The notification was flashing up in my peripheral vision as I raced through the streets of Baku in a Formula 1 car — past the monuments and minarets of the oil-rich city, Azerbaijani flags and billboards fluttering in the artificial fog.
“SCToken is unlocked,” it said. I didn’t know what that meant. I downloaded it F1 22— the latest in a long-running sports simulation game that I’ve been playing on and off for decades — without really exploring its new features, and assumed this cryptic note had something to do with blockchain. It doesn’t matter how fast you go, I thought, you can’t outrun NFT.
In fact, the message was my entry into what the game developers called “F1® Life”—not NFTs, but good old unlockables, ones that can only be purchased with game skill or fiat currency (converted, with sickening inevitability, to in-game “PitCoins”). This was disconcerting at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense – the sport of Formula 1 has always been in thrall to commercial interests, so it’s only natural that its official game is too.
For my efforts – mostly driving very fast into the scenery – I was rewarded with a supercar token, which allowed me to unlock a vehicle for my avatar’s virtual showroom. There are eight to choose from – McLarens, Ferraris and Aston Martins in various shades of seizure-inducing neon, the kind of cars you hear speeding through central London on summer nights or see on YouTube videos shot with a GoPro mounted on a selfie stick and held uncomfortably low. What cars can F1 stars drive between sponsorship engagements.
The demands of “F1® Life” are numerous and varied. A virtual garage gives birth to a virtual apartment – a minimalist box – and a virtual wardrobe. Everything must be decorated. You can choose from soft soft furnishings and abstract wall art, or create a driver in your own image and dress him in Beats headphones and branded leisure wear. (There are thousands of permutations, but somehow every one of them looks like an Instagram crypto influencer on a flight to Dubai, very much in the F1 aesthetic.) You can even invite friends and strangers to your virtual pad to coo over your range of officially licensed and branded items – terrifying a vision of what the metaverse will actually be like.
Useless microtransactions and skins are nothing new, but they’re usually merged into the core game with more effort than this. Aside from being able to drive your supercars on the track at limited points throughout the season—in the Pirelli Hot Laps Challenge!—there are several occasions where your PitCoins will make a material or even visual difference to your gaming experience.
Fans of the series could blame this on developers Codemasters, recently acquired by EA, the undisputed kings of the money grab. Reviews say it’s the only thing that detracts from an otherwise solid racing game—one that’s visually appealing, rewarding to play, and pulls off the rare feat of being accessible to newcomers without alienating die-hard fans, thanks to its many customizable difficulty settings and assists. You can go all-out and be gently guided to victory like you’re spinning around a block, or you can go all-out and slam into Yuki Tsunoda’s back when you miss your braking point on the first turn—and all the options in between.
Probably, “F1® Life” only increases the accuracy of the simulation. Formula 1 often owes its popularity as much to the circus around it as to the sport itself. The human element is what made F1 so appealing in the 1970s, with the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt (as shown in Rush), and so boring during Sebastian Vettel’s four-year dominance in the 2010s. This is why the sport has experienced a renaissance since the Netflix series Drive to survive, which brings those personal rivalries to the fore. “F1® Life” sort of captures that, though perhaps not in the way the developers intended – instead of adding a sense of glamour, it gamifies the vacuous consumerism that surrounds (and funds) the sport.