My wife pulled up outside of my work, a pleasant expression of satisfaction on her face, and hopped out into the biting March wind planting a perky kiss on my cheek. She said nothing about the car, but her manner suggested she liked it. She liked it a lot.
I got behind the wheel of the silver Camry Hybrid, and tried to open my mind as wide as it would possibly go.
“Don’t turn the ignition; it’s already on!”
It was a good comment to make, because there was no tactile feedback confirming the fact. It sat there, inert and sleepy, less a car that’s idling and more a laptop you accidentally put to sleep.
The interior was familiar and functional. The heater whispered a suggestion of warmth on the side of my face, and everything about the car suggested it might be a nice, quiet, safe place where one could be at ease. I knew everything about the car’s interior instantly, because I already owned a Camry (a traditional, boring, old, pure-combustion model). We were shopping for a replacement for our slowly, mercifully dying Chrysler minivan, because we had been operating for some time off the Stereotypical Suburbanite Handbook, and now that handbook included a chapter on hybrid vehicles and sustainable living.
I put my foot on the largely misnamed “accelerator,” and the car not so much lurched forward as much as it sort of remembered how to roll — as if the earth had been ever so slightly tipped to one side. The vehicle made no comment about this movement though, no hint of a pesky engine to interrupt the sleepy silence.
I hated it instantly, and I believe the main reason I did so was because of Forza 4.
I wonder often how the things that interest me in the non-digital world and the things that interest me in video games interact with and reflect one another. Do I now play guitar because of my interest in games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, or do I play games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero because I have this innate interest in musical instruments?
When I think about that question, I feel the same way that I feel when I look at one of the optical illusions where it can look like the ballerina is rotating clockwise or counter-clockwise, but at any one moment you can only see one or the other. Clockwise: had I not played those video games, I wouldn’t likely be playing my guitar now. Counter-clockwise: I only ever played those games as a way to approach and a reflection of my inherent interest in guitar.
The reality is that they probably reflect one another equally, that the ballerina isn’t actually spinning at all and its just an illusion hiding inside a flat animation.
But, when after 200 hours of playing Europa Universalis IV earlier this year, I suddenly had an interest in the history of the Habsburg family, I can’t help but think that if nothing else, video games are doing an interesting job of taking the things I have a broad, potentially passing interest in and enhancing them into something much more intense.
There is, for another example, simply no way that I would have any functional knowledge of the application of the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation (Note: It’s for figuring out the effectiveness of rocket engines, taking into account the changing weight of the vehicle as it expels propellant.) or basic orbital mechanics without having become briefly obsessed with Kerbal Space Program.
Without question, this passing but passionate fancy is the farthest thing from becoming an expert on a topic, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that rocket scientist is a profession in my future. But there’s this odd, fundamental joy in becoming momentarily fascinated with a topic and accumulating some small measure of knowledge of a world so far removed from my normal one.
In the case of Forza, the game provided a conduit for me to discover that I had some degree of emotional connection I could make with the automotive world. In some ways, I think that’s because video games are perhaps among the best ways humankind has yet invented to allow passionate experts to convey in an experiential way what they love about that thing. Turn 10’s car nuts can craft this event that occurs in my hands and conveys an almost tactile description of an experience, and that crafted experience shows me what they love about cars. This medium allows, in a unique way, the people at Paradox to show me why they love history. It allows EA Sports teams to show what’s so exciting about football, and Harmonix to show me what they love about music.
And when I click with those experiences, it’s almost as though I adopt their enthusiasm as my own. The me that was just fine having a stock-standard Toyota sedan suddenly becomes obsessed with the idea of experiencing a vehicle, not just using it to get back and forth from work. Having something there so that when you put your foot down, you can hear an engine agree with you and then do something about it, that desire harkens to this notion put in my head by guys who talked to me through a controller.
I remember in the early days of Guitar Hero, a lot of words were spent between factions debating whether the game had impact at all on teaching people either about music or how to play an instrument. Looking back, I think that was a fundamentally flawed conversation, and that the more interesting one is whether a game like that made the right person more receptive to the idea or more willing to invest in learning. I know I’m not the only one who discovered a hint of the joy of creating music through this medium, and it is that conveyed passion that has carried me through times when I might have otherwise quit.
And, it’s probably also the reason that I don’t own a Hybrid Camry. And though I do have a still relatively sensible sedan in my driveway, it also has a V6 that, when I hit an open on-ramp or a clear, rural two-lane road, makes a sound that brings me a joy I hadn’t previously known I wanted.