The Track to Enlightenment

February 9, 2016 by Todd Mitchell

5 life lessons hidden in racing games

Racing games are not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to forgive the average gamer for having little concern about the completeness of their trophy collection in Mario Kart, let alone their individual car manufacturer XP levels in Forza. Given their hyper-focused gameplay with often little or no story, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable reasons to keep it casual with racing games.

That doesn’t mean there is nothing to gain from a deeper proclivity for virtual racing. The genre has valuable wisdom to impart. What follows is a look at just a few life lessons from the track.

Lesson 1: Race the Track, Not Your Opponents

The best racing games create a sense of urgency. It’s tempting to focus on chasing the car ahead while constantly checking the rear view for anyone approaching from behind. Many of the worst mistakes are made when you’re neck and neck with one or more opponents.

You will improve your chances by looking at the track features, following the shortest lines through turns, and making the smallest deviations possible to avoid collisions with other cars. Instead of thinking of winning as beating all opponents to the finish line, the experienced racer seeks to finish a race in the shortest time. This may seem like a trivial difference, but it has a profound impact on mindset and strategy. Some modern racing series (Forza is one) totally deactivate collisions between cars in select multiplayer modes, making the race a contest of individual performances.

Applying this mindset can be immensely rewarding. It’s a competitive world and it’s natural to fixate on those around you. For best results, focus your attention on your ghost from the day before.

Lesson 2: Knowledge is Power

Few threats in racing are more dangerous than a driver who doesn’t know the track. It’s difficult to interpret a turn for the first time when approaching it in excess of 100 miles per hour. A racer who prides themselves on the ability to pick up a controller and tackle any track, sight unseen, will probably spend a lot of unnecessary time off-track completely, watching the cars go by.

A racer willing to practice a track will succeed. As with anything, expertise and achievement tend to follow study and preparation.

Lesson 3: Precision Wins Races

Many online races unfold in the same way: the pack bursts hungrily from the starting line, and aggressively jockeys for position approaching the first turn. The leaders start to ease up as they prepare to veer in another direction. This is when the frantic drivers in the middle and rear end of the group collide with the cars ahead of them, sending most of the players spilling off the track in all directions. The survivors disappear into the distance, not to be seen again.

Races aren’t won by the driver who jams the gas pedal the hardest. The best competitors advance when they can, and reel it in when they can’t, and they understand the difference.

The winning trait here is emotional control. Success requires the ability to manage excitement, frustration, and ambition on the track just as it does in careers, relationships, and driving real vehicles.

Lesson 4: Cheating is Real and Often Effective

Few gamers are as widely resented as cheaters. Most players prefer the company of a legitimately skilled opponent who talks obnoxious trash throughout a play session over a silent competitor who exploits glitches to win. Not only does cheating offend our sense of fairness by removing a level playing field, cheating in many genres (racing included) breaks our suspension of disbelief in some way, be it a violation of the in-game laws of physics or a failure to enforce a rule by which the game is played.

Despite the backlash, players cheat because it works. Racing games are often full of cheap tricks, from off-track surfaces that don’t slow cars down correctly to glitches allowing players to amass a fortune to spend on better cars and upgrades. Some exploits get fixed, a few dirty deeds earn a slap on the wrist, but most cheaters never see retribution.

This is not an endorsement for cheating; it’s an acknowledgement that it’s here to stay. It’s wise to do what is allowed, but know what is possible. Shortcuts are everywhere. If you know your stance, you can decide on a strategy for dealing with opponents who try to beat you the easy way.

Lesson 5: You Only Fail by Quitting

You can’t hold back just because you’re ahead, but it isn’t hard to keep going when you’re in the lead. The racing genre tends to see a disproportionate share of early quitters. Players experience a couple of setbacks early in a race, start to feel overwhelmed, and simply quit to go find another race. For this reason, many racing games reward players for seeing a session through to the finish line, enforcing the importance of pushing ahead when you’re losing.

Consistent performance pays off over time, especially in multi-race circuits, where a series of high-scoring finishes below first place can still win the big trophy when the points are tallied.  Even from last place, a race usually features no shortage of other people’s mistakes for you to capitalize on. Unless you let go of the wheel early, you still have a chance to win.

These are just a few of the countless lessons fans of the genre may take away from the track. Racing games excel at challenging a player’s mindset, which can result in a surprisingly personal experience. While the core gameplay may be inherently repetitious, the endless possibilities when players cross paths cause us to question our own strategies and reach important individual conclusions. Racing is fun and exciting on a casual level, but the genre has much more to offer players who keep an open mind.

Todd Mitchell is a freelance game industry journalist with more hours logged in virtual cars than real ones. Follow him @mechatodzilla.