You Press This Pedal To Make It Go

I blame Elite: Dangerous.

I think that’s what started it off.

Driving that damnable SRV around on planetary surfaces, boinging hilariously off mountains and crunching through little valleys, and sneaking up on drones and doing involuntary pirouettes any time I tried to get any speed up on an icy world. It ended up being quite fun. And I think it was helped to be fun by the joystick setup I settled on, whereby I mapped the steering control to the twist function of the stick, rather than the roll function.

In space, no-one can hear you misjudge an outcrop and bounce down a canyon

That’s to say, I now twist the stick around its vertical axis rather than leaning it from side to side. It’s designed as a rudder control for aeroplanes, but I’ve found it makes a much easier and more responsive steering method for ground vehicles too. I use it for my trucks in Euro Truck Simulator 2 and American Truck Simulator, and it turns out it does rather well for cars, too.


I’ve never been a car-game sort of person before. Cars don’t interest me much. I’ve never much understood them beyond “you press this pedal to make it go”, and the inner workings of them have always seemed entirely arcane. My usual explanation to mechanics is that as far as I’m concerned the whole thing could be run by goblin magic, and my attitude is that if they’re going to cheat me with unnecessary work they might as well get on with it because I won’t ever know the difference.

“But this is irresponsible!” you might well say. “For the sake of learning a little bit about cars, you could safeguard your valuable moneys from nefarious technobabble-based inflational quoting!”

And by Harry you’re absolutely right. This, of course, is entirely true. But there’s a fly in my personal brain-ointment (ew), because I just don’t seem to have the capacity to understand anything mechanical at all. For all the times I’ve tried to sit down and find out what a belt tensioner or a camshaft was, I’ve come away with the honest impression that I’ve somehow forgotten how to intelligent. The knowledge just doesn’t sit in my head. Like programming, and languages-other-than-English, my attempts to learn even the basics have done nothing more than heat up a few neurons.

I just can’t learn about how cars work.

Or so I thought.

Orchestra: Dramatic chords

Somehow, though, Elite’s planetary SRV adventures appear to have been a sort of gateway car-drug. Not that I’m going to turn into a petrolhead any time soon — nor even a petrol-and-electrichead as would be more suitable for a hybrid driver. But it’s noticeable that from the little wheeled bubble of fun (and, importantly, air) that is the Scarab SRV, I’ve progressed expanded out not only to my trucking games and on into Codemasters’ DiRT Rally, with its beautiful scenery, convincing handling and positively gigglesome speeds, but also…



(I advise anyone who actually knows me in, like, real life — including family, friends and current or former car mechanics — to sit down for this bit.)

…also, I’ve found a game on Steam called… (deep breath) …Car Mechanic Simulator 2015.

All right, all right! I’ll just wait till you’ve stopped laughing. Go on. Get it all out of your system. Okay? Done? Right.

The thing is, I’ve had a go at Car Mechanic Simulator. I’ve played it for around three hours, all told, and… Well, look, first of all it’s oddly good fun. There’s something very satisfying about removing a knackered old part from a car, and replacing it with a nice shiny one. Not only that, but I’ve long argued that gaming has educational potential; and I feel that’s at least partially justified by the fact that I now believe I do know what a camshaft is, roughly, what a belt tensioner is for, roughly, and whereabout on a basic engine they might possibly be found. Not to mention a plethora of other parts that I’d only previously heard uttered as mystical incantations. Spells. Dark sorcery with the power to inexplicably increase the size of my maintenance bills.

See? That’s a belt tensioner there. It turns out it tensions belts. The camshafts are in the top bit.

And suddenly I’m quite interested in my own car. Since it’s quite new (to me, if not to the post-manufacture world), I’ve had a bit of an interest in trying to look after it a bit better than previous ones, and I’ve been trying to find some sources of hints and tips for better driving, and so on. Yes, I’m fortyish, and have been driving since I was seventeen, but it is never too late to learn, eh wot?

Who knows? Maybe, between practising on fake computer cars and learning real stuff about my real one, I might yet find that real-life maintenance becomes a bit less onerous and baffling than it’s always seemed.


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