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Can A Real-World Car Lover Truly Dig Driving Games?

Could the road to Damascus be digital?

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I like games. I like driving. But driving games? Not so much. Not since I could actually drive, at least. But in the name of natural science and fortnightly deadlines, I’m having another crack at it. As is my remit, I’m going heavy with the hardware. With the Laird Gaming Dungeon™ now operational, a top-notch driving-sim setup should provide for empirical exposition. Before that, however, please allow me to bother you with a broader theory of games that explains why driving sims have failed to fire my pleasure neurons in adulthood…

First, the usual disclosure and disclaimers. When it comes to real-world cars and driving I am two things. The first is deeply afflicted with an unhealthy obsession with fossil-fuelled cars of a certain kind. I apologise.

The second is pathologically particular about these things. Just for starters, if it ain’t manual and naturally aspirated, forget it. Really, it also needs to be rear-wheel drive and have hydraulic rather than electric steering assist. And preferably have a flat six.

I suspect for a fair few of you, that won’t mean much. But here’s the point. If I gag on the synthetic, sanitised driving experience of most modern cars, if it’s the mind-meld of man and machine that I most prize, what are the chances I’m going to enjoy driving a virtual car in a videogame? Put another way, as the title says: can a real-world car lover truly dig driving games?

Thrustmaster’s TX is wheely good. At least it might be. I won’t know until I’ve got something to bolt it to

Then there’s the broader theory of games when it comes to driving sims. Surely an awful lot of what makes games fun is escapism. Doing things that are off the menu in real life. Like explore alien planets. Ride a dragon. Command a Roman legion. Cast a spell. Beat a zombie senseless with a stick. You get the point.

And driving? I can actually do driving. Of course, you could counter that there’s driving in games that I can’t do in the real world. Like punting a Formula One car around the streets of Monaco. That’s true. But up to now I’ve always thought driving a crap real car was a lot more fun than driving a virtual something-fancy car.

Hmmm, not ideally spaced for heel-and-toe (Disclaimer: Library photo, not to scale, footwear chosen exclusively in the interests of pedal feel, other footwear labels and pedal box vendors are available)

If you don’t drive or you’re not entirely following my thinking, try this. Whether you are a hobbyist murderer or a normal, well-adjusted soul, I dare say beating anyone senseless, much less a zombie, with a stick in real life is very likely substantially more, er, visceral than any high-tech shower of 3D-rendered violence. To the point where most of us wouldn’t want to do it at all.

That’s a cheap, tabloid example, to be sure. But it gets across the difference between doing something on some level in real life and the virtual version, no matter how spectacular. At least, that’s true with today’s technology. Let’s not go down the philosophical rabbit hole of simulations that may one day be indistinguishable from reality. Whatever reality is or, rather, will be in that context.

Bitmapped brilliance and the music of MIDI: It can only be Out Run

I should also point out that when I ask if driving games are any good, I’m not querying the realism of the simulation models. That’s an interesting issue that may well inform the outcome, not my core question.

So, that’s the background to this particular yarn. As for the motivation, it’s mostly frustration. Frustration that is, with my driving game apathy in adulthood. Before I could actually drive, I simply couldn’t get enough of them. Especially sit-down arcade driving games.

The thrill of playing Out Run as a seven or eight year old is something that I’ve probably yet to emulate as an adult. For those of a certain age, I fancy, driving games feature strongly in their mental back catalogue of arcade favourites. If even a few percentage points of that sunny, carefree fun can be recaptured, count me in.

Gaming dungeon is good to go…

With all that in mind, I’m trying to do this right. The right hardware. The right games. On the hardware side, that means a massive, immersive screen and big sounds. Cue projector-powered gaming dungeon. To that, let’s add proper driving-sim accoutrements in the form of a wheel and pedal box fitted to a driving-sim pod with a bucket seat.

Thanks to the gaming dungeon coming online and the loan of a Thrustmaster TX wheel and pedal box I’m now most of the way there. The seat pod, however, is currently proving problematical. At first I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively accessible prices. You can get something that looks decent with a proper bucket seat and support for most wheels and pedal boxes for about £250. Not pocket change, but doable if one is serious about driving games. And one hell of a lot cheaper than most aspects of real driving.

Just need a driving-sim seat…

However, it’s thus far proven tricky going on impossible to achieve the loan of a sim seat and generally my attempts to do so have not been a terribly edifying experience. But I’ll revisit this particular subject once the dust has settled and in the mean time if there are any relevant PR reps in the audience who love RPS and its readers enough to help, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

All of which just leaves the minor matter of the actual games I should be playing. I fancy a mix ranging from boyhood arcade thrills to the accessible end of the hardcore simulation spectrum.

Then again, if I can drive to the Alps, IRL…

I have several titles in mind. A spot of rFactor, some Project Cars, iRacing for some online action, maybe Dirt Rally or a Grid game for cheap thrills. But I’ve written off driving games for so long, if there’s one good thing to come out of the seat-pod sourcing saga, it’s an opportunity for you fine fellows to shove some suggestions down below along with any other observations.

It would be interesting to hear from driving game fans of all persuasions – those that do drive for fun in real life and those that don’t. I wonder if there’s a difference in terms of the kinds of driving games each group prefers?

Or do a lap of the Nurburgring for 20 Euros…

I’ll also be interested to see whether it’s arcadism or realism that scores highest for me. I can see it going either way. Maybe arcade-style larks will give me that escapism while the hardcore sims will just have me hankering for the real thing. Or perhaps more realism will be the key to unlocking that suspension of disbelief.

While you ponder all that, I’ll peruse the comments, beg borrow or steal a sim seat on pain of death and report back at an unspecified future date. In the meantime, I cannot help but note the Thrustmaster pedal box is not properly spaced for heel and toe. This has me slightly worried – about both my car-related personality disorder and the simulated driving to come. To be continued.

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Jeremy Laird

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