The video game Farming Simulator has found a loyal and niche audience in the gaming world. This isn't the cheesy Farmville game from years ago, but one emulating the real challenges of running a farm.



Players of video games have a chance to do things they'd never do in real life. And for some, that includes the joy of plowing a soybean field, baling hay or harvesting wheat. Farming Simulator is the latest of the many games with a fan base that is so big, people pay to watch other people play it. Jonathan Ahl of St. Louis Public Radio reports.

JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Harley Hand is getting ready for a day on the farm.


HARLEY HAND: Well, first, let me jump in a combine. We've got a soybean harvest, guys. We've got a big harvest, a bunch of fields that are ready to go.

AHL: He makes an adjustment to his equipment, and he's on his way.


HAND: Need to unfold the header. I guess it's - OK. Well, let's fold it up. There we go. All right. Let's roll.

AHL: That sound - it isn't a real combine, of course, because Hand isn't on a real farm. He's in front of his computer in his house in rural Hazlehurst, Ga., playing the game Farming Simulator and streaming the session online. He has more than 40,000 people following him on Facebook. Playing the game is his full-time job, with some subscribers paying $5 a month and others giving him tips while he plays. Hand says a lot of his interactions with his audience are about learning the ins and outs of farming.

HAND: It's a huge learning experience for a lot of people that come into my streams. I've got a lot of people that know nothing about farming, and they come into the stream, and they're like - oh, really? - that's how that works. And it's pretty cool.

AHL: Farming Simulator covers a lot of ground, including buying equipment, choosing crops, plowing, planting, fertilizing and harvesting, not to mention options to raise livestock.

A.K. Rahming (ph) is a gamer and writer who has reviewed Farming Simulator for the website PC Invasion. He says the game is a lot like real farming.

A K RAHMING: The monotony, the tediousness, the length of time that it takes to plow a field in Farming Sim, it does give you an appreciation for what real farmers have to do, I would say, from my experience.

AHL: Monotony, tediousness - not the kind of words you usually associate with something that people would do for fun. But the game's realism is a big reason why it's so popular. Some of the game's most avid fans are farmers. Ryan Kuster farms in southwestern Wisconsin.

RYAN KUSTER: Now, I can see why people love this game. Basically, it's just kind of your own little world where you can plant anything and everything you want. I think this would be actually really useful, like, for designing farm layouts even.

AHL: Kuster says it's real, but not too real. There's no droughts or floods or insect infestations.

Shelbey Walker is an agricultural communications researcher at the University of Hawaii - Manoa. She studied farmers and video games and found some farmers use the game as a quintessential busman's holiday. They drive a real tractor all day and unwind by driving a virtual one at night.

SHELBEY WALKER: The conditions aren't always perfect. But within the game, the conditions are always perfect. So it's almost like this fantasy. It's - I get to do things in the digital realm that I don't get to do in real life.

AHL: Walker says the game also attracts people like her who may not be farmers but feel connected to agriculture because they grew up in rural areas or were in 4-H.

In addition to streamers like Hand, there's another outlet for rabid Farming Simulator fans, an esports league. Its 2021 Farming Simulator season will end in November with a tournament in Hanover, Germany. The top prize is $100,000, more than many real farmers make in a year.

For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl.