It’s hard to believe, but racing video games have been with us for thirty-seven years. Here’s a look at how the games have changed — and how they’ve changed car culture.
Pole Position – 1982
The Atari arcade game Gran Trak 10 started it all in 1974, but the first game to cause a real sensation–and the one most thirty-somethings still remember–was Pole Position. The premise was simple: qualify and then race against the computer on Fuji Raceway. The physics were rudimentary, to say the least. “It felt like you were on ice half the time,” says Matthew Kato, senior associate editor for Game Informer magazine. However, Pole Position’s popularity–it was the most successful arcade game in 1983–established the racing-game genre and spawned many imitators. It also was an early pioneer of several ubiquitous racing-game elements, including a behind-the-car point of view and in-game product placement, with billboards from 7-Eleven and Dentyne lining the track.
OutRun – 1986
OutRun featured what looked like a Ferrari Testarossa convertible (Ferrari did not license it) racing through European roads with a blonde female passenger. In other words, the adolescent male id rendered in eight-bit graphics.
Mario Kart – 1992
Representing the softer side of racing games, Mario Kart traded exotic cars for go-karts, mushrooms, and a few Italian plumbers.
NASCAR Racing – 1994
Early racing games required precious little driving skill. Game designer Dave Kaemmer changed that with Indy 500 in 1989. He then followed it up with the popular series, NASCAR Racing. These PC-based titles offered more realistic physics and were thus much more difficult to play. Best represented today by the online iRacing series, simulators have never appealed to the masses due to their steep learning curve, but they maintain a loyal following that includes real racing drivers.
Need for Speed – 1994
Need For Speed featured point-to-point and circuit racing in nine sports cars, including the Ferrari 512TR, the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, and the Acura NSX. It has since spawned a multititle franchise that has evolved over time toward a more realistic driving experience, but it remains the flag bearer for “arcade style” racing games.
Grand Theft Auto – 1997
One of the video-game industry’s most controversial franchises, Grand Theft Auto has players carry out missions for a local crime syndicate and generally cause mayhem, mostly from behind the wheels of stolen cars. Recent studies have found that teens who play racing games are twice as likely to drive aggressively and get pulled over by police. “The lack of real consequences may tempt drivers to overestimate their skills and underestimate the dangers of driving real cars,” says Charlie Breindahl, who is studying car-racing games and car culture for his PhD at the University of Copenhagen. Still, the level of correlation between game play and reckless driving remains unproven. “I think the effect is small compared to the effect of being young and male in general,” Breindahl adds.
Gran Turismo – 1997
Although not as sophisticated as PC-based simulators, Gran Turismo and its main competitor, Microsoft’s Forza Motorsports, have created a new standard for realism on consoles, introducing millions of gamers to the finer points of apexing and trail-braking. These games have also paid more attention to the cars, with hundreds of carefully digitized models. “Gran Turismo really tried to bring out that love and passion for cars, that real gearhead mentality,” says Kato. In the process, they’ve created a new generation of enthusiasts and fueled the market for cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX and the Nissan GT-R, which appeared on TV screens long before they arrived at American dealers. Breindahl cautions against dismissing enthusiasts as mere gamers. “Car culture is the driver behind car-racing games,” he says. To that effect, the games have become as diverse as the real automotive world, with titles for everyone from rally fans (DiRT) to import tuners (Midnight Club).