Shut Up And Drive

Virtual escapism on the digital highway.

By: Ryan Winslett

Filed Under: Editorial Life Reflections


Back in high school, when my responsibilities were far fewer and gas prices were far lower, one of my favorite pastimes was getting behind the wheel of my big red 1990 Pontiac Bonneville (The Scarlet Pumpernickel, we called it) and just driving around town.

Like every teen, I thought I had a lot on my mind back in those days. What with sports, girls, drama with friends, school work and graduation drawing closer and closer, the best way to shut off my brain and forget about all of that mess involved taking my hulking chunk of metal on four wheels out to the backroads and just tooling around for an hour or two.

Video games provided that escape before I got my license, but now that I had access to a vehicle that could take me literally anywhere (though it seldom left the small corner of Arizona where I grew up), the virtual streets of Driver 2 just couldn’t compare. That was the game that had a stranglehold on my heart the year before I got my magical ID. When my brother and I got to visit our dad over the summer, he would play it with us for hours on end, passing the controller any time one of us got busted by the virtual authorities. Alone, I still played it endlessly, half trying to relive those happy moments gaming with my family, half trying to escape all of that other stuff cluttering my mind.

Getting behind the wheel of Scarlet provided me with a similar catharsis. I could get out of the house, pop in a Korn CD and let that loud, angst-filled rock wash over me as I cruised with the windows down and the desert landscape drifting past. My car didn’t expect anything of me. My music didn’t want an answer to some pressing question. The saguaro and low-hanging trees, flanking my path like silent sentries, never asked me to pick a side in an argument.

I can’t remember the last time I took a drive like that. With gas prices hovering around the four dollar mark, it’s hard to justify a trip down the zen highway when a full tank will set me back nearly fifty bucks.

And then there are those responsibilities I was talking about. My mind is no longer plagued by the fact that every member of the opposite sex sees me as “one of the girls” rather than a potential boyfriend. I’m not worried how the track meet will go on Friday or if my grades will be good enough to keep me in the top 10 percent of my class. I don’t care who broke up with whom or how that shift in the social structure is going to affect who I will be hanging out with at lunch.

Nowadays, I have an entirely different set of concerns. I just turned 30 and already I can tell that this body isn’t made up of the same strong stuff it used to be. I get winded climbing a flight of stairs with grocery bags swinging from both arms. There’s a hot ball of pressure in my lower abdomen that pops up from time to time, occasionally keeping me up at night as I wonder if, this time, I should finally go see a doctor.

There’s also a very good chance that I will be paying off my college loans well into my 40’s. I hate the state I live in. And while I’m getting to write about the video games that I’m passionate about, doing so only comes as added work on top of an already full day.

And then there’s the family. I won’t go into their business here, but I will at least say that it has been an especially rough year for those who know me best, and I have absolutely no idea how to make things better for them.

I’m not spilling all of these beans for any sort of a pity party, but rather to help illustrate how important this crazy little world of video games can be for a guy who has a lot on his mind at the moment.

Over the weekend, I managed to get in some time with Criterion’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted, only to discover that it offered that perfect mix of beautiful visuals and over-the-top arcade car handling I just so happen to adore. It was Driver 2 all over again.

Rather than focus on any races or side missions, I instead gave myself over to the streets of Fairhaven, replacing the physical steering wheel of my teen years with the controller to my PlayStation 3. I barreled down the highway, narrowly shooting past oncoming traffic in a busy metropolis before careening up a set of switchbacks to explore the nearby mountains. I shot past lakes and constructions sites and, yeah, I tumbled ass over noggin every time I misjudged a turn or got just a little bit too close to a raised median while going 120 mph.

For a solid hour, the length of the trial period on PSN, I was unable to think about anything else going on in my life. I was just driving again, lost in a world of flashing dashed lines, tail lights and loud rock and roll. On Tuesday, I went out and bought my own copy of the game. I saw it as taking the money I would usually spend on a tank of gas and investing it instead into some pretty cheap therapy.

I know my problems are miniscule compared to what many folks around the world (or even around my own town) are facing, but that doesn’t make them any less worrying for me. Maybe it makes me selfish, but I can’t suddenly stop thinking about the growing stack of bills on my desk just because of the knowledge that someone else has drawn a tougher lot in life than I have. I still have my problems and I know that I’m the only one who can take care of them.

To be clear, I know how blessed I actually am. I’m thankful. But when the crap starts to build up to suffocating levels and I forget that things are actually, on the whole, pretty okay, I’m glad I can still get behind the wheel for an hour or two and just drive away from it all.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Editorial Life Reflections

About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.

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