01 November 2021
In 1998, I received a Playstation for my seventh birthday, and with it a copy of the first Playstation Underground Jampack demo CD. Remember those? That disc was weirdly formative for me, and I ended up getting more mileage out of it than some full retail games.
One of the featured games was Gran Turismo. It featured just one track, and two playable cars. I became instantly attached to this Nissan Skyline, for no other reason than that it came in this really ugly orange, the color of cheap macaroni and cheese, or maybe Cheeto dust. 1 I played the hell out of that track, over and over, and I loved it. Couldn’t wait to get the full game.
Listen, those reflections were REALLY impressive at the time.
There was just one problem: every time I reached the first turn in the demo course, I would crash into the barrier by the side of the road. This cost me precious seconds every lap, and no matter how hard I tried, I could never finish in first place.
The AI, on the other hand, never seemed to have any trouble with it. I’d watch them take that curve nice and easy, every time, without hitting the curb or anything! I thought this was really unfair.
After doing this for a while, I asked my dad why I couldn’t turn as tightly as the other cars could. Watch me, I demanded, tell me what I’m doing wrong. After all, he drove cars for a living.
The light turned green, and I floored it. When I reached that first curve, I turned as hard as I could, but kissed the side of the track like always.
“Well of course you’re going to crash if you keep accelerating like that,” he said. He laughed, got bored, and walked away without elaborating. 2 Apparently that was enough information.
I didn’t understand what he meant, but I was determined to figure it out.
Now, in order for this story to make sense, you’ve really got to put yourself in the tiny, under-developed brain of a seven year old Val.
Racing games were about going fast, right?
There was a button on your controller that made you go fast, so obviously you’re going to want to push that. The demo track opened with a massive straightaway, too, so you could build up a lot of speed. But no matter how early you started turning, you’d always run headlong into the side of the course.
And because this is an old arcade game with bumper physics, you’d repeatedly bop into it, turning slightly more left with each collision, until your car evened out and you could continue. (This seemed to me like a really inefficient way to turn your car.) By the time you were done, your competition was gone and you were in last place again.
I didn’t understand how to slow down or drift. I was taking every turn at a hundred miles an hour.
I didn’t realize this game was simulating real-world physics. To me, the purpose of the X button was not to accelerate, but to make the car “go” by magic ™. It was the button you pressed to be able to play the game. I also didn’t understand why anyone would want to slow down in a game about racing, or in what situations slowing down could be really useful.
And look, I’ll spoil the ending, I did eventually figure it out. But I think that’s less interesting than the lesson I can learn from it now, some twenty years later, as a case study on the pitfalls of mentorship in the absence of empathy.
He could have explained how the X button wasn’t just “making the car on screen go”, it was also applying force and creating momentum.
Or that the brakes don’t just “glue the car in place”, or even “make it go slower”, but that they create friction and drag; that an object that is moving wants to keep moving until enough force is applied in a different direction.
He could have explained how I could use that knowledge to do really cool and useful stuff, like point the nose of my car in a direction other than the one I was driving, something that up until that point I’d thought impossible.
We could either build something, or go for a ride in an actual car, to see how it works in real life! Hopefully with less crashing, though. Save that lesson for when we’re playing Twisted Metal.
Alright, Elizabeth, now what did we learn?
My dad was absolutely correct when he diagnosed the problem as “I was accelerating like that”. That is exactly what I was doing wrong.
A fellow driver would have understood what he was communicating instantly. But it assumed that I knew other ways to accelerate, or even what accelerating really meant outside the context of a video game. It assumed an understanding of my tools that I just didn’t have. He was using the language of an expert to instruct a beginner.
It’s also really disappointing how quickly he lost interest when I wasn’t getting it. Clearly I was capable of learning. Today, I can power slide with the best of them in Mario Kart. And rest assured, these days I can make turns in my real-life vehicle without scraping against nearby buildings to right myself. The training wheels are officially off.
Maybe the question that we should ask in this kind of situation is:
Then start there.
All this is to say, it can be difficult to imagine not knowing something that you are already quite familiar with. The ability to identify fundamental knowledge, or when you’re taking that knowledge for granted, is key to providing mentorship that is practically useful, and not just correct in retrospect. If it’s not clicking, it doesn’t mean the person is stupid. It may just be that you started in the wrong place.
It’s kind of cool to find a lesson buried in such an obscure memory. It also means that technically it took me over two decades to learn this lesson. Which, given my driving ability, is pretty on brand.