Your Car

Can racing games make you a better driver?

Before we begin, I’d like to ask you a question. Do you think the skills we acquire in racing games (or ‘simulations’) such as Gran Turismo or Forza can translate across into real-world driving? A few years ago I probably would have answered this question with a firm No, but following recent experiences my opinion on the subject has swayed.

I think virtual driving skills do translate into the real-world, and here’s why.

During my teenage years and into my early 20’s I played a lot of games (and I mean a lot) with my favourite titles being racing games. I began with Poll Position on the Commodore 64 back in the late 1980’s, before moving on to Virtua Racing and Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Top Gear Rally, and the Gran Turismo series – with each providing their own take on the concept of ‘racing’ and providing varying degrees of realism. Yes, some of those games are actually not very realistic at all (and you’d hardly call some of them ‘simulations’) but even games like Daytona USA are still able to teach you the concept of taking racing lines through corners, slip-streaming and what a car will generally do if you take a corner too fast. But there’s one other game which taught me more than all of the above titles put together.

Live for Speed was responsible for introducing me to a great many things – with the most important relating to the aspect of car setup. Changes to spring and damper rates, tyre pressures, plus wheel alignment and camber settings all had a tangible impact on how your car would perform, and it was through an understanding of these settings that you could optimise the handling of your car and get the edge on your competitors. I’m not just talking AI competitors, either – LFS had a strong community and an excellent online multi-player mode to match. It was the first game I ever played online and there’d be races available almost any time of the day or night, so I’d often jump online after my classes were done for the day and go racing. Through the game, I met a brilliant bunch of fellow Australians and we’d often organise racing nights during the week, consisting of single events, championships and even drifting competitions – with the latter being the most interesting to me.

For a bit of a laugh, I applied a Takumi Fujiwara Toyota 86 Trueno livery to my low-powered RWD car and began practising how to best drift the in-game circuits. Despite being virtual, all real-life drifting techniques were simulated properly – including Power Over, Hand Brake, Clutch Kick, Shift Lock, Dirt Drop, Feint, Jump, Braking, Kansei, and the Scandinavian flick. These were all techniques that I began to learn and put to use, even though I had no idea what they were called. For me, I was just looking for ways to keep my under-powered car sliding sideways for as long as possible. While it would have been easier to drift with some of the other higher-powered cars available, there was something challenging and fun about using the slower car, as it forced me to refine my techniques and the car setup in order to get the very best out of it.

For a while, my in-game focus moved to Live for Speed’s ‘Blackwood Carpark’ map, which was pretty much what it sounds like – a big car park style space where you could place objects like cones and barriers, and create your own track layouts. This provided an amazing opportunity to create figure-8 style layouts and drift around them, or more complex drift circuits like the one in the video above. I spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours racing and drifting against human competitors in Live for Speed’s virtual world, but a question still remained in the back of my mind – could any of the skills I learnt in-game actually be applied, or be helpful in any way to race or drift a car in real life? It was difficult to tell.

The real-life car I owned at the time, a Nissan Skyline R34 GT-Turbo, may have been reasonably sporty and handled well through corners, but there was only so much I could discover about my car control skills while I was driving on the street. My knowledge of coaxing a vehicle into a power oversteer or drift situation remained limited, with most of them occurring by accident when I applied too much throttle on a wet roundabout – where my instincts would tell me to back off immediately to regain grip and bring the car back under control. The long arm of the law, public safety and road-side obstacles like gutters and trees meant that there was simply too much to lose if I got things wrong – and I loved my car far too much to risk damaging it. But perhaps the skills I learnt racing online helped me deal with those ‘oh-shit’ situations in some way? I wouldn’t find the answer out until a few years later..

After working in the tyre industry for a few years, I was lucky enough to be offered a spot in a drift school program run by a local driver training company which we sponsored at the time – Safe Drive Training. SDT ran the session as an introduction to drifting, where they’d teach participants how to drift a nearly-stock Toyota 86, and also a drift-prepped Nissan 200sx around a wide open car park space. I leapt at the chance, as I figured it’d be an interesting way to see if my virtual skills would give me an advantage over other participants on the day. As it turns out, I was in for a rude shock!

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The first session of the day involved attempting to perform a handbrake drift in the 200sx – by turning into a corner, pushing in the clutch and pulling the handbrake briefly, before applying power and opposite steering lock as the car stepped out. This was something I’d done hundreds of times in a virtual environment, but I can safely say I was one of the worst people on the day. While I found the timing of the handbrake pull to be tricky, what I struggled with the most was applying opposite steering lock. After the handbrake is pulled and the rear of the car steps out, the instructor advised me to let go of the steering wheel briefly and allow it to quickly spin around to opposite lock all by itself – but this was something I’d never done, and the idea of letting go of the wheel felt completely foreign.

On the first attempt, I held onto the wheel and attempted to apply opposite lock manually (which I couldn’t do fast enough) and spun out. On the second, I let go of the wheel successfully, but grabbed it again too late, and applied too much throttle, resulting once again in a spin. It was a frustrating start to the session. I knew damn well what I had to do, but I was struggling to make it happen. In hindsight, I realised that perhaps I was struggling with was “the controls”.

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I had a few small wins in the sessions which followed, as I got used to the two cars and felt more comfortable with the way they handled. The 86 was under-powered but very light and forgiving, while the 200sx was loud, rough, and a bit of a bitch. I nailed a succession of 180° handbrake drifts in the 86, and also managed to initiate a drift in the 200sx by performing a Scandinavian flick. By my own admission, I was moving up through the group but there were still plenty of people who were better. It wasn’t until the final two sessions where I’d get the confirmation I was looking for…

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In the second-last session for the day, the instructors had placed two cones roughly 10 metres apart told us to drift around them in a figure-of-8 arrangement driving the Toyota 86 – by pulling the handbrake to initiate the drift around each cone. Since I felt quite comfortable in the 86 by that point, I had no trouble pulling the handbrake, allowing the steering wheel to spin to opposite lock, and then apply just the right amount of power to send the car drifting around the cone, and then repeating the process again and again. But then something amazing happened – I stopped using the handbrake to drift altogether. What I’d actually started doing instead, was using the weight-shift from the previous drift to make the tail of the car swing across to the opposite side, and ready to drift around the next cone.

Put simply, if you’re drifting a car in one direction with opposite lock applied, suddenly lifting off the accelerator will cause the tyres to regain grip, and send it sliding in the opposite direction. All I had to do then is let go of the steering wheel so it could spin around to the opposite side, and apply enough throttle to drift around the next cone, and repeat. It was a technique which wasn’t taught on the day, but was something I had performed thousands of times in the virtual arena – and it felt damn good to do it in reality.

In my eyes, this was already enough to prove that at least some of the skills I’d learnt in racing simulations can translate into real-world driving, but something even better was about to happen.

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The final session of the day involved an even larger figure-of-8 layout, roughly 40 metres from end to end, with the turns at each end having a radius of approximately 5 metres – meaning you had to enter them at a much higher speed in order to maintain the drift. I was nervous because most of the people who tackled it before me struggled, and even worse was the fact that I had to do it in the drift-spec 200sx, which had not been kind to me in the previous sessions.

In order to begin, we were instructed to perform a handbrake entry into the first turn to initiate the drift, then attempt to keep the car drifting around the entire course, by flicking the car from one turn into the next. It was essentially what I’d achieved in the prior session in the 86, using the weight shift of the car to change the drift direction – only on a larger scale and at a much higher speed. On the first attempt, I pulled the handbrake too long, applied too much throttle and spun the car. Business as usual, I thought to myself, as I rolled my eyes – but then something amazing happened.

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On the second attempt, I nailed it. I successfully coaxed the 200sx into a full-bore smoking drift around the first half of the figure-8 track and kept the rear end out until I reached the middle of the course. When the time was right I lifted off the throttle to let the tyres regain grip, sending the car sliding in the opposite direction into the next turn. I let go of the steering wheel to allow it to spin to the opposite lock, then regained control and applied the throttle again to begin drifting the opposite direction.

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As luck (or skill?) would have it, I nailed the second turn as well and managed to drift around the entire track. Twice. While I might sound more than a little proud of myself here, it must be noted that I was the only participant on the day who managed to link at least two turns together in one big drift – with most of the others either spinning out after the first turn, or as they tried to enter turn two. I’d gone from the very bottom of the class, straight to the top – and in my eyes there’s only one reason why that happened. I’d actually drifted a figure-8 track like this many times before – it just wasn’t a real one.

It was on that attempt where I felt something in my mind suddenly click. In an instant, the 200sx went from being difficult and unwieldy, to feeling natural and more in sync with my movements. Rather than thinking in detail about what I needed to do – the handbrake, the steering, the throttle – I began using them all together in unison, as if it were second-nature. I’d mastered the controls, and all of the skills and techniques I’d learnt in the virtual world were spilling out into the real world. Sure – it wasn’t a completely perfect run and I definitely wasn’t about to go and win any drift competitions – but the fact of the matter is I managed to drift the figure-8 course twice without stopping, while no-one else was able to get anywhere near that. And you’ve got to ask yourself, why?

In my mind, there was only one reason. And that is all of the time I’d spent racing online in Live for Speed actually did count for something. Through the game, I was able to learn the art of how a car handles on the limit, and beyond it. But critically, there are a few things it can’t teach you – and that’s the way the car feels as it begins to lose traction, and how the g-forces act on your body as the car flicks from one direction to the next. There’s also the way the steering wheel reacts and moves around in different situations and even the matter of where you need your eyes to be looking at any given moment. You can’t learn any of that while sitting at your computer – even if you have one of those fancy force-feedback steering wheels clamped to your desk.

I think it is important to remember that the game or simulation you’re playing will also have an impact on how much you can actually learn about car control. The realism of the physics in a simulation like Live for Speed no doubt played a big part in helping me understand how a car would behave in the real-world once I’d initiated a drift, but if I’d spent all my time playing a slightly less realistic driving game, like Gran Turismo or Forza, I’m not so sure if they would have been anywhere near as helpful. The type of controller will also have some bearing on this, with a force-feedback steering wheel obviously being far more helpful than a regular game controller.

But there’s good news. Once you’ve learnt everything you possibly can about car control, racing or drifting in a virtual environment of the game of your choice, chances are you’ll need less training in the real-world compared to someone with no experience at all.

So get to it!

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1 comment

drivethebest October 22, 2016 at 6:48 pm

Really interesting article. As someone who also plays simulation type racing games, I too think they help and are under-utilised as a way of helping people in the initial stages of driving. Force-feedback steering wheels can give you a very basic understanding of over-steer and under-steer in some of the more realistic games, even if the experience is rather primitive. I’m surprised learner driver schools don’t use simulators more often for learners before they get out on the road. You’d think it would help them and be a safer way of learning basic road rules.

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