Driving through Chicago

How to Drive ... and Play Strategy Games

If you’ve been following my Twitter feed – which is @ElysiumGWJ #BuildingThatBrand – for the past week or two, then you know I’ve just got back from a long driving trip across the country. Pulling into the garage the other night, the trip odometer read just under 3,000 miles, which doesn’t even count an extra 400 I drove towing a trailer full of music and podcasting equipment through the ragged roads of New England.

For many of you, I realize this sounds like a terrible way to spend what ultimately amounted to 52 total hours on the road over 10 days, but I loved it. Honestly, with only a few days recuperation, I could climb back in my car happily and dash off into the late-afternoon Minnesota sun for another long drive.

I had a lot of time on my hands to wonder why this thing, which it sounds like many consider an arduous and unpleasant task, resonates so well with me, and I came to an unexpected conclusion. You see, for me at least, long-distance driving trips all the same triggers as a great strategy game, which has, year after year, increasingly become my favorite type of game to play.

At first, I thought this comparison would be surface-level at best – a casual and unsustainable equation that would crumble under any review. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I approach the two exercises in a very similar way and take from them oddly similar pleasures. So, if you will indulge me for a moment, I’d like to share my thoughts on why, if you’re good at strategy games, you should get thee onto the open road.

Success comes from good planning:
In most good strategy games you want to spend more time executing on a sound plan than you do just reacting to whatever is going on around you. So it is also with the open road. It’s not enough to just pull up a map and figure out where the turns will be, but the more you look up where the construction zones will be, how much you’ll need to pay in tolls, where traffic might be a problem, and the like, the better off you’ll be. For example, on the last day of my trip, I left my hotel two hours earlier than I might otherwise have done, because I knew I didn’t want to hit Chicago close to either rush hour. I’ve made that mistake before, and it’s not one I care to repeat.

Use mods:
I play a lot of my games with mods – usually not game-changing or game-breaking stuff, but quality-of-life things: better UI interfaces, visual enhancements, more easily readable fonts – that sort of stuff. In this age of smart phones and mobile devices, not enhancing your experience on a long trip is an almost willful act of self destruction.

Google Maps alone not only made my life easier, it probably ended up saving me a solid hour of driving time across the trip. On that point, as a brief aside, I can preach two statements as facts:

  1. Every time I’ve ignored Google’s on-the-fly recommendations to take a different route than originally planned, I have regretted it.
  2. Every time I have followed Google’s recommendation to go a different way, I have been gratefully rewarded.

My point is that if Google offers you an alternate route and a warning of slowdown ahead, and if you ignore it, the machine should be allowed to say “Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” as sarcastically as its tiny speakers can manage.

Back to the point, little things like downloading a good weather app, getting an EZ Pass transponder to sail through toll booths, using a program like Waze to know the driving conditions ahead, or buying a converter that allows you to plug in multiple devices or even pronged plugs from your car power can make a huge difference. I don’t even live in a state with a toll system, but it cost me nothing but a few minutes' forethought to go ahead and get a device that allows me to bypass long lanes of people scraping through the glove compartment to find $1.40.

Situational awareness is your friend.
Look at a game like StarCraft 2 and you’ll constantly see the best players scouting out the actions, development and positioning of their opponents. The more you know about the environment and situation you find yourself in, the better your outcomes. Few things translate more cleanly to long distance.

There’s a little game I play on the road. I will occasionally challenge myself to quickly think of where every car within 20 yards of me is. That's obviously not a challenge insofar as where the cars right in front of me are – though that’s not always as easy as it seems if you’re behind a truck or van that’s blocking your vision – but knowing exactly where cars that would otherwise be in your blind spot or behind you are is the real challenge in the game. Honestly, this exercise amuses me all the time, and as a result I find myself constantly doing mental calculations about cars passing me or ones that are jockeying for position in my rearview mirror.

But, it’s a survival skill as well. If you can react to a traffic problem before it’s totally manifest, you’re that much more likely to avoid the most dangerous force on the highway: other drivers. When I’m driving, I’m not really acting based on what the car directly in front of me is doing, but rather what the car two or three places up the line is doing.

This is the sort of thing that triggers the same squishy part of my brain that getting a good scout in on a StarCraft opponent does.

Play the long game.
When you’re looking at hours on the road, your interest in saving or losing a few minutes should be next to nil. Just as acting too soon in a game of Civilization can leave you without the materials and units to sustain a hasty assault, impatience and obsession with getting to far too fast can find you sitting on the side of the road with blues and reds flashing in your rearview.

If the speed limit is 65 and you’re going 74 because you operate on the assumption that cops won’t bother to pull someone over as long as they’re not going more than 10mph over the speed limit, you might be right. But every time you come over that rise and see the cop in the median, you’re going to be the guy hitting his brakes and looking earnestly in the mirror to see if he’s pulling out. In truth, I’m glad you’re out there, because I’m the guy you just passed who was going 71, who isn’t anxiously scanning the horizon for the police. And in the end those 3 minutes per hour you think you gained never actually hold.

Allow your opponents to make their mistakes.
In the words of Napoleon, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

I know the feeling, though, the desire to show a reckless or terrible driver how bad they are at their craft. Inevitably you will be in a line of traffic, and someone will accelerate and you know – you just know! – they are going to try to cut in line right in front of you.

Let them.

Resist that urge to close the gap, or race them to the real or perceived hole. It gains you nothing, and it engages you directly with someone you don’t want to be engaged with. Maybe you win, and now suddenly you have them behind you aggressively tailgating. Maybe they go for it anyway and now you’re at risk for a wreck. Maybe it works and they just cut someone else off and now you don’t know what they’re doing anymore.

Yes, it can be infuriating watching someone drive on the shoulder to get around a traffic jam, or swerve in and out of lanes, but your job isn’t to deter them. That’s just dumb. Your job is to reach your destination with as few problems as possible. Remember, you have a strategy and in that strategy there’s probably nothing about “become the road's dispenser of justice.”

Don’t tilt.
Ever played a game, and hit some problem that just throws you off your entire game? That feeling of being so angry at the game that you throw everything out the window and just act out of spite and malice, not caring that you’re making bad decision after bad decision, is called going "On Tilt." It’s an awful feeling and a destructive state of mind.

Happens all the time on the road, and the better equipped you are to recognize it in others, recognize it in yourself, and in both cases avoid it as much as you can, the better your drive is going to go.

I’ve actively stopped for five minutes at an exit for no other reason than the traffic around me seemed to be getting toxic, or there was an inevitable burning coal growing hotter in my chest, threatening to send me into that dark frame of mind. Those few minutes lost are nothing compared to the stress and anger you end up saving yourself.

Overall, what I’m saying is that deep strategy gaming and long-distance driving are both games of endurance and focus, and rarely a sprint. Finding ways to keep yourself on a clean path and allowing yourself to stay fresh and focused as long as possible will inevitably work more in your favor than becoming obsessed with the little wins that don’t even really count in the final score.

For me it’s a weird kind of meditation, a challenge of the self as much as the game itself. I’m fascinated by the way the long chain of individual moments organize themselves into something much bigger, and I find a weird, maybe perverse, joy in looking at these exaggerated shapes in my strategy games exactly the same way I look at them in a big effort like driving across the country. I can feel, on the inside, these same eager neurons firing.

And I’m ready for my next game.

Comments

Inevitably you will be in a line of traffic, and someone will accelerate and you know – you just know! – they are going to try to cut in line right in front of you.

Let them.

This is beyond my capability. If I had any confidence that people still listened to the radio, I would have long ago made a thoroughly illegal device to allow me to broadcast to everyone around me in the hopes of being able to one-way scream at the morons who drive behind me as I maintain a proper follow distance from the car in front of me, then swerve around in an attempt to advance one car in line.

Actually, if I was a better inventor, I would have also built a device which fires those people into the sun, while allowing me to one-way talk to them explaining why they're about to die.

Fantastic Article and a very clever usage of the road-trip analogy. I hope you don't mind me saying that I am slightly disappointed that you did not talk about the fact that we can always upgrade our vehicles to siege mode (ala' Starcraft,) and destroy the idiots that cut us off. I may be mistaken but I thought that's what my dealer told me when I purchased my car.

I may be mistaken but I thought that's what my dealer told me when I purchased my car.

Just how big is your SUV?

I've personally seen vehicles crash as they beat the red light, rush to "fill a gap" or try to strongarm a 10 wheeler. The sound of metal crunching on metal is only eclipsed by the eerie lack of human screams that ought to be coming from a wreck. You wonder if you just saw someone die. I've driven past a human in 7 parts strewn across a large segment of the road when an SUV dragged a motorcyle behind it.

I want no part of any such scene. Someone who ignores rules meant for our safety is inevitably going to cause a crash, and I'd rather be in the traffic jam behind them rather than being a part of that tragedy.

This metaphor was an excellent vehicle (*rimshot*) to deliver wonderful advice about driving, much of which I could be better about despite knowing it on a logical level. Kudos for a great article.

Oddly enough I just drove 2,883 miles and it was an incredibly fun time. Lots of this applied.

When I’m driving, I’m not really acting based on what the car directly in front of me is doing, but rather what the car two or three places up the line is doing.

If physical gestures could be seen on the Internet, I would be standing up at my desk, pointing at this line, my other hand balled into a fist of glory, face scrunched up in vindication as I look around for someone to shout "THIS! THIIIIIIS!" to.

It might be easier to just say "Imagine Newman from Jurassic Park going 'Dodgson! We got Dodgson here!', only being excited about reading something".

For the past few years I've had a theory that you can really tell what kind of person someone is based on their driving. Now, sometimes people will have good days and sometimes bad, but if someone is regularly an asshole, then chances are, no matter how much bullsh*t etiquette they follow in real life, they're really a self-interested gender-appropriate expletive.

I also think this little factoid goes to show just how "smart" so many people are, because no one seems to look past the car ahead of them. I've commuted in South Jersey on 295, I've commuted between PA and NJ and even through Delaware, and I drive daily through parts of PA now, and in every location there's a collection of assholes that never seem to have situational awareness beyond that single car in front of them. Even if we're on a hill in such a position that you can see half a mile ahead, and therefore see the congestion coming up, people won't slam on the brakes until they're about to introduce their grill to the other drivers' truck. Or people accelerate to pass me without realizing the left lane is just as slow and congested two cars up.

I then go on to wonder what sort of "social media presence" these people have and am left with a feeling of "Oh, yeah, that explains why the Internet is a sh*t bed of c*ck monglery".

LarryC wrote:

I've personally seen vehicles crash as they beat the red light, rush to "fill a gap" or try to strongarm a 10 wheeler. The sound of metal crunching on metal is only eclipsed by the eerie lack of human screams that ought to be coming from a wreck. You wonder if you just saw someone die. I've driven past a human in 7 parts strewn across a large segment of the road when an SUV dragged a motorcyle behind it.

I'm fortunate in that the worst I've seen is deer carcass leaving a six-hundred foot-long bloodtrail up to the road side or a bird explode into a puff of feathers when colliding with a Mack truck on the turnpike. Last month a friend of mine was at Philadelphia Comic-Con and watched a woman get struck and run over by a bus. I can't imagine what that's like seeing it happen first-hand, and just hearing accounts of witnessing such things is enough to get my skin crawling.

wordsmythe wrote:
I may be mistaken but I thought that's what my dealer told me when I purchased my car.

Just how big is your SUV?

Well Wordsmythe, I'd be happy to share with you "how big my SUV is," but I think you should at least buy me dinner first

I like to see what the cars 2 or 3 places ahead are doing.

Unfortunately, I'm in my hatch and 80% of the other cars are SUVs, so I end up staring at the one in front, unable to see past.