Racing Simulacra?

"So which is the most authentic experience for an end-user steeped in car culture? Real, made-in-Japan Type R? Or virtual, programmed-in-Japan Type-R. Each Type-R is equally enjoyable, equally wieldy, equally consistent -- and precisely fulfils the sporting intent of Honda's Type-R sub-brand. Car culture, then, is so broad, so diverse, that we might now have got to a point where actual driving, all the bum-on-seat, wind-in-hair, aphid-in-teeth, tradly, dadly stuff we were weaned on is peripheral... Who needs reality, anyway?" -- Russell Bulgin, Car Magazine, August 1998 (53)

"Such would be the successive phases of the image:      it is the reflection of a profound reality;      it masks and denatures a profound reality;      it masks the absence of a profound reality;      it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum." (Baudrillard 6)

A Personal Prehistory of Racing Sims

1 The very first racing sim I used was an arcade machine on the Gold Coast sometime during the mid-seventies. A coin-operated cabinet where a boy and his dad could stand and move a plastic steering wheel from side to side. This controlled a plastic model racing car attached to a stick. I kid you not.

2Youth was further misspent on large four-up machines, with a simple overhead view of a square-cornered, maze-like track. Each driver had a certain coloured 'car' to control round the electronic labyrinth in real time. The revolution moved into the living room, and a Hanimex TV game. Something of a poor man's Atari 2600, the driving sim was the overhead view of an endless straight track -- 'driving' was the act of jabbing a joystick left or right to avoid oncoming traffic. Addictive until the repetitive pattern of avoidance was committed to memory.

3Finally, there was an Apple II --and perhaps my first true racing sim. No overhead imagery, or even representations of cars. Just a first-person view down an imaginary winding road, as the view shuffled left or right using a knob-shaped controller.

A Coming of Age

4 Today, reputable motoring journalists dare to compare driving a Honda sports car on a Sony Playstation with driving a Honda Integra in real life, and deriving similar levels of satisfaction from each. This, mind you, on a two-generations-old, soon to be superseded piece of hardware with relatively chunky graphics hooked up to a mildly archaic television screen. Using a couple of buttons as a controller. When the immersion becomes more complete -- when graphics chips render more and more polygons at ever faster speeds, when the visual virtual is displayed on a wrap-around plasma in a real racing helmet, where control is provided by a force-feedback steering wheel in a vibrating bucket seat, what then...

5 The latest racing sim I used was at Sega World in Sydney. Eight IndyCar machines, all giant 50" screens, mechanical vibrating seats and shuddering steering wheels. The physics engines sucked. Purists would call it more of a game, and less of a sim; but I still walked away with sweaty palms, shaky legs and a moment of nausea.

6 But you ain't seen nothing yet... indeed the Nascar Silicon Motor Speedway in the USA has taken the concept to the next appropriate level -- a dozen real Nascar racers mounted on rocking. rolling motion generators in front of enormous projection screens.

And So to the Network

7 The crazies buy fibreglass tubs and strap themselves into racing seats. Jacques Villeneuve apparently learnt the layout of F1 tracks from his PC, before he scored a Formula One drive, and promptly went out and won the world championship in his second season. And the real crazies do it to each other. There are dial-in racing boards all over the USA and the racing mob have taken to the Internet in a big way. Nascar runs a league for on-line racers, who participate in a season of speedway much like that of their heroes. Indeed, the official body of V8 metal munchers in the good old USA is talking about running hybrid races -- inserting virtual images onto real races, and allowing online competitors to compete against their heroes in real time. We're a little way from that technologically -- V90 modems and Voodoo II cards may do the job for the moment, but utopian racing simulations will require Moore's Laws for a few more years yet. Nevertheless, it's way less than a single human generation since playing with a car glued to a stick was considered pretty cool.

What of It?

8 It may indeed be time to invoke the appropriate french philosopher. Whilst anecdotal evidence exists of world champions learning formula one race tracks using PC simulators, the reality is that racing sims are a simulacrum for most of us. Few of us have the opportunity, let alone the courage, to partake in the act of driving cars fast. Either on the road, on on a race track.

9 Indeed, when it can take 15 minutes to move a mile in peak hour traffic, it is tempting to suggest that the entire notion of car-culture, which this society holds dear to its heart, be moved to simulation, so that the rest of us can just get on with the job of getting from A to B as efficiently as possible. As participants, racing sims -- even driving sims -- don't exist in real life. A daily commute across the harbour bridge is, in reality, nothing like we imagine the real thing should be. Crawling, foot riding on clutch, through slow-moving traffic, is as far from the dream of freedom that the motorcar suggests as, well, as sitting in front of a Playstation or PC. In fact, the computer does more than represent a simulation of driving. It represents the new freedom.

10 The question is though, in Baudrillard's precession of simulacra, where exactly are we at? If one accepts that the reality represented by a racing sim does not exist; then does this new escapism mask the absence of a profound reality? Is the hyperreality that is the sweaty palm on plastic wheel merely a confirmation that we live in a hyperreality?

11 As he describes Disneyland, "it is no longer a question of a false representation of reality ... but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real" (12).

12 There is no escape machine for the overworked stressed young executive; there is no sports car or highway that can give you a day's respite from the pressures of consumption; there is no road to Tijuana, no Corvette summer, no Highway 66. There is no Bathurst 1000, Le Mans or Monte Carlo where men can be men and leave behind the grinding reality. There is, in fact, no escape at all -- there is only cyberspace!