I don’t have too many memories of my driver’s education course, and what I do recall does not involve education, driving nor any combination of the two. There was an embittered amputee who warned the class about speeding, and a trucker who told us that she was “an agnostic on seatbelts” and that “a couple beers probably won’t get anyone killed” before the instructor cut her off. I spent the month-long course reading gaming magazines in the back of the room and avoiding the awkward sociability of Terry, whose black plastic “nerd glasses” misled me into thinking he might be a kindred spirit, before further conversation revealed that those glasses had more personality than the guy wearing them. By the end of the course, I was qualified to fill out a multiple choice exam at the DMV, but I didn’t actually learn any of the things that make someone a good driver. For that I had to play a lot of racing games.

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Before my insurance premiums are increased, let me explain. It’s true that racing games by definition simulate the exact type of behavior that drivers are supposed to avoid, like resisting arrest by nudging pursuing police into oncoming traffic. Even serious racing sims like Papyrus’ IndyCar Racing seem to have little relevance to someone whose primary automotive ambition was to borrow Mom’s car for a trip to the mall. That said, the driving experience I racked up on the computer was worth a great deal more than any time I spent in a classroom or out on practice drives.

When you learn to drive with an instructor or, worse, a parent riding shotgun, you’re not going to face anything really dangerous; making a left turn at a busy intersection is about as harrowing as it gets. The licensing exam doesn’t cover the truly scary stuff: other drivers’ mistakes, freak weather changes, high-speed blow-outs and the thousand other things that nobody can see coming.

In a driver’s education course, students are taught to become mindless automatons behind the wheel. My instructor obsessed over things like stopping distances, following distances and the importance of coming to a complete halt at every stop sign. The entire instructional regime is an attempt to minimize the importance of skill and technique, insisting that if everyone simply uses indicators, checks mirrors and follows at a half car-length for every 10 miles per hour of speed, we’ll be safe. This approach is in deep denial about the nature of the world.

Racing games let me explore the grisly possibilities of driving, and even encouraged me to do so. Why would so many of them include instant replay, if not to let me revel in mechanical carnage? Bad things happen all the time in a good racing game, because much of the fun comes from courting the kinds of disasters that you try to avoid in real life.

My first experience with a truly terrible car, dangerously unresponsive and slippery, came from the Porsche 356 Speedster in Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. Not having driven the real article I couldn’t say whether the game was accurate, but it felt accurate. The car had nauseating body roll, sluggish steering and brakes lifted straight out of The Flintstones. Trying to beat the game’s early challenges in a car that actively tried to kill its driver taught me more about traction and power management than I ever learned from my Toyota Camry.

In many subtle ways, a good racing game puts you in touch with all the aspects of driving that nobody ever teaches you to notice. There are myriad noises that tires make as they fight for grip, and each one communicates a different meaning to the driver. Engines have a certain sound they make when it’s time to upshift, and learning to hear that note means more time watching the road and less time staring at a tachometer. Even with only a fraction of the tactile sensations that accompany real driving, somehow these games can make you “feel” something that’s completely illusory.

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Having played plenty of racing games, I’m more attuned to real cars on real roads. The little details that sell gamers on the feeling of high speeds and living dangerously are not inventions; they’re the genuine artifact. Cars talk to their drivers, but most of the time drivers don’t have the experience or practice to understand the language. With so much sensory information stripped away, racing games can only communicate through that language. In order to succeed the player has to become fluent.

I might be overly romantic. After all, I grew up in a household where motorsports are a major part of life. On the wall next to our television my father hung a large framed photograph of Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. My mother objected, not because there was now a three-foot-wide picture of a Formula One car on her wall, but because she thought Schumacher was a cheater and therefore unfit to grace our living room. For my family, driving was about more than getting from Point A to Point B. It was a skill that people were supposed to learn, practice and perfect. To be casual or inattentive at the wheel was unconscionable, because the act of driving meant that you took responsibility for the people around you. If you were going to drive, then you had better do it right.

Racing games take that notion as their point of departure. In between car-chases and virtual Grand Prix, I discovered that reflexes were a poor substitute for carefully planning and smart decisions. I learned how easy it is to make catastrophic errors. Most importantly, my time behind the virtual wheel conditioned in me a number of hard-wired responses that have got me through nine years of driving and some horrific near-misses.

The importance of that last point dawned on me last winter, when every morning I got in my Camry and joined the long lines of salt-dusted cars heading north to Green Bay with engines cold, tires frozen and drivers bleary-eyed from too little sleep. Once the winter snows came in earnest and the temperature stayed below freezing for weeks on end, I started to notice that my northeastern Wisconsin commute was one of the most dangerous routes I’d ever traveled – videogames included.

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It never ceases to amaze me that so many of the people who live and work in this state are confounded by the weather in which they take such grim pride. Each day I would pass at least a half-dozen cars strewn across ditches and medians. Some would be half-buried in snow like dead Arctic explorers, their bodies to be recovered after the spring thaw but, for the moment, given a roadside grave marking of blaze-orange State Police tags.

Those were the good days. In blizzard conditions, things got considerably worse. The road disappeared under a gray-white slurry of snow, ice and grit, denying cars much-needed traction with the asphalt. Yet drivers around me would continue to drive at 70 miles per hour under the presumption that physics were no match for their sheer determination. They would proceed in this manner until suddenly diving into the nearest snow bank, where they would sit with bewildered expressions that asked, How on earth could an icy road could be so slippery?

On one particularly ugly day, the kind where you promise yourself that if you make it home you’ll never again be so stupid as to leave it, I came closer than I’ve ever been to a major accident. I was returning from work, following a white minivan in the right lane; the passing lane was so clogged with snow that almost nobody was using it. As we approached a gentle dogleg right-hander, the van in front of me simply lost control. Its rear end swung out to the left and it continued to slide down the highway in a sideways skid, a white wall approaching the front of my car at 30 miles per hour.

Without single conscious thought, I lifted off the gas and nudged the car into the passing lane, feeling the handling slacken as the car surfed onto the snow. I narrowly cleared the van’s tail, helped by the fact that it was now careening headlong off the highway. In my rear view I watched as the car behind me slammed into a snow bank while another barely managed to pull onto the right shoulder. That’s when my heart started to pound.

A panic reflex would have been to slam on the brakes, thereby broadsiding the van at 50 miles an hour before getting clipped from behind and possibly spun into more traffic. I knew that was a mistake without thinking, because I had made it before, back when I was trying to figure out how to drive an F1 racer in Ubisoft’s F1 Racing Simulation. In that game, hitting the brakes hardly ever solved anything, and cars loved nothing more than to slide out from under their driver’s control. Through repeated trial and error, it taught me the correct way to handle a car that was losing its grip on the road. The game was difficult, churlish and more than a little sadistic. But on an icy road in the middle of a snowstorm, it helped me avoid being caught in a high-speed pileup.

That night, I pulled into my driveway grateful. All that time pretending to be a race car driver wasn’t wasted after all.

Rob Zacny would find it ironic, but not really that funny, if he had his first car accident after writing this article. Tell him he’s just being superstitious at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.

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