Cars 101: Video games and real drivingPosted: January 16, 2012
My generation was the first to grow up with video games that could really simulate reality to a high degree. There are titles out there now that can simulate the likes of ruthless combat, dog fighting a fighter jet, and of course racing a car. Every generation after us will continue to grow up with these simulating games, and will wind up trying to use the experience they have gained in these games when it comes time to get behind the wheel for real. Many people out there do not believe such games hold any real merit in such skills as driving a car, but they would be hugely mistaken. Much can be learned from experience in realistic video games, but it is important to understand what translates into reality and what does not.
Having personally grown up playing racing games of all sorts, and now having applied myself to driving for real, I can attest to the real value of video games in helping to teach driving skills. A lot depends on what sort of games a person plays though because they will try to judge real physics similar to their experience with game physics when first starting out. This can be bad because some games are much less realistic than others. In fact a girl in my high school crashed her car trying to take a corner (at 80-90mph) without braking, just like one would do in Mario Kart, a game with very unrealistic physics. She was ok, thank goodness, but this does show how the wrong knowledge can be harmful. Because of this I am going to state, up front, that I only really see merit in simulation racing games like Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo, etc, games where the physics engine has been made as realistic as possible for the time they were sold.
In these racing simulation games one can learn most of racing theory (the racing line, passing techniques, pitting strategies, etc). They can also be used to teach someone the mindset of driving a manual transmission, what to do when a car goes into a skid, and the difference between understeer and oversteer (and how to cope with each). The best part is that such games allow them to practice these things in a completely safe environment, before they could actually hurt anyone for real. With practice, gamers will develop better and better reaction time that does translate over to driving a real car. Indeed simulative racing games can teach people “what” to do when driving a car, and I would be willing to wager a lot on a lifelong racing gamer picking up real driving a lot faster than a non gamer.
What games cannot teach someone though, is “how” to do what they want to do in a car in real life. In a video game, a player can steer from left lock to right lock with just the twitch of their thumb. In real life there is a whole technique to be learned on how to use the steering wheel, smoothly, for maximum response and control. Video games also cannot teach someone to balance the clutch right on a manual car, how to brake smoothly, and how to use the throttle smoothly, as these all require a degree of muscle memory to do properly. There is also a dynamic sensation not present in games that you get in a real car. It is often said that the best drivers drive through their seat of their pants. This is because all of the road feel, and traction sensation comes through the seat; it is where the driver will sense the amount of grip during a hard corner, or whether the car has begun to slide on a patch of ice during a storm. I cannot stress the importance of this skill enough for anyone, but especially those who have a need for speed.
Video games also do not simulate the G forces that are present in a car that is driving hard around a track. This means that actual practice is necessary before someone will even be able to perceive how to use their knowledge in practice because, during a corner, it feels like the whole world has turned sideways. For drivers on real roads, video games cannot teach the awareness skills necessary to get around without crashing into everyone either, so again, real experience is needed. However, the biggest thing that video games cannot teach people is how to deal with fear. In a game it is ok to fly into a corner way too fast and smash into every wall because you can just restart, or even rewind in Forza. In reality though, such an action would mean your death and usually harm to others as well, and in real life there is no rewind button. This can go two ways though, one where a person is more cautious because there is now a real sensation of danger present with speed, and one, like the girl in my school, where they will actually have unrealistic expectations of physics. Luckily for most racing sim gamers, there is an understanding that reality is for keeps, and real cars are to be approached differently.
I will say though, that once acclimated in a real car, all of the things learned in a racing sim will come in handy, and will likely save someone time in the learning process. My big realization came on the track in Las Vegas, while driving a Ferrari Scuderia. I started out entering the corner at the end of the main straight at around 60mph, and it felt as fast as I could possibly go. Then as I kept on going, I got better and found more and more guts until finally I was able to enter the same corner at around 90mph, a huge increase. The feeling of the car continuing to grip at that speed was beyond incredible that first time I did it, a thrill I could never even come close to in a video game. My gaming experience continues to serve me well in real cars, but it is far from everything. Video games can do a very good job at teaching drivers “what” to do, but only real experiences in a real car can teach them the “how”. So while the knowledge games can teach is valuable, there is still no substitute for actual seat time.