Why racing games all seem the same

I mentioned F1 Championship Edition, a new racing game for PlayStation 3, a couple of posts ago and said: “Like a lot of racing games it does a terrible job of bringing you up to speed if you aren’t already a racing fan.” I’ve been thinking more about that in light of the discussion of games that seem to narrowly target an existing audience while almost willfully keeping everyone else away.

Screenshot209 I asked a colleague at work who’s a racing fan what distinguishes Formula 1 racing from NASCAR and the rest. He explained that Formula 1 is considered (by its proponents, at least) as the pinnacle of racing. It has the most technologically sophisticated cars — drivers can tweak all sorts of aspects of the car mid-course, via controls on the steering wheel essentially — if not the most exciting driving. F1 races are on street road courses, not tracks. And the F1 world looks down on NASCAR and its ilk. (Sacha Baron Cohen’s character in Talladega Nights was an F1 racer making the transition to NASCAR, hence his haughtiness.)

You would learn none of that from playing F1 Championship Edition. The instruction manual doesn’t have a page explaining what Formula 1 racing is and how it differs from other racing. Here’s the extent of the in-game explanation:

The F1 season usually runs from March to October, and comprises a series of Grand Prix weekends held every few weeks or so. they are held in locations all across the world, including the circuits in Turkey, Bahrain and China introduced in the last few years.

That’s like trying to explain the NFL to someone who knows nothing about football by saying “The NFL season runs from September to February, and comprises 16 games, a playoff, and a Super Bowl.” It doesn’t tell you anything about what the sport is, or how the league differs from other leagues of the same sport. And that’s pretty much normal for a racing video game.

A big reason that racing games all seem pretty much the same from company to company and year to year is that to the non-racing-fan gamer, real-life racing is all the same. NASCAR, Formula 1, funny cars, IRL, Le Mans — it’s all just cars driving to me. I know that’s not the case, that there are huge differences among the leagues and cars, but I don’t know what those differences are. And I’m not interested enough in real-life racing to look into it.

Racing games don’t recognize this lack of knowledge and interest among non-fans. They assume everyone picking up the game will know what Formula 1 is or what NASCAR is. But I think racing games probably attract more racing non-fans than real-life racing does, because while watching cars drive may not seem exciting to a lot of people, getting to drive at 200 mph is. Or racing games could attract more non-fans, if they realized those newbies are out there and started explaining what the game was, how the style of racing differs from others, and generally what the heck is going on.

I’ve had the same experience with the Gran Turismo games as with Virtua Fighter. I read about how great the games are, how many cars you can get and tune up, how it’s the most realistic ever blah blah blah. And then I play and it seems like any other racing game. Gran Turismo isn’t related to NASCAR, Formula 1, or any of the racing leagues. But to someone like me, who doesn’t know anything about racing or cars but still likes the idea of racing games, GT and F1 are basically the same thing: something in a code that I don’t understand that gives no help in cracking that code.

— February 26, 2007

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