This is a post about driving games and Deathless Days

There were no deathless days on Texas roadways in 2011.
Texas Dept. of Motor Vehicles Crash Highlights Report, 2011

No one ever dies in driving games. Not even the fake kind of death we’re used to with a respawn afterwards. No one ever gets injured. In driving games we’ve taken more care to simulate vehicle damage than we have to depict people damage. People damage doesn’t exist in driving games.

Death is seldom depicted in a way that causes us to contemplate it as anything more than a bothersome indicator of a failure state. “I died,” in games means, “I lost.” Avatars respawn in seconds or minutes, players are reverted to a checkpoint back in time where the character is magically alive again, or at most a character is allowed to die and the player simply gets a new character to play.

Even if it’s dealt with in passing, death is still included. But in driving games, death or even injury is never mentioned. Even for video games, it’s an eerie omission considering how many people die in traffic related incidents.

Everyday someone driving in the state Texas dies. According to most statistics, approximately 32,000 traffic related deaths occurred in the U.S. in 2011 – one traffic death every 16 minutes.

I pass a sign everyday on the way to work that flashes the tally of traffic related deaths in Texas for 2012. It’s a reminder that safety is key, and that every time I get behind the wheel, a small chance exists that I’ll die behind it.

We don’t often have real concern over our fictional avatars dying in games, but because real death could result in fighting with guns, elemental powers, swords, tanks, fighter jets, space ships, and dragons we include death as a given in video games, even if it’s brushed off casually. But getting behind the wheel can result in death in real life, yet driving games are the exception within the medium.

The omission slips by unchecked because many of us still don’t associate driving with death, or even danger. Or if we do, we marginalize it. We reluctantly admit that driving carries danger, and that we shouldn’t text, eat, put on make up, fiddle with our iPod, or read a book while driving, but we do it anyway. We assume the worst won’t happen to us.

It’s easier to ignore the potential danger in driving than in going to war. So we expect death to have some representation in games about military conflict, but not in driving games.

Only death occurs far more often on the roads than it does in most wars. The IBC project estimates nearly 170,000 deaths in Iraq between 2003 and the end of 2011 (that’s a combination of the estimated 162,000 Iraqis and 4,486 US troops). In the same time frame 348,944 traffic related fatalities occurred in the U.S. alone.

While the U.S. has a high fatality count compared to other nations, it isn’t even the highest. Estimates from China in 2009 indicated 68,000 deaths related to roadway accidents. A staggering 133,938 traffic related deaths are estimated to have occurred during 2010 in India.

Lots of people die when they drive. Granted, lots of people also don’t die when they drive, but all the “non-death” is represented by the assumed immortality (even video game immorality) given to the almost-never-seen driver character of driving games.

And it isn’t just video games, either. Other media focused on the glorification of driving fast and looking cool also doesn’t seem keen on showing the potential nasty side of driving 2,000 lbs. machines at excessive rates of speed. I haven’t seen all the Fast and Furious movies, but I’m sure in the ones I’ve seen (three of them, unfortunately) no one has ever died from crash related injuries.

Showing the kind of mangling, disfiguring, and lethal damage that can be done by a severe car crash isn’t a compelling statement for driving cool cars really fast.

Have you ever played one of the early Burnout games and wondered what would happen to someone inside of one of those cars? They don’t show you that for a reason. Gore and dismemberment in action games is something most people can rationalize away as fiction. It might be harder if you’ve been a part of real conflict, but many of us haven’t. Many of us, however, do drive often.

Having to manage the roadways isn’t just a matter of time management, it’s a matter of safety management. While our daily commute ultimately devolves into just another way to win back even five minutes of our day, we all know while navigating rush hour traffic we are also responsible for keeping ourselves and our passengers safe. On top of everything else you may have had to deal with in your day, that is stressful.

We want our games to be a release. Action games may be a release for some of us, but I imagine that’s less likely if you spent the day in real life combat. Spending the day in real life driving situations, where real injury and death are stacked on top of your other pressures (usually right after work) would leave most of us without an appetite for a simulation that mimics that kind of responsibility, if one existed.

Even if it is a game, a “death” failure state isn’t the kind of reminder we want. We want the reminder from an older era of gaming – you’re car flickers, then magically POPS back right side up after it’s flipped over. And you’re back on your way, just like that.

We might be able to handle, and even encourage, more realistic handling of death in action games, but that appetite for realism in driving games is less. It exists, otherwise I don’t think it would have occurred to me to write this article. But I’m more curious about this in theory, than I am eager to see it practice.

Cities and states are often said to try for ‘deathless days’ – that is, a day where no traffic related deaths occurred. The last one in Texas was November 7th, 2000. It’s a hope that seems to diminish even though overall traffic related death in the U.S. is down (every year from 2003-2011, except for 2005). Whenever it’s mentioned that our last deathless day in Texas was over 11 years ago, it’s kind of depressing (we don’t mention it often).

Games have a unique opportunity for balance in many areas, but especially in what they can offer us related to traffic safety. How driving games handle death and injury can create greater awareness among gamers and even non-gamers.

But they can, as they always have, grant us a little escapism. Like we always have, we can find our respite there. In driving games, we can have our deathless days.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *