I was 7 when my parents first let me drive. I can remember it well: taking the wheel of a red six-speed ZR1 Corvette (top speed 180 mph, 0-60 in 4.2 seconds), keeping pace with a blue Porsche 928 across the Golden Gate Bridge, down Lombard street towards the Transamerica Pyramid, to the foot of the Bay Bridge, I got my first taste of what it was like to be in control of an automobile. I thought nothing of how lucky I was to get to drive at such a young age - the year before I had flown an Apache Helicopter, was an old pro on the links at Pebble Beach and had played one-on-one basketball with Larry Bird - but my time in the driver's seat of a Vette had me hooked. In the years to come I would drive the F1 circuit at Monaco more times than I can count (though I've always struggled with the Nouvelle Chicane), and have wrestled with the blind crest of Laguna Seca's corkscrew in everything from a Silver Mercedes AMG CLK 55 to a Mini Cooper 1.3i (British Racing Green, of course).
Of course, all of these experiences shared one key feature: each occurred entirely within a virtual world. In reality, apart from a brief flirtation with driving during my teenage years, I didn't take the wheel of a physical car until my early twenties.
This summer, in conjunction with the REVs institute, Henry Lowood and Tim Noakes of Stanford Library, and Gavin Baker and Benny Gonzalez, high school students from the bay area, I set out to explore the nature of the digital driving experience. As a growing proportion of North American teenagers delay getting drivers licenses, providing driving experience in virtual worlds has become a multi-billion dollar industry, with games such as Gran Turismo, Need for Speed, and Forza becoming staples of console gaming. Using Stanford Library's Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection, a library of almost 20,000 video games, consoles, and paraphernalia from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, my research team has started cataloguing the early history of simulating a driving experience in the virtual world. In future posts I will share some of the preliminary findings of this research, but first I'd like to share some of the practical considerations that go into doing research on historic games.
Trying to play a classic video game, in some respects, quite similar to the experience of trying to drive a classic car. For example, take the game Revs. Released in 1984 for the BBC Micro, Revs has been pointed to by racing game enthusiasts as one of the earliest commercial driving simulators. Although the Cabrinety collection is fairly comprehensive when it comes to North American consoles and games, the collection has neither a copy of Revs, nor the hardware on which to run the game. If, therefore, I want to experience what state of the art commercial driving simulation was like in 1984, I am faced with a few difficult choices. One the one hand, with software like BeebEm it is possible (although by no means simple, or necessarily legal) to run a ROM Image (see herefor an explanation of a ROM) of the 1984 BBC Micro's version of Revs on my Mac. However, it would be a stretch to say that this this option provides an experience that is anything like what someone playing the game in 1984 would have had. Aside from the obvious fact that my computer likely has enough processing power to replace all of England's computers in 1984, from the LCD screen that renders colors and textures differently, to a keyboard that is structurally and functionally different, to the lack of a joystick, playing a ROM of Revs on my laptop and calling that an authentic experience of the game would be like driving one of the rebooted Dodge Chargers and saying that I had the same driving experience as someone in a B-Body charger from the 60s and 70s - yes, the might look the same superficially, but they are most certainly not the same thing.
Thankfully a 1985 port of the game for the Commodore 64 exists, but getting a C64 working is itself not an easy task. As anyone who has tried to start a car that has been sitting around for 20+ years will know, technology has a way of succumbing to time. Often the problem is one batteries that have been slowly drained over the decades, but in the case of Revs the problem is compounded by a number of mundane technical hurdles that are akin to finding the right carburetor or timing belt for an historic car. Connecting a C64 required wading through boxes of undifferentiated wires to find the correct adaptors and AV cords, as well as software and that could convert the C64 signal into something that could be seen and recorded on my laptop screen (short of recording game play on an original C64 screen, I would have to live with the in-authentic experience of using an LCD screen). Last, the game runs on cassette, which meant both finding the peripheral devices that could connect a cassette reader to the commodore, but also finding input instructions that would allow me to even load the game.
In short, in order to even get to a point where I could have an authentic recreation of what it was like to drive a car in a video game in 1984, I had to make a series of choices that degraded the "authenticity" of the experience. Using original parts when possible, and acceptable replacements when necessary, accessing the virtual worlds trapped inside the Revs game cassette was far from a simple processing of putting a key in the ignition and turning on the car.End