Why would anyone talk about a subject that sounds as stupid as that... let alone write an article? Role playing in racing games is a subject that has not been discussed a lot and probably for a good reason - there really is nothing to discuss, since in racing games, it is the driving experience that counts. Yet, in light of the news that F1 2016 is going to get a massive 10 season career mode that was completely missing from the 2015 game and drawing from my own history with racing games, I came to a conclusion that it is an aspect of gaming that has a demand and it's own useful function.
Defining role-playing in racing games
To avoid confusion, I will quickly summarise what I mean by role playing in racing games.
It's the so called "career mode." Basically a feature in a racing game that allows a player to create his or her own fictional avatar racing driver to then play through some sort of a variation of a career within this games racing category or categories.
Creating this avatar can involve everything from choosing a name, helmet, perhaps even a face, name, nationality and so on. After that, a player uses this avatar to play through either certain number of full seasons of the racing categories the game focuses on or some sort of a loose narrative with set of challenges in form of races.
It's also probably important to mention that, in this article, the focus is on more, shall we say, "serious racing games". Basically the focus is on games like Grand Turismo, F1, Grid and so on and less about Mario Kart ;) .
The main function of a racing game
As said before, if one buys a racing game, the main reason is more than likely that a this individual enjoys racing as an activity. Everything else about it is more of a bonus. In other words, when I buy a racing game, I buy it because I have heard that it offers a fun racing experience, good driving physics and a challenge.
Here's the thing, racing as a hobby is not a cheap one and, for many, a difficult one to do on a regular basis (even driving go karts as a hobby on a regular basis is pretty expensive if one is even lucky enough to have a circuit to do it nearby).
Therefore, of course I would prefer to jump in a real racing car in every possibility... but there aren't that many of them.
So, for a person who loves doing this activity (racing cars), this void is somewhat filled with racing games. Also, their ever improving physics actually enable me to (to an extent) improve my real life driving abilities.
Where does the role playing element come in?
As established previously, racing games are types of games where (unlike story driven action-adventure games for example), the gameplay (racing experience) as an activity is really the only thing that matters. However, it is fair to say that no matter how much one loves a certain activity in the first place, giving it some kind of a purpose and context will almost certainly enhance the motivation and enjoyment further.
A sense of a purpose
To give a bit of a silly example from the top of my head. Let's say, for some, climbing a mountain could be a fun thing to do. Purely as an activity. But if one has a purpose for it (something rare or valuable at the top of a mountain or a point to prove etc.), it becomes something more. Basically, the journey is still the purpose, but there is a clear incentive to take this journey in the first place and see through it.
To bring it more into gaming context, let's take Assassin's Creed. This game was created for players to explore historic settings and places, to play around with different phIlosophies in a huge open world sandbox, to interact with historic events and figures, ... and to parkour and fight around them. That, in its essence, is what this series is all about - that is the "activity" like racing is for racing games. But if it didn't have this made up Assassins vs Templars conflict driving the stories of the games, then it would be difficult to find a purpose or an excuse to explore these historic settings in the first place.
It's the same with racing games. Of course racing as an actIvity is the main thing, but if one lacks specific purpose to do it, you could quickly become bored. Role playing element can give this purpose
Role playing - More fun, more effect
A big appeal for movies and video games is to pull the gamer or viewer into this fictional universe (even if it completely resembles the reality). A racing game, in my opinion, is no exception.
If a game effectively creates this fictional reality to explore, the gamer will want to invest more and more time towards it. Therefore, if you have your own loose narrative in a racing game or a career mode, it creates (in its own way) this fictional reality for you to play in, thus almost giving the racing game a story... a story that a gamer him- or herself creates. I am not saying that every racing game fan necessarily prioritises that element. But I think that most people (to a smaller or bigger extent) have that side to them that makes them enjoy having fun with a fictional universe.
By that extension, if one invests more and more time into a certain racing game, one becomes better and better at it. That in turn can actually enhance (especially with modern racing games) one's ability in real life. It's all about chasing that tenth of a second in racing and if you give up too fast because of boredom, you will not find it ;) .
Ace Waller... Who is he? Well, "he" is an avatar I have created for myself when playing racing games. His "career" started with racing in many lower racing classes (GRID), then he moved into F1 (F1 2010 and F1 2011) and right now spends his post F1 years testing different cars (Gran Turismo 6).
So why share a story about this made up guy? Simply because I really have had double the fun from these racing games, I otherwise would have had. I admit, it (creating this fictional driver) is not as appealing anymore as I have gotten older and gotten more opportunities to try racing in real life. Furthermore, the main thing for me is still the racing experience itself.
And yet, thanks to having this opportunity for creating this fictional narrative, I have been more invested in these aforementioned games, dedicated more time for them and by that extension actually became a better driver and pushed myself harder.
Alternative way to give a sense of purpose
Another good way for purpose is multiplayer. But the thing with multiplayer is that, too often, people who actually want to have a fair race, are a minority. Therefore, it can actually take more away from the pure racing experience than it provides (not always of course).
To sum up
There are many activities we do simply because we enjoy the feeling of doing them. But I think most would agree that when this pleasant activity also has some kind of a purpose (no matter how small and insignificant), it becomes even more motivating to do it. This also applies to racing games.
Creating your own fictional racing universe with made up driver (role play) is a good way to motivate yourself more to get better at a certain racing game and also give the game longevity. In doing so, you can actually improve your real life abilities to a bigger extent than otherwise, since you have more motivation and dedication to improve your skills in game. That is the reason why role playing element in racing games is an important feature and deserves it's fair share of focus... even though, I can't believe I just wrote an entire article about it ;)