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The connection between gaming and vehicles goes way back. From the earliest days of Atari Space Invaders to the modern era of GT Sport and Forza Horizon 4, people have loved buckling themselves into the metaphorical driver seat and heading off in search of adventure. The connection often broke down, though, when gamers had to actually pick their butts up off of their sofas and hop into their own four-wheeled vehicles to get from point A to point B. Their games just couldn’t come with them.
However, the good news for gamers everywhere is that the modern automotive industry has been in a state of evolutionary flux for a while now, with things like electric cars honing in on more traditional models. More importantly, the era of self-driving cars has also begun to dawn — with their commercial success likely just around the corner. These developments bode well and bring with them the promise for the entire world of gaming and transportation to get quite a bit chummier in the not-too-distant future.
With that in mind, let’s break things down and take a look at the history of in-car gaming, where it is now, and what’s coming.
A Brief History of In-Car Gaming
Once upon a time, going on a road trip meant you had to bring an arsenal of old school gaming equipment with you in order to stay busy on the way. We’re talking about things like paper, pencils, and perhaps an Etch A Sketch or a couple of Glow Sticks. These are still great road trip activities.
However, since those early days, when a tour of Route 66 sounded like the best thing since sliced bread (which was also fairly new), the in-car gaming experience has developed by leaps and bounds. One clearly huge leap was the invention of the Game Boy in 1989. Since then, portable gaming systems have become an essential part of the gaming experience.
For the hyper-ambitious (e.g. those who couldn’t go eight hours without getting their hands on a controller), by the end of the millennium, it also became possible to bring a television and gaming system into the car, but the entire setup was clunky as well as expensive.
The arrival of smartphones, and the millions of mobile games that they spawned, also spurred the in-car gaming experience forward. While some games like Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, or Brick Breaker may have been a tad simplistic and hard to play for hours on end, the development of other games like Clash of Clans, Minecraft, and Fortnite opened up new worlds of possibilities.
The additional arrival of the Wii U and Nintendo Switch within the last decade has made the mobile gaming experience nearly identical in depth and capabilities to larger consoles. That’s not to say it’s identical in actual gameplay, just that the mobile gaming options are much less of a step down then they used to be.
As for in-car games built into the vehicles themselves, Elon Musk himself revealed in late 2018, that Tesla had already tried to license Mario Kart for an in-car experience, although Nintendo didn’t want to play ball. As Musk bluntly stated, “We tried. Nintendo won’t license it to us.” Perhaps they were scared of being connected to the potential PR nightmare that could accompany the relationship during an era where any mistake by an autonomous vehicle is typically over-hyped. The fact still stands, though: Auto-makers have been aware of and even actively pursuing the concept of integrating games into their increasingly hands-off models for some time now.
There are also already some games that have entered the in-car arena. According to The Verge back in August of 2018, Musk electrified gamers with the announcement that several Easter Egg Atari games had already been embedded into the next software update that was shortly to arrive. Of course, at this point, they were meant to be messed with while the vehicle was not moving, but that’s to be expected in an era where we still need to keep our eyes on the road.
What’s Coming Down the Pike?
So where does that leave us, going forward? At this point, the next “big jump” in the industry seems to be pointing in one direction: self-driving cars.
The fully-autonomous car is kind of here at this point … but not really. They’re not widely available to the public yet, and they’re clearly not trusted by most drivers — by early 2018, nearly three out of every four drivers still did not like the prospect of driving in a fully automated vehicle.
However, many of the technologies that will ultimately be brought together into the fully self-driven vehicle are already present in the form of Lane-Keeping Assistance, Autonomous Emergency Braking, and Adaptive Cruise Control. In addition, drivers are becoming more and more aware of the fact that, in spite of the occasional accident involving an automated vehicle, most collisions are still caused by driver error, with self-driving cars promising a drastic reduction in that statistic.
In other words, along with the promise of things like being better for the economy and reducing car insurance premiums, self-driving cars are going to make the concept of in-car gaming not only possible, but a safer bet than driving yourself!
Add to that the fact that developers are promising games that integrate things like VR headsets and even incorporating obstacles from your surroundings as you go, and the entire in-car gaming experience seems set to be as big of a trip as the actual ride in your car.
The main question we’re left with at this point is when we’re going to finally get those fully autonomous cars in our own parking lots? While they constantly seem on the doorstep, working out all of the kinks could mean we’ll be waiting for that driverless gaming experience for at least a few more years, if not more. When they do show up, though, it’s going to be revolutionary for gamers far and wide.
Buckle up, kids. We’re in for quite a ride.