Want to Feel Like You’re Really Racing? Get a Gaming Wheel
You might consider videogames a way to sit back and relax after a long day of doing actual things—or as an alternative to doing actual things. But while some games are clearly fantasy, others aim to replicate reality, to make playing a game a true experience. That’s the case with simulation racing games like Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo.
And though many people use a regular Xbox or PlayStation controller to drive around a track, there’s another way for those who truly want to feel like they are behind the wheel of a race car: By sitting behind an imitation wheel.
For serious fans of racing games, like the new Forza Motorsport 6, an investment in a wheel and pedal setup can make you feel like you’re really out on the track, sweating your ass off and fighting off other drivers around turns and to the checkered flag.
For under $1,000 (a boatload of money, but still way cheaper than an actual track car), you can buy a top-notch wheel, pedals and racing seat to simulate what it’s like to actually race. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than good enough for racing aficionados.
For the past week, I’ve been playing Forza 6 with a Logitech G920. The $400 wheel is the new Xbox One version of the popular Logitech G29 from the PlayStation 3 and 4, a popular choice for entrants in Nissan and Sony’s GT Academy racing contest.
GT Academy shows that videogame racing is more than a time-waster, and that at-home racing can be serious business. It’s not that a racing videogame can create talent, but it can help it rise to the top. By having hundreds of thousands of aspiring racing drivers compete in a videogame, Nissan and Sony can find talented folks who wouldn’t get a chance to drive a real race car under normal circumstances.
There are a number of other wheels available, some cheaper, some more expensive, but they all give the same basic experience: Instead of a joystick, you use an actual steering wheel. All have wheel-mounted shifter paddles, like a real sports car, to change gears, and gas and brake pedals to go and stop. Some also have a clutch and gear shift for that old-school feel (the Logitech G920 includes a clutch and there’s an optional $60 6-speed shifter).
The G920’s wheel can be mounted to a desk or table, with a pedal setup to go on the floor. The gas and clutch have only minimal resistance, similar to what you might find in a car. The brake provides lots of resistance, requiring significant force to press it all the way. There are limits: no feedback from the pedals other than the resistance means you can’t feel the clutch engage or the wheels lock up through the pedal, like you can in real life.
The wheel provides 920 degrees of steering, much like a real car (2.5 turns lock-to-lock), though settings within the games can adjust that if you want more of a racing car feel where the wheel doesn’t need to turn as much to get full steering effort. Buttons on the wheel itself provide access to most tasks within the game (X/Y/A/B on the right side, a D-pad on the left, along with start/select and shoulder bumper buttons).
I started out by mounting the wheel to my desk, with the pedals on the floor. It was a typical setup, but under hard braking the pedals would move slightly. It was distracting from the game and certainly not optimal. So I tried out a $400 PlaySeat Evolution racing seat. There are lots of other seating options and an enterprising do-it-yourselfer could build something workable without too much trouble.
The advantage to a seat is twofold—first, you’re in the proper seating position for driving, something that is really difficult to replicate when you’re attaching your wheel to a desk. Second, it keeps the pedals in the right spot, even during hard or “enthusiastic” maneuvers. The biggest problem is finding enough room for the setup—it takes up about 15 square feet, right in front of your television. That’s fine for a bachelor who loves racing games, but your significant other or roommate might not be as appreciative.
But if you race a lot, combining a dedicated racing seat (and the proper seating position) with the wheel and pedals was an eye-opener. When I did an hour-long endurance race around the Circuit de Barcelona-Catelunya, I didn’t need to worry about the wheel and pedals shifting around and I could just enjoy the racing challenge. Squint a little bit (and crank up the volume) and you’ll almost swear you’re really racing. Major race teams spend millions of dollars on top-of-the-line simulators, and you’ve built one in your home a thousandth of that cost.
Of course, for all the simulated accuracy, you still don’t get one of the basic elements of racing: The feel of motion, the g-forces of a race car throwing you around. There are super-intense racing simulators that can get closer to the full experience, but that’s a level of seriousness and cost above even a $1,000-setup. The upside, though, is that you don’t risk getting carsick in your living room.