"In less enlightened times, the best way to impress women was to own a hot car. But women wised up and realized it was better to buy their own hot cars so they wouldn't have to ride around with jerks."
-- Scott Adams
Much like other here-unnamed members of the site, I've never been much of a gearhead. The thought of digging into a car to change out gummy oil or retune sparkplugs excites the Manlyparts of my gray matter, no doubt. But my family's auto maintenance motto has always been “take it to the mechanic.” And so, I spent the better part of 24 years with a kind of dignified respect for our four-wheeled friends.
I considered cars to be strictly utilitarian entities: Beasts of burden whose primary role was to transport a person (or a persons) from Point A to Point Q in as efficient a time as possible, with as little loss of life as able. They had bells and whistles, to be sure – power windows, tinted glass, moon/sun/noon roofs, cassette players – but those were creature comforts meant to ease your relationship with the thing, to make bearable the time spent traveling. The outside was largely irrelevant. So confident was I in this Substance First approach that my first-year college roommate nearly threw a Chilton's manual at me when I mentioned that BMWs were “ugly, overpriced, and boxy”. (They still are.)
As with most things in life, my girlfriend was all-too eager to show me the errors of my naive ways.
I think it bears mentioning that my car experience went from an '85 Buick LeSabre to an '88 Toyota Camry to a '92 Ford Taurus and a '98 Kia Sportage - the last two being vehicles which I was road-trained in. With a pedigree like that, you may wonder why I even bothered with cars as legitimate means of transport. (Answer: mass transit in Los Angeles is a joke.) You'll forgive me if I saw the automobile as something so base and primitive.
But as I said, it was the Missus that shed a ray of light on these blind eyes. I glanced over at her desktop screen one afternoon and noticed that her wallpaper was distinctly Guy-ish. It wasn't a Hello Kitty mural, or some beefy heartthrob. It was a car.
A car? Not just any car. “It's like, the most beautiful car ever. It should be in a museum”, she gushed. I had never heard of the Audi R8 before, but her devout praise drove me to Wikipedia in an effort to educate myself.
She was right.
There was a certain something about the R8's design that I found alluring. Perhaps it was the LED “fairy lights” that dotted the imposing front grille, providing glam rocker beauty to its narrow forward lamps. It might have been the carbon fiber racing swoosh at its doors, giving its skin a textured subsurface complexity. Or perhaps it was the hefty $120,000 price tag, placing it in an eternally unreachable plane of existence.
I've made my peace with the fact that I'll spend the rest of my life in the same kind of middling econobox sedans that I once praised. As a consequence of my prior arrogance, the Auto Gods have banned me forevermore from Carhalla. (It's a very shiny place.) Barring some miracle of finance - or of the state lottery - the luxuries of fine automechanics will forever remain a gawker's delight for me. I'm a guy with an English Literature degree, after all.
One afternoon, while sliding through corners in Forza 2, I had a flash of inventiveness. I'd never be able to buy my girl an R8, but maybe it was available in Forza's gallery. Sure, we wouldn't be able to actually touch it, or sit in the thing as it growled hungrily, but e-gifting her a car is just the kind of sappy gesture she'd laugh at. Maybe.
Sure enough, the R8 was part of the game's supplementary downloadable content. Success! A couple of hundred MS points later and I was the proud owner of an R8 I could deck out in pink metallic paint.
What I failed to realize was that DLC cars didn't just pop into your garage. I'd actually have to go out and buy the thing in-game to get access to it. That meant saving up over a hundred thousand Forzabucks of my own.
The damned thing had eluded me in the virtual world. But it wouldn't have the last laugh. I was going to buy an R8, and it would be an awesome present.
I resolved to crawl my way through the world of competitive racing, scraping and saving up for the inevitable S Class payoff. I worked the game an hour or two every night, right after everyone had gone to bed. I wanted the unveiling to be a welcome surprise. I wasn't playing the game so much as I was after a certain goal; I was reaching for a digital compromise to an unrealistic material desire. In those midnight hours, I sympathized with the high school guys that saved summer after summer for a decent roadster. If I was placing so much on the accomplishment of this simulated goal, those hypothetical teens must have achieved transcendence when they finally held those mythical keys in their hands. To dream is special, but to actually feel the curves of a dash or the push of the accelerator? That is divine. That is real.
After close to three weeks, I was within striking distance of my prize. And that's when my good intentions hit a speed bump. After all, I had poured a lot of my time into the game. As much as the car enticed me, I didn't want all that effort to be written off. Would my girlfriend bother to play the game at all? Would it just remind her that the real deal was an ethereal spectre?
In all this hemming and hawing, I came to realize that this digital bank account actually meant something to me, that this was a lot of money to blow on a whim. As pretty as the R8 was, the Murcielago had a more impressive front end. I could spend the money on an Gallardo instead. Or maybe a Miura? I could toss some Out Run graphics on it. That would be something to parade around the track.
Somewhere along those serpentine curves dotting the Nurburgring I had found a love of cars. What was previously an appreciation for one model became an overall recognition of the medium. Virtualized as it was, I suddenly had opinions on exterior facades that extended beyond hating vestigial spoilers. But what to do about the R8?
Like any responsible partner, I discussed the purchase with my significant other.
“You know, there's an R8 in Forza. Forza 2. One of the games that came with the Xbox? What? No, you can't touch it. What kind of a silly question is that? It's very pretty, though. Fairy lights? I don't know if they turn on, but they're there. No, you can't look at the interior. But you can kinda see what it's like to drive one and you can paint it! No. Yeah. I guess you're right. It's not really the same, is it? But at least you could say you own an Audi. I could even buy the pedals and wheel that go along with it... I'll shut up now.”
So much for that idea.
It was sound, though, at least in theory. The games we play have a number of roles in our lives. They challenge our problem solving skills, allow us a refreshing dip in escapist fantasy, indulge our wish-fulfillment needs. But their offerings are mutable. I went into Forza with a mission of generosity, but some of the oil and grease rubbed off on me. I wanted simulated possession and instead received genuine admiration.
Consequently, I achieved my ownership dream a few months later. “I bought you something! Come outside and see it!” There, on the driveway, was an Audi R8, a decorative bow gracing it's silvery top. It didn't have an engine, its interior was molded plastic, and it was only 1/32 the size of its European counterpart, but it was hers.
Somehow, I think that little toy means more to her than having its virtual doppelganger.