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Can the virtual satiate the speed demon?

17.01.2014

GAMES, virtual spaces, escapism and immersion are among the terms you’ll hear a person use to describe the phenomena that is the virtual world. We inhabit these worlds when we turn on our PlayStation, X-Box, Wii or PC consoles 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 people who have passed on receiving e-toll accounts, more stringent laws regarding speeding and more unroadworthy drivers and vehicles making up the general populace. With a poor transport infrastructure, we all 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 Gran Turismo 6 during the holiday period. This is a game that claims to be ‘the real driving simulator’, so I was expecting quite a bit when I popped it into my console and immersed myself into the virtual world created by Polyphony Digital.

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 you are invested in a story - such as adventure-based games like Need for SpeedForza Horizon 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 deep 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 characters would go around with rocket launchers shooting down all of the e-toll gantries or turn Nkandla into a motocross track.

The world created by the developers of these games is just too fantastical - there is nothing wrong with it and 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 or Gran Turismo 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, 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 entered events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

The third type is strategic immersion and is associated with a mental challenge, which while playing Gran Turismo, I found within the car’s 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, some of the vehicle sounds are just not up to scratch. I am in the fortunate position that I get to drive some of the vehicles featured in the game and honestly, when you compare the sounds in the game and the real thing, they are very different indeed. Forza Motorsport seems to have gotten the sounds right, but the driving physics - although more fun - are not as realistic as in Gran Turismo.

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.

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.

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- or 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.

Article written by Sean Nurse
17.01.2014
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