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How Going on Track in Real-Life Made me a Better Virtual Driver


The very first racing game I played that I really got into was—like so many of a certain age—Need for Speed: Underground. Now, while the cars may have vaguely reminded players of cars they saw on the streets—before you earned enough credits to slap graphics, aero, and neon lights on, yo—driving was not quite as realistic as the game developers may have wanted you to believe. Turns were floaty, contact was sparky, and nitrous could get you out of most sticky situations. In other words, the skills transfer from video game to real life, or vice versa, was essentially non-existent.


It could be a Z car…Squint…


As the game came out in 2003, technology has certainly developed in the time between now and then. Despite this, every racing game I have played since still retains the original ‘gamey’ feeling of Need for Speed, no matter how ‘realistic’ it is supposed to be. That is, at least, until I played DiRT Rally, released at the end of 2015. This game, with the rally pace notes, realistic damage, real cars, awesome physics, and amazing graphics has by far been the most realistic video game I have ever played.

I’m sure most people think the criteria for video game realism is the skills transfer from the video game to real life, much like Jeremy Clarkson tried to do in early post-2002 Top Gear with an NSX at Laguna Seca. In my experience with DiRT Rally, the opposite is proving to be true: my real-life skills are transferring to the video game. While a little different, this by no means subtracts from the impressiveness of the game.

A brief technical note is required. While the game is available on consoles, I am playing on my laptop—high graphics, no lag—using an Xbox controller. The use of a controller diminishes from the realism, but as the skills being transferred are more regarding corner tactics, and less reliant on car-feel, this restriction is a minor one.

Me on Track
My Fiesta ST and I out on track.

I recently visited my own local track—Thunderhill Raceway—for my first and second track days. While my first was a flurry of learning the rules and having a blast, my second experience was much more of a learning experience. Due to not being intimidated from being there for the first time, I was able to really focus on improving my technical skills. This meant finding my cars line, learning to stick to it, as well as other smaller things like selecting the right gear at the right time, and modulating my braking and throttle.


It was these skills, the attention to corners and car control, that transferred into DiRT Rally for me. Previously to my on-track time, I had battled, sweat, and cried my way up to a steady 3rd place in the various races I entered. Due to life becoming busy, I set the game down shortly before my first track day, roughly five weeks before. After picking the game up shortly after my second track day, I expected my five weeks of down-time to have a negative impact on my gameplay.

I could not have been more wrong: in my very first outing I led the race comfortably the entire time, finishing seven seconds above 2nd place, whereas I would normally be behind by more than 15 seconds. After wondering what had changed, I paid more attention during my second race, and I quickly figured it out: I was entering corners with much more control, better speed, and improved lines. Rather than trying to get around the corner as fast as possible, no matter what, my on-track time showed me the importance of balancing approach, apex, speed, and acceleration out of the corner is more important and will result in fast corners.

A Renault Alpine, the car I rally in the game.

To me, this is stunningly impressive: in the span of my youth, technology progressed from arcade-style racing games to simulator-status gameplay available to me anytime. The fact that I was able to take my real-world performance-driving experience, and apply it to this game shows the achievement that the studio Codemasters achieved: I could go to every racing school in the world, and chances are I wouldn’t get any better at games like Pole Position, Mario Kart, or my old-favorite Need for Speed: Underground. This real-world transfer of skills to the virtual world of DiRT, shows that the two are becoming ever closer in their physics and interactions.

The gap may be have recently been bridged even further: Codemasters recently released their newest rally-themed title, DiRT 4. Building upon DiRT Rally, the new game features improved graphics and physics for the simulator-crowd, while also adding a ‘gamer mode’ enabling easier, more forgiving controls and physics.

Dirt 4

While I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy to try it out, I still have a lot of DiRT Rally to work through before dropping the money for the new one. When I beat DiRT Rally, it will be good to know I have the next and potentially-best waiting for me.

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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