Learning To Drive Stick With Video Games: A Jerky Start

Learning To Drive Stick With Video Games: A Jerky Start

A couple of weeks ago I decided to try and use video games to learn how to operate a manual transmission. After several hours behind a fake steering wheel I've determined I need several more hours behind a fake steering wheel.

As I mentioned in the original article, I never learned how to drive stick shift, which while not uncommon here in the States comes off as completely ridiculous to folks from countries where manual transmissions are the norm, i.e. most countries. While having a greater degree of control over the mass of metal and flame and rubber just makes sense elsewhere, here in the automatic-dominated U.S. our favourite gear is called "Drive" and our transmissions do all the thinking for us.

I am fine with "Drive" in the real world, but how could I call myself a racing game fan if I don't know how to drive a real racing vehicle?

And so, armed with a Logitech G920 racing wheel for the Xbox One and PC with optional gear shift and copies of Forza Motorsports 6 and Project Cars, I set off to learn. Aside from tips from our commenters, I would use no outside tutorials. That includes Jalopnik's How To Drive A Stick In Ten Easy Steps, an article I've never read but am growing more and more aware of each moment I'm behind the wheel.

Progress Report

I've not had as much time to virtually drive over the past few weeks as I'd have liked, largely due to the big fall gaming season ramping up. It's hard to find time to get behind a fake steering wheel when your office is filled with fake musical instruments.

I also ran into an issue where one of my Xbox One's (I have one in my office and one in the living room so the family can shout at Kinect while I am trying to work) would not register the steering wheel. It might have something to do with the Xbox One dashboard preview — the office console has it, and the wheel won't register, while the living room console is still on the regular dash and works fine.

Still, I've managed to clock several hours between Project Cars on PC and Forza Motorsports 6, and the going is very slow and jerky.

For starters, despite having a built-in profile for the Logitech G920, Project Cars required a little tweaking to get everything working correctly, which is tough when you don't know what working correctly really is. My first hour of racing were composed of grinding and revving noises, me flailing at a stick without numbers on the cap trying to get used to which gear was which, the car dying because I kept forgetting that third pedal existed and a good 15 minutes staring at a wall trying to figure out how to shift into reverse (apparently it involves pressing down on the stick.)

I fared a bit better in the somewhat more arcade-y Forza 6. I can make it around an entire track, but it's hard to shake 27 years of automatic driving.

The video below represents one of my more recent attempts. Keep in mind I am still only a few hours into this. It begins with me running off the road because I am looking at the stick shift instead of the screen. Then it gets a little painful. Mind the resolution — this was captured using the Xbox One's built-in game DVR, which is not great. Just pay attention to the gear indicator in the lower right. It's pretty hilarious.

I feel like "Yakkity-Sax" should be playing here.

What I Am Doing Wrong

While the outlook of my experiment might look dim at the moment, I've at least identified several key problems I need to address in order to make things better.

Forgetting the clutch exists: I am acutely aware of the third pedal I need to be pressing when a race begins. Give me more than 10 seconds in a single gear however, and my left foot wanders off to do other things. I am going to print out the picture below and tape it over my monitor. Then I'll move it so I can see.

Learning To Drive Stick With Video Games: A Jerky Start

Riding the clutch: That sounds like a term stick driving people might use, so I'm using it to describe my habit of holding it down for far too long when shifting gears. There's a rhythm to it I am sure — I've just not found it yet.

First, second, fifth...no sixth! THIRD!: I am guessing real-world stick shifts aren't quite as loose as the one supplied by Logitech here. I know where the different gears are now, but damn if I don't miss a simple transition 4 times out of 10. Once I overshoot I panic trying to get back into the right gear. Calm down. Relax.

Multitasking: Driving an automatic involves switching the car into "Drive" and hitting the gas. I suppose it also involves avoiding obstacles like living creatures and trying to make sure the speedometer doesn't go past "immediately arrested." Now I've got an extra pedal to worry about, as well as a tachometer, which is a term I just had to look up on Google.

Moving Ahead

As stuttery as a start as I might be off to, I feel like I am making progress. I'm having trouble finding my rhythm, but I know it's there somewhere.

I think one of my major issues is that for all the shiny graphics and somewhat realistic equipment, I'm still sitting straight up at a desk instead of leaning back in traditional car position.

A solution to that problem is on the way. Stay tuned.


    If it's any consolation, I drive manual quite well irl but struggle in driving sims.
    There's already so much to pay attention to when you are hurtling down a racetrack at speed that's it's easy to forget what you are doing gear wise.
    Really doesn't help that you get far more feedback from the car irl: you know what gear you are in and need to be in and the best way to apply it just from the feel and movement and sound of the car.
    But unless you have a full driving sim rig thing you don't get close to that with a game.

    Good luck to you though, I'm curious to see how it goes.

      As someone who does the occasional real world track racing Imo
      the key factor to what's missing in driving sims is the feeling of inertia (VR should help with this a little), followed by the way that you have your steering wheel peripherals setup, people forget that when they are in a real car that the position that they are sitting is almost as if they were lying down with the exception of having your back upright and supported.

    If third is middle up for you, then I had the same problem in my real life car. The best way to shift up into the middle position is to let the stick centre itself and then push up.

    Of course it is! Gear-shifting is probably one of the hardest parts of driving. Essentially, you're not going to be good at it until you've done it so much that it's become muscle memory and you're not having to think about it.

    I've only learned to drive automatics, and I find my biggest problem driving manual (IRL or game) is the clutch. The changing of gears and position of the stick / when to shift isn't a problem, it's just using that third pedal that throws me for a loop. I absolutely ride the clutch (almost humourously so) and can never seem to find that balance. Give me a semi-automatic (clutchless? manumatic?) and I do fine.

    The clutch is all about feel, and not being nervous, which is tricky when you are nervous :)
    The tacho you can forget fairly quickly though once you know the *sound* the engine makes at different revs, you soon change gears by ear.

    i can drive a manual IRL easily even with a racing clutch. I don't get much satisfaction driving manual in racing sims though as there is no feed back from the biting point in the clutch and the shifter doesn't behave like a real transmission.

      Yep, feels completely pointless in sims. It's like an empty layer of difficulty.

      If they could get feedback into the clutch so you could feel it, then it'd be perfect.

    I love this article. I recently spent hours driving around in GTA V the super boring way, making stops at traffic lights and generally obeying the road rules. I too was practicing my driving in a video game but for a different reason. I went on a trip from Australia to USA and planned an epic road trip consisting of about 4000 miles and was pretty concerned about driving on the other side of the road. I drive a manual at home so I can't speak as to if this will work for you but I do know that my time in GTA defiantly helped prepare me with the idea of doing everything in reverse. Good luck!

    Last edited 15/10/15 12:13 pm

      Sometimes I do that just for the hell of it. Or jump in a cab and look out the window as he drives me from one point of the map to the other.


    best "wheel" I ever had was the negcon on ps1. That could really hold very accurate lines on cornering and take a little mid corner re-jig. Combine that with pedals and that would be superb!!!

    2 ways to try,
    1: Rock, ruler balanced over a brick. Move the brick too practice, till you find the right ratio to use.
    2: slip, hold rpm let it slip till up to speed.

    But the thing that my help you is clutch 1/2 way up, slide foot off the side of clutch. It stopped me slipping the clutch in the semi trailer.

    Now I’ve got an extra pedal to worry about, as well as a tachometer, which is a term I just had to look up on Google.

    If it helps any, you don't really need to look at your tacho most of the time. You get a feel of when you need to change gears simply by listening to the engine.

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