I've been trying to persuade PEGI to add a new warning icon to their ratings system for the past ten years. If a box came emblazoned with an anorak symbol, the potential buyer would know that "A pre-existing interest in the theme is essential for the enjoyment of this product".
Games carrying the anorak icon would include anything with "manager", "carp" or "Harry Potter" in the title (so forthcoming EA offering Harry Potter's Extreme Carp Manager would be a definite), along with all train simulators.
If you're the sort of person who can sit on a station bench reading a book and not look up when a freight train thunders past, it's highly unlikely the likes of RailWorks, Microsoft Train Simulator, Trainz and OpenBVE will ever shunt their way into your affections. There's nothing the developers can do to change this. The die has already been cast.
Parents and peers made me a train simmer long before train sims existed. Train-shaped toys and loco-filled picture-books were pressed into my pudgy hands as soon as they were strong enough to hold them. During holidays, I was taken to preserved railways and made to stand very close to pungent green dragons that oozed oil and coughed smoke.
A crucial moment in the indoctrination process occurred when I was around ten years-old. While waiting for a train from London to York, I was encouraged to buy a little pocketbook filled with thousands of five-digit numbers.
Before you sneer, scoff and recall a hundred lazy trainspotter jokes, ask yourself if hunting locos the way a twitcher hunts birds or an Afrika player hunts gnus is any more ridicule-worthy chasing a ball around a field. For that matter, is it really more senseless than spending your leisure-time moving pixels round a TV screen?
Ponder on why influential sections of the media seem to regard a love of hard-working 3000hp locomotives as the mark of a loser, while the love of decadent 1000hp automobiles is declared to be the duty of every red-blooded male.
For me, trainspotting has only positive associations. It gave my juvenile self a first taste of independent travel and fostered a couple of good friendships. Today, it remains one of the most extraordinary games I've ever played.
Imagine an unscripted, massively multiplayer odyssey that encourages exploration and rewards patience and vigilance. Eyeballing something rare or unexpected while transpotting is as satisfying, in its own peculiar way, as solving a puzzle in The Hobbit or being the last player left alive in a game of British Bulldog.
A train sim which could capture the bizarre network-trotting treasure-hunt that is trainspotting would be remarkable indeed. The closest thing we have, sadly, is a text-based loco-bashing game called Hellfire.
What train sims offer the enthusiast is the ability to time-travel. All rail fans over 21 are hopeless nostalgics, convinced that the railways of today lack the character and charm of those belonging to some personal Golden Age.
Sims like RailWorks 2 and Microsoft Train Simulator make it possible to turn back the clock, undo the vandalism of Dr. Beeching and transmuting the forlorn hulks of Barry and Berry into the proud Goliaths they once were. You can stand in the same place you stood in 2002, or 1982, or 1962, and see the same sleek stallions and grimy workhorses storming past. The sims let you grab the reins.
At first glance, the challenge of operating a loco might seem slight in comparison with that of piloting a plane or driving a race car. There's no denying there's nothing in the likes of RailWorks which is half as demanding as mastering the avionics of a Ka-50 Black Shark or snatching victory in an iRacing open-wheeler, but to dismiss the genre because of this would be a mistake.
After several years of operating simulated steam trains, I still find myself stalled on the slopes after failing to maintain boiler pressure. Having racked up hundreds of hours in the cab, I still occasionally overshoot platforms or slide past red signals, brakes screaming and teeth gritted.
Driving a train requires as much attention as overseeing a modern aeroplane - sometimes more. There is much to learn, and there are countless times when you complete a scenario and relaunch it immediately, eager to put in a better performance.
Train sims can create stress, but it's their ability to effortlessly dissipate it that I value most. Along with non-violent flight recreations, they offer the perfect way to get the smell of FPS cordite out of your nostrils and wash gobs of RPG viscera from your hair.
In between watching for signals and monitoring dials, there's plenty of time to gaze wistfully at unfurling landscapes, listen to distant church bells and blow your whistle at disappointingly unflappable sheep. Now and again, it's great to beetle through a polygonal landscape which isn't laced with hate or laden with mystery.
When the word 'escapism' is bandied around by ludologists, it's usually in connection with elaborate fantasies - the space opera, the Tolkienesque epic, the post-apocalyptic nightmare. Train simulators prove it's possible to escape by surrounding yourself with the utterly prosaic.
Not only does the Train Sim Express call at Respite Junction, Nostalgia Old Street, and Challenge Central, it also makes regular stops at Fecundity Interchange. One of the marvellous things about the four titles mentioned in this piece is they get richer every single day, thanks to the graft and craft of creative fans.
There's always a new route waiting to be explored, a new locomotive or multiple-unit sitting expectantly in the arrival road. The vast communities huddling at hubs like TrainSim.com and UKTrainSim.com have transformed their chosen sims. They've altered their gauges, taken them to new lands and times and even even adapted them for new purposes. In terms of quality, their work often rivals that of the commercial add-on brigade who are also busy enriching and extending.
So then, tempted to take to the rails? If you've never simmed before, Railworks 2 is an excellent place to start. It's prettier and friendlier than its rivals. There's no demo available but a recent promotional toy from The National Railway Museum will give you an inkling of what to expect.
Surprisingly, considering its age, Microsoft Train Simulator is not all that far behind in the looks department. It may even catch up in the near future thanks to OpenRails, a promising open-source overhaul. If you do plump for MSTS, ten years' worth of community-crafted extras mean you'll almost certainly be able to drive a local line or operate a favourite machine.
Trainz is also backed by a staggering range of free content, but unfortunately much of it is stored at the developer's own shunter-slow download station. In its favour the Aussie offering does provide superb route building facilities and endearingly extensive Thomas tributes.
Far too grown-up for anthropomorphic engines, the free OpenBVE enjoys a deserved reputation for superb cab ambience, authentic instrumentation and credible physics. Those prepared to brave installation bafflement and master complex doze-disturbing safety systems can get a peerless glimpse of what it's like to drive a modern train.
I'm tempted to wind-up this confession, rallying cry and beginner's guide with a brief introduction to the wonderful world of signalling simulations, but I fear any more wilful eccentricity may cause Eurogamer to melt or vomit locusts.
As much as I love train simming, it's not something I could ever evangelise with unfettered enthusiasm. Thrills like cold-starting a Deltic or powering across a rainy Ribblehead Viaduct in a Peppercorn A1-hauled express are conditional. Ignore the anorak symbol at your peril.