills too. Washington State is the latest downloadable map expansion of American Truck Simulator, a driving game set in the western U.S. where players transport goods on a specified route for money and experience points. I stumbled on a player livestreaming the game through Facebook a few months ago, and it relaxed me like a Vulcan nerve pinch. Since then, ATS has become my go-to answer to meditation apps and chamomile tea.
The gaming community has mostly sidelined simulator games as dorky and niche; moms all over the country till farms and feed fish on Facebook from their desktop computers. But games that reward strategy over skill can also be the most satisfying to watch, and it’s best to play and observe ATS with structure and patience. Czech gaming company SCS Software, which has been developing hyper-real but unfortunately-named sim games like Street Cleaning Simulator and Bus Driver for a mostly Eastern European market over the last decade, created American Truck Simulator three years ago. Thanks to streaming platforms like Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Facebook’s new hub, it’s easier than ever to jump into an obscure livestream and digitally turn on, tune in, and enjoy a peaceful long-haul evening.
ATS moves as deliberately as an 18-wheeler. Drivers track detailed maps, methodically re-route, and respond to live comments and other players in a reassuring trucker cadence. The goal here isn’t escape, it’s immersion: in the engine drone and the strobing divider lines and trees ticking past, in the full participation in an ultra-realistic game environment in which everything is nevertheless controllable and fixable. Get the load to the endpoint within X amount of time. If life were this simple, I wouldn’t need to watch ATS in the first place.
My response to the game makes sense when you look at the demographics. Driving sims appeal to kids eight to 12 and adults 35 or older with a professional or emotional tie to the trucking industry. ATS reminds me of playing in my uncle’s Atlas truck, sliding around on the heavy moving pads in the back and clambering around in the cab. I find it comforting that the game includes me as an observer in an experience that offers symmetry, familiarity and predictability.
Life is full of interesting ways to beat the stress of this crazy world: watching videos of objects being cut in perfect geometric shapes, making sand mandalas, line dancing, cupping, ASMR, goat yoga, and suspension. I found ATS by chance, but who am I to pass up a good serotonin spurt? I wonder what the next DLC map will be. Utah? Idaho? Texas? The open road awaits.