The Anthropology of Farming Simulator – SAPIENS

“I hate when I have to harvest at night,” my husband complained the other day. Lately, he has been trying to maximize his harvests so he can improve his combine harvester.

But he’s not a farmer. He’s a practicing lawyer. He said this from his computer as he flipped between a video game and a YouTube video of someone talking about playing the same video game.

This game is farming simulator. Rush hour, up to 90,000 players are active at the same time. On YouTube, Farming Simulator fans upload gameplay videos, tutorials, and even feedback from real farmers watching the game. And Farming Simulator is not alone: FarmVille, Sim Farm and many other games simulate farming and rural life with different levels of realism. Most players who speculate on grain prices, buy fancy tractors, and rush to harvest the fields before they go bad aren’t real-life farmers.

As an archaeologist who studies food, I’m fascinated by farming simulations. Around the world, the proportion of people earning a living as farmers is lower than at any time since agriculture became widespread. In 2020, farmers represented only 1.4% American jobs. At a time when few people in industrialized countries are likely to know anyone who is actually a farmer, millions of people have built virtual farms.

Why? What do people like my husband, who lives in a city and works every day in an office, find so much fun plowing fake fields and tending to pixels representing wheat or sheep? And what does the popularity of this game reveal about the deep history of farming and the role of farming in people’s lives today?


For most of human history, everyone was a forager. Foragers hunt, gather plants, fish, and collect other resources in their natural habitats. Many foraging societies reshape the landscapes where they live, for example by use fire maintain forests rich in desirable food resources. Generally, however, they do not reshape plant or animal species by intentionally selecting for different characteristics that make them more delicious, more manageable, or able to survive outside of their natural habitats. This process, called domestication, was invented independently by people living in different parts of the world, about 12,000 years ago.

My research in the transition from early domestication to a way of life supported primarily by the cultivation of domesticated plants and the raising of domesticated animals – in other words, agriculture – focuses on what happened, albeit differently, in places like Mexico, China, Turkey and the United States. Around 5,000 years ago, farming had become a common approach to earning a living around the world.

About Keneth T. Graves

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