I’m going to see a doctor this afternoon. I very rarely go to see the doctor. In fact, when I moved to
It all started with an invitation to join my good friend, Charles Day, and his wonderful wife, Chris, for a weekend at their gorgeous place in upstate NY.
(He has beaten me to this - not for the first time as you’ll discover – and you can find his description of the weekend on his blog, http://www.thelookinglass.com/blog/2009/8/5/519.html . If you aren’t reading his blog, you should be.)
Prior to this weekend, Charles had casually mentioned in a previous conversation that he had discovered a go-kart in one of their (many) garages on their upstate property and that we could maybe give it a spin around the old bridle path in their lower field. I say ‘casually’ because I suspect that Charles was attempting to mask the glee of a fourteen-year-old boy when he told me about the go-kart. As I received the news, I was likewise instantly making a spiritual journey back to the mid-‘70s.
So I was a little confused last weekend when we pulled into the driveway of their upstate house and I spotted, half a mile in the distance (yes, they have a long drive...it could double as a runway for a local airport), The Kart.
I had been expecting to find an orange crate nailed to a couple of 2x4’s, some rope, a couple of old wheels off a small bike…something you might see the Little Rascals riding down a hill. Instead, what I saw in the distance was a two-seater crate with rollbars and some hefty tires. This was going to be brilliant.
But, not unlike being forced to eat breakfast on Christmas morning before the presents are opened, the four of us dutifully went off to lunch. We ate quickly and upon our return there was no stopping us and we were down at the track with only one thing on our minds: time trials. Not for us the gentle drive around a freshly mown strip of field admiring the wondrous views and thankful for the cooling effect of driving on a hot day.
No…we would just floor it.
Lap followed lap, each succeeded in shaving seconds off the leading time. Chris and Sarah came down to share the fun. They each navigated their way around the course and immediately wanted to do another lap. But that was enough. To them it was great fun but not as much fun as good conversation and some glasses of wine on the patio.
But for Charles and I each lap was an opportunity to improve on the previous and each lap ended with the belief that we couldn’t possibly go any faster. With adrenalin pumping from the knowledge that there was no room for error, we each attempted the perfect, faster lap. All was well until my next turn when I switched the ignition on and nothing happened. Tried again. Nothing. Charles and I rubbed our chins and said such helpful things as “That’s odd…”, etc. I suggested to Charles that we shouldn’t overlook the obvious and that he should check the fuel tank. It was full. Our problem was even more obvious than having no gas: no battery.
I may have neglected to tell you that the track was in no way flat and that going at such a speed over some of those bumps was perilous. On several occasions I found myself thankful that I had heeded Chris’ ‘advice’ to wear the helmet. And on Charles’ last lap the battery had finally freed itself from it’s strap and connectors and had flown the coop.
A walk around the track produced the missing battery, which was now leaking sulfuric acid through a large crack in the case. Charles had escaped from serious burns earlier in the week when he had attempted to fill the battery with the acid but succeeded mostly in scorching everything in sight bar him and the dogs. This time he wasn’t taking any chances. He lashed up an ingenious contraption using the strap as a support for the battery and holding onto the connectors to try to stop the degree of swing as we started the long walk back. Sarah pointed out that Charles should at the very least be wearing gloves and, sheepishly, Charles and I retrieved the proper tools.
Now we were faced with the prospect of pushing a heavy go-kart up a very steep hill and back to the garage. After a little more chin rubbing Charles disappeared and returned with a car battery charger. Undaunted by the fact that there was no battery we managed to hook up the charger to the positive and negative cables and start the kart which we then drove back to the garage.
Why am I telling you this story? It occurred to me that I spend a great deal of my professional time creating virtual realities. I’m doing even more of that work now that Framestore is getting into games related work in the form of developing online games and doing FMVs, trailers and spots for major games companies. And some of my personal time – and much of my kids’ time - is spent enjoying the virtual worlds that others have created. My kids were over in NYC a few weeks ago and they loved spending time playing X-Box 360. I have great kids (of course...!) that enjoy doing many other things that don’t involve staring at a screen for hours, but I started thinking about the difference between their childhoods and my own early years. Not only were there no computer games when I was a boy – there weren’t any computers. Or certainly none that you would find in any home. And, leaving aside the much expressed concern that kids these days are spending far too much time in front of a screen and not enough time exercising, I was thinking about the differences in the quality of experience. Charles could have called me up and said that he had the latest racing game for PS3 and I’m sure that I would have been excited to try it out. But could I honestly say that I would have had a tenth of the elation that I felt bouncing around inside that kart? And though we would face several challenges within the computer game, would any have felt as rewarding as preparing the car, negotiating a tight corner, shifting bodyweight to counter the weight distribution on bends, the smell of it….the sweat?
In short, the kart experience reminded me of the difference between playing a game and feeling alive.
Of course, I know that some part of the physicality of the afternoon is linked to nostalgia and it is easy to be seduced by the feeling of being young with no other cares or responsibilities than beating your mate’s best lap time. But I wonder, as advanced as we get with Project Natal, etc, can we ever replicate those feelings of risk and danger and joy and achievement on a computer? The images that are now being produce are amazing and the ability to replace the controller is upon us. We are able to physically move in front of – or surrounded by – realistic images. But it is an important difference that ultimately we know that this game is happening in a safe environment without risk. Can this really be the same fun? Can it provide the same feeling of being alive?
Which leads me back to the reason for the doctor.
Charles and I had successfully taken the acid dripping battery up to a safe place and had driven a battery-free kart up the hill and back to the garage. We had 50 minutes before we were headed to the restaurant for dinner and the motor was still running.
Charles turned to me. “Fancy one last lap?”
Let me see…we had spent the last half an hour or more sorting out this mess, almost burnt off our skin with sulfuric acid and now we were going to take the kart BACK to the track and keep racing. Added to that, I had the fastest lap time.
Charles was first, driving demonically enough to shave about a second and a half off his personal best and a half a second off my best time.
I had to improve. Sarah later said that she had looked at my face as I set off and knew that something was about to happen. Maybe I had some additional courage from the glasses of wine enjoyed during our break for repair. I set off at breakneck speed. I hugged the corners and set off into the first straight with so much speed that the smile plastered over my face would have made the Joker look glum.
I was traveling at 45 degrees when the kart began to roll. It rolled. And rolled. And I would have rolled with it if I had been wearing the safety belt. But I wasn’t (I thought It might inhibit a bit of weight distribution body shifting). And so the kart eventually spat me out and then landed on top of me. Or I ended up on it. I can’t actually recall. I do remember getting up, tipping the kart back to it’s rightful position and trying to assess whether I had done any great damage to those parts that were in pain. At the same time I saw three figures in the distance running towards the track. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from all of this. Listening to Chris and Sarah is high on the list. Quitting while you’re ahead? (No, not really!) The most important lesson for me is that risk is a necessary part of feeling alive and that we all periodically need that sense of exhilaration that comes from putting yourself out there. We need to take risks. Real risks – with real consequences. I wonder if computer games will ever be able to simulate that?