Virtual Reality: A Commentary on Simulation Games
November 24, 2009

Hello Everyone!

My name is Peien and I’m currently a senior E.E. major at Northwestern University. Like my colleagues, I’ll be contributing to this blog, but with a twist. Like Dan and Rudy, I often enjoy playing RTS’s and other games with hard-core strategies, but my true passion lies within the realm of simulation video games.

If we all think long and hard about why we play video games, we inevitably all reach the same conclusion: we play because we want an escape from reality. In the real-world, it is impossible for you to engage in magic, kill 250 zombies in a span of 15 minutes, or save a princess from a reptilian megalomaniac. But the genre of simulation video games has a different spin on the ‘escapism’ ideal behind video games. Games like Gran Turismo and Microsoft Flight Simulator aren’t designed around fantasylands. They seek to allow the average person to be placed in scenarios that comparatively few around the world have experienced while keeping realism at the center of game design.

Before I continue, I should define what I mean by a simulation video game. By this I mean games that stick as close as possible to reality and don’t trade realistic dynamics for easy gameplay. I also am not referring to games like SimCity and Roller Coaster Tycoon (although they tend to be lumped in the simulation category at Fry’s and Best Buy, I refer to these games as management games). As such, focus on America’s Army rather than Call of Duty, Gran Turismo rather than Need For Speed: Underground, and IL-2 Sturmovik rather than Ace Combat. These simulation-lite games, as I like to call them, are great fun, but really lack what I’m looking for.

When it comes to true simulation games, the realism of the physics are just important as the realism of the graphics. For example, in the WWII combat flight simulator IL-2 Sturmovik, a Mk. I Hawker Hurricane will have its engine stall out when you pull into too steep of a dive. This accurately reflects the primitive fuel delivery technologies of the 1930’s (when the Hurricane was developed) and adds an additional challenge to the game. When I’m driving a mid-engined Ferrari in Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, if I lift off the gas pedal in the corners, I experience snap oversteer and will spin if I don’t correct it. This is in stark contrast to other driving games where all the car models are extremely forgiving and a mistake won’t cost you the race. As such, simulation games give me a thrill because I am able to experience flying an F-104 Starfighter or driving a Ford GT at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca as if I could do them in real life.

Of course, there are limitations to how far simulations can go and even with the best graphics and the best physics engine, you are often limited by the gaming accessories that you own. For example, Forza Motorsport 3 is supposed to be one of the most realistic driving sims out there, but given that the only two control options are the XBox 360 controller or the XBox wheel (which has a limited steering range and terrible pedals) you aren’t able to really reap the fruits of the programmers’ hard work. Indeed feedback and immersiveness are integral parts to a simulation game’s success. Gran Turismo 5 became so much more enjoyable after I played it with a Logitech G25 steering wheel (it has a full facsimile manual transmission and a force feedback 900-degree steering wheel). IL-2 Sturmovik is pretty much unplayable for me unless I have my TrackIR 4 head-tracking unit (a device that you mount to a baseball cap which tracks your head movements and, correspondingly, moves your view around the virtual cockpit).

Unfortunately as of the writing of this piece, Microsoft Flight Simulator has been terminated by Microsoft due to low revenue and most racing games have gone the way of the ‘customizing’ route (e.g.: Need for Speed). Here’s hoping that  other companies will pick up the torch from Microsoft and EA, making new and improved simulation games. With skyrocketing insurance rates and gas prices, I believe that demand for simulation games will increase as people strive to escape from moving about in boring Toyota Priuses and Airbus A320’s into a virtual world filled with Aston Martin DB9’s and Lockheed F-22’s.