Can the virtual satiate the speed demon?

Games, virtual spaces, escapism and immersion are among the terms that you’ll hear a person use to describe the phenomena that are the virtual world.

Games, virtual spaces, escapism and immersion are among the terms that you’ll hear a person use to describe the phenomena that are the virtual world. We inhabit these worlds when we turn on our PlayStation, X-Box, PC consoles and even our smartphones on with the intention of playing a video game.

I make mention of the virtual world because all I see as we move forward is increasing petrol prices, more stringent laws regarding speeding and more unroadworthy drivers and vehicles making up the general populace. With a poor transport infrastructure, many of us need cars, but the general consensus is that we need to buckle down and drive more efficient vehicles that do not deplete our fossil fuels.

So what is the budding Ayrton Senna that resides in some of us to do when faced with such a dilemma? I decided to see if I could get my dose of speed from the virtual world by trying out Assetto Corsa Competizione during the lockdown period. This is a racing simulator, so I was expecting quite a bit when I downloaded it and began racing.

To determine the effectiveness of a vehicle-based game in portraying a realistic driving experience, we need to look at the different types of immersion and see whether a game can indeed give a realistic version of reality.

To immerse yourself within a digital realm is a concept whereby a person is exposed to a form of virtual reality. The first type is narrative immersion, which is when we are invested in a story such as in adventure-based games like Need for Speed, Forza Horizon 2 and even Grand Theft Auto V where you are a specific character that needs to complete a narrative to reach the game’s objective.

These types of games can never really satisfy the racing legend that we keep inside because there are no consequences to breaking the law. One can flee from the police or even ram into them and escape with relative ease. Can you imagine Gran Theft Auto V: South African city stories edition?

The world created by the developers in these games is just too fantastical, there is nothing wrong with it, in fact, it can be a great stress alleviator for some, but for the person looking for a realistic driving experience can the more controlled environment of a racing circuit be recreated digitally?

There are many other types of immersion for the user; tactical immersion allows the user to perform operations that involve skill such as in the Forza Motorsport and Assetto Corsa franchises, where the virtual vehicles’ reactions to user inputs mimic those of a real vehicle. After these actions have been completed, we feel successfully satisfied that if we were in a real vehicle that we could have handled the situation in the same manner for example. I for one felt like a driving hero while playing, a rich one at that as I sifted through my garage and drove a GT3-spec Lamborghini Huracan around the Nurburgring.

The third type is strategic immersion and is associated with a mental challenge, which while playing Assetto Corsa, I found within the car set-up menu. The game allows for the player to set their car up according to each track. This strategy-based aspect of the game allows you to pick a solution from an almost endless list of possibilities. When done correctly, it results in a balanced virtual vehicle capable of winning races.

The final type of immersion is where the user feels as if he or she is actually ‘there’. With the lights off, my view within the game set to the confines of the vehicle’s cockpit and the sound turned up, I have to say that at some points the game does present a very ‘real’ feeling. The graphics are truly impressive, however, I would need a pukka racing sim set-up for it to be fully immersive.

One of the biggest problems with these racing simulation games is perception – the games can be and are brilliant, but even on the latest consoles like the Playstation 4 the perception of speed is missing. I seriously doubt that I would be able to go through the infamous Flugplatz (‘Flying Place’) section of the Nürburgring in a BMW M4 at the sort of speeds I do in the game had I to actually go there and drive the car in person.

Therein lies the problem with these games, there is a lack of the fear that governs us when taking on the task of fast driving. The worst thing that can happen to you in a race if you crash is that you lose time to your opponents as opposed to physical injury in the real world. The real benefit of these realistic simulators has been seen during the national lockdown where professional drivers have had a chance to practice while still drastically lowering the CO2 emissions associated with global motorsport activities.

Therefore it has to be said that while these games can immerse you in a world without consequences where at times you feel like a driving god they also cannot give you the true thrill of driving. I recommend that if you really want to drive fast leave it for the real track days. You could also settle for a couch day spent playing a car/bike-based game which is a much better idea than taking to the streets, because that as we have seen time and time again, can end badly.

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