Five short days ago, the sim racing scene was graced with a lengthy opinion piece from prominent sim racing YouTube personality Empty Box – otherwise known as Matt Orr – which over the course of eleven minutes addressed some of the extreme levels of toxicity that have popped up within the community as of late. Truth be told, it’s simply not a good time to partake in the hobby known as sim racing, as the increased reliance on building connections via online message boards, and multiplayer events taking the spotlight away from developers creating robust single player experiences out of the box, has basically forced people into mingling with a whole bunch of intolerable nerds they otherwise wouldn’t give the time of day. This perfect storm has created a situation where routine in-game chatter is now full of immense hostility, while participating in any online forums to share your passion with other sim racers around the world instead requires extensive knowledge of the various personalities, biases, and eccentricities to keep your sanity intact.
It’s a multi-dimensional nerd fight that doesn’t seem to end, and occasionally even the developers jump in on the fray, exhibiting behavior towards customers that would more or less get them fired in any sort of physical storefront setting. And when things appear to have settled down for an evening, there always ends up being that one guy who stumbles into the forums and makes an ass of himself – taking a genre of obscure video games far more seriously than what they require to be enjoyable.
Orr’s video places the blame for this nuclear wasteland of an environment solely on an overwhelming amount of sim racers who statistically appear to have stopped racing altogether for whatever reason, opting to sit on the message boards and immerse themselves in the ongoing drama rather than hitting the virtual track. While there is some truth in what Matt says – a portion of the more notorious shit-disturbers don’t even own a wheel yet still spam praise for rFactor 2 anywhere they’re allowed to – many people were actually left underwhelmed by his thoughts on the subject, because his entire piece boiled down to “stop being a fanboy and start racing.” Anyone could have made this conclusion.
Matt didn’t address how these fanboys came to be in the first place, how the sim racing community as a whole turned into this horrifying mess of partially-delusional auto racing nerds, and what we can do as a group to reverse it.
Thankfully, I know the answer. And it’s a very ugly truth not many will want to hear.
I’m going to begin this piece by saying something extremely controversial, but I want our readers to know that there’s a legitimate reason behind my views – not an irrational vendetta. If you want to understand why the majority of sim racers appear to be such confrontational, delusional elitists, the answer is quite simple: iRacing played a major role in the sim racing community’s descent to hell. Now before you all go hunting for your pitchforks, I want to make it very clear that this is not an attack on the staff members in Bedford, because in this instance they haven’t actually done anything wrong, nor will I sit here and shit on the game’s partially completed tire model as is par for the course here at PRC.net. None of what I’m about to say has anything to do with the technical aspects of the iRacing software; it’s all about the mentality iRacing represents.
Stepping into our PRC time machine and traveling back to the true golden age of sim racing, when websites like Blackhole Motorsports and Race Sim Central were both operational and buzzing with activity, racing simulators as a whole were viewed in a very different manner than they are today. Games such as GTR 2, Richard Burns Rally, Grand Prix Legends 2004, rFactor, and NASCAR Racing 2003 Season were basically regarded as these obscure alternatives boasting massive third party content support, primarily intended for motorsports enthusiasts who wanted something more hardcore than Gran Turismo 4. That’s it.
While the communities weren’t free from drama by any means, everyone sort of understood that these were just $60 video games they all picked up from Best Buy on a Friday night after work. Some guys bought Logitech wheels and heavily invested themselves into the racing portion, while others dove into the modding element, and as a whole, people just sort of hung out and sunk a whole bunch of time into games they loved. They raced in leagues, and had their buddies create cars and tracks. Sometimes they got bored discussed which game had the objectively best set of physics, but those debates never turned into the outright shit-slinging we see today. That’s really as far as it went, and looking back, it’s all we needed. The games were getting progressively more advanced with each passing year, but the ideology fueling the community was fairly simple: hang out.
iRacing came along in 2008, and suddenly told these sim racers – who had spent several perfectly happy years doing little more than racing, building mods, and hanging out – that elitism was suddenly in style. During a relatively simple period in the genre, where you bought a game for $40, joined a league, or scooped up some mods from rFactor Central, iRacing introduced the idea of sim racing being an elite online club, rather than a quirky piece of software for those who had gotten tired of Gran Turismo’s shortcomings. Sim racing was no longer this obscure genre, it was now an exclusive country club – but only if you purchased an iRacing subscription – and putting down the cash to sign up was advertised almost as a badge of honor within the community. You would no longer be just a guy who loved GTR 2 and played it every evening with his mates, sometimes cranking out a livery or two for the fun of it, you were now an iRacer.
From the jacked-up pricing model, the mandatory use of real names, and the lengthy terms of service, all the way to promotional material dubbing it a virtual career, iRacing pushed a lucrative country club-like atmosphere and treated the product as if it somehow transcended its existence as a video game, during a time when every other developer within the genre was perfectly fine cranking out relatively simplistic releases.
And a lot of people bought into it. Not just financially, but emotionally as well.
The private golf club-like atmosphere of iRacing certainly offered some sort of permanent solution for public lobby races that often descended into chaos, but it also came with a set of unintended consequences. Let’s be real here, a lot of us within the genre are hardly party animals, and the elite online club iRacing created gave introverted computer nerds a very tangible sense of belonging – one they weren’t able to successfully achieve with community sports teams, high school cliques, or workplace social outings. On paper, there’s nothing inherently wrong about this, but the very specific environment iRacing built allowed the negative aspects of this endeavor to sprout fairly quickly. Because iRacing was now viewed as part of an individual’s identity rather than just an updated version of an old NASCAR game people paid a whole bunch of money for, iRacers grew very attached to their simulator of choice, and were personally offended when it was criticized.
The criticism, obviously, was bountiful, but the specific complaints regarding the iRacing software aren’t important here. What is important, is that a whole bunch of sim racers got on board with the concept that sim racing could be more than just obscure driving games – they liked the fact that they were part of an elite internet club, because it gave many a legitimate sense of belonging they hadn’t experienced before.
As iRacing continued to evolve, iRacers became even more attached to the country club atmosphere than they were before, and the developers themselves let it get to their heads. Prior to iRacing’s inception, an article on GameSpot actually sat down and went through all of the previous releases by Papyrus, painting out David Kaemmer to be little more than a quiet enthusiast who used his talents to push out a string of critically acclaimed indie racing simulators throughout the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Fast forward to present day, and any one of Mr. Kaemmer’s posts on the official iRacing forums are met with hundreds of members slobbering over his every word, and implying any criticism over his current rendition of the iRacing tire model is somehow an attack on his life’s work – even though it’s clearly not.
It’s as if you’ve shown up to a local golf course and asked why the karts and fairways are in such poor shape, only to be told by the regulars you’re simply expecting too much from your membership, and need to cut out that instant gratification bullshit mentality.
But because the sense of belonging created by iRacing’s intentional elitism was so strong – outweighing any clear negatives in the eyes of their members – soon, this mentality began to seep into other fanbases as well. The resident computer nerds among us wanted every racing simulator to become an exclusive club, simply because it made them feel like they were a part of something meaningful, and that their long hours in front of the computer monitor were going to a legitimate cause. Suddenly, it wasn’t just iRacers who had an air of elitism surrounding them – it was now mirrored by the fans of rFactor 2, Project CARS, and Assetto Corsa.
Soon enough, concepts once seen in iRacing suddenly popped up in adjacent communities. The fanfare over David Kaemmer has been mirrored not once, but three times, with Stefano Casillo of Kunos Simulazioni, Ian Bell of Slightly Mad Studios, and Renato Simioni of Reiza Studios. iRacing were the first developer to really start speaking in tire models, and now suddenly every major virtual auto racing release mentions a tire model upgrade like it’s a marketing buzzword rather than a genuine gameplay improvement. And of course, who can forget Assetto Corsa locking down a majority of their official forums for the longest time, only accessible to those who had purchased a copy of the game on Steam, and connected their message board account with their Steam profile. All of these examples are not coincidences; iRacers merely migrated to other titles which captured their interest, and eventually the concepts once pushed by iRacing were integrated into other communities as well.
This lead to a situation where anyone who dared to go against this elitist club mentality was promptly faced with immense backlash from the virtual country club members. So to answer the first of three questions, the toxic sim racing community – whether it be the aggressive fanboys angrily shouting at everyone for a conflicting view on a highly contested topic, or the cringeworthy pieces we lovingly document – is the result of iRacing arriving on the scene and implying it was okay for computer nerds to treat a video game traditionally retailing for $60 as a ticket to an exclusive online country club that transcended video games altogether – and then sim racers kept doing it on their own for every racing game that managed to catch their eyes.
Only now have people started to clue in that shit has gone way too far.
Each individual game or community is now a part of the identities of many sim racers. Just like how you can’t just walk up to a thirty year old and mockingly inform him he’s no longer the starting linebacker for the Sacred Heart Prep Gators high school football team, there isn’t a surefire way to snap the fanboys out of their intense devotion to their simulator of choice. It’s a part of who they were, and who they are. What you can do, is instead enact basic social moderation skills, and hope those on the fence take heed to your advice don’t lose themselves in what at the end of the day are just video games – and some of these video games aren’t even all that great. In fact, most of them are obviously half-assed on shoe-string budgets.
If you’ve got a buddy on Teamspeak with no job, he’s let it slip in the past that he’s not doing well financially, and yet he’s got something like ten thousand forum posts on the home of his favorite simulator, that’s the precise time to tell him to get his shit together rather than sitting around on message boards picking fights with people who don’t like his favorite game. If you see someone on the forums going on about a thermonuclear tire model teaching physicists the laws of the universe via rFactor 2, that’s the correct time to try and one-up each other with tire model jokes rather than get into a hostile pissing match. When someone tries to make you sign a legitimate contract to be part of their pretend iRacing team, laugh at them and leak the contract to some place cool, like Reddit. And when someone tries to make excuses for a game that’s objectively buggy or unfinished by standards from over a decade ago, don’t engage in a Buddhist temple-like philosophical discussion questioning what constitutes as a complete racing game – ask why a customer should be willing to put up with unfinished crap.
The current crop of sim racers, honestly, are lost. The idea is to instead set things up for a better tomorrow. I think in two years, if everyone makes a tangible effort to denounce this cult-like atmosphere when it’s exhibited by other members, it’ll go a long way to cleaning up the community.