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Can video games actually upskill our kids?

Nissan once proved that you could turn a gamer into a racer. Now there’s even a movie about it

I once beat Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher. In the wet. At Monza.

Of course, this was not real life nor anything close. It was on a PlayStation One, using the F1 97 game that allowed you to drive and race amid the greatest of the Grand Prix grid (actually, except for Jacques Villeneuve – he didn’t give the game makers a licence to use his image and name and so featured in the game, prosaically, as ‘”river Number One”). As unskilled as I am, and being too chubby by far to squeeze my frame into an actual Formula One car, this was as close as I was ever going to come.

Or was it? Had I applied myself more thoroughly to my gaming could I have built skills that could then be translated to real, actual racing cars? Well, yes – that’s exactly what could have happened in my case, and what did happen in the case of Jann Mardenborough.

The British then-teenager was one of the successful applicants to Nissan’s GT Academy, which back in 2008 sought to take racers from the couch potato to cornering king.


Nissan had by then already seen a great deal of digital success as part of the Sony PlayStation game Gran Turismo, with the 350Z coupe being a popular gaming choice. It could hardly be called a logical extension to go from there to training gamers to be actual racing drivers but that’s exactly what Nissan did, and Mardenborough won the third running of the GT Academy in 2011, becoming something of a superstar in the process.

His career since has been a touch up and down, racing at Le Mans in one of the least competitive cars ever to appear at the 24 hours – the Nissan GTR-LM Nismo – and being involved in an accident at the fearsome Nurburging racetrack in Germany which saw a spectator lose their life. However, not only does Mardenborough continue to race but a new big-budget Hollywood film is about to celebrate his achievement in going from gamer to racer.

The film might be titled Gran Turismo, after the game through which Mardenborough and others first entered the competition, but it’s about the ups and downs of the Academy, not the actual gaming, and features David Harbour (one of the stars of Netflix’s Stranger Things) and young British actor Archie Madekwe as Mardenborough. The film is directed by Neill Blomkamp, the South African director still best-known for his 2009 sci-fi smash District 9.

Whether or not the film can truly replicate the thrill of racing on-screen, or whether it can make a good fist of telling Mardenborough’s tale, the claim that on-screen skills can lead to real-world success is something at which many of us will sniff. Nissan, though, says it’s for real, and that maybe we shouldn’t be giving our kids such a hard time for their screen time.

Nissan’s electric Formula E Team race driver Sacha Fenestraz and sim driver Luca Ghiotto both say that time spent playing driving games when they were younger has helped them hone essential skills such as dexterity, concentration and stress management that they now use in their full-time jobs.

“I have less time to do gaming for leisure now that it is my career, but the console is where it started,” said Luca, who provides vital data to the race team from the simulator. “While sim racing is a more advanced form of gaming, the fundamentals of racing on a console at home are also the same, making it widely accessible.”

Indeed that’s a perfect demonstration of the circular logic of this particular argument – where once computer simulations were how amateurs tried to ape the professionals, now simulation work is where a racing team hones and perfects its cars in digital form long before a physical tyre touches a physical track.

Likewise, Sacha – who competed in the final two rounds of the championship this past weekend and holds the record for the fastest lap ever recorded in Formula E – points out that all race drivers competing in Formula E use team simulators as an integral part of their training regimes ahead of a race. “A lot of the core skills you hone in racing, like focus and reaction times, are all key elements of gaming too, so I build this into my schedule,” he said. “Just like Formula E itself, there’s also the enjoyment factor – gaming is a great way to unwind, as well as upskill.”

Nissan Formula e

Research carried out by Nissan also shows close links between gaming and gainful employment, with a survey of 1,000 people who regularly use video games for entertainment revealing one in 10 are already in a career related to their hobby, with 20 per cent believing their hobby has influenced their career choices.

More than six in 10 (63 per cent) also believe people who game can develop certain skills more effectively than non-gamers, with rapid decision-making (58 per cent), cognitive reaction (55 per cent) and logic (48 per cent) some of these key attributes.

Meanwhile, the research shows the technology can also benefit mental wellbeing. Some 56 per cent of respondents believe gaming helps them relax, and 19 per cent like the feeling of creativity it gives them.

Lucian Gheorghe, a researcher and spokesperson for the Nissan Feel Electric Festival, said: “Gaming is often seen as a fun pastime, a way to kill time, but sports and driving games specifically can really help you develop key skills that could even be turned into a career. Gaming can open up a world of career opportunities. Whether your focus is writing, art, coding, design or even motorsport – gaming has pathways to suit.

There are valuable life skills that you can take into any career. Of course, this is easier said than done when you’re pipped to the post at the last second in a racing game, costing you the championship – but it’s important to try.”

Maybe I should drag out my old PS1? See if Jacques is up for a rematch…