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Flights of Fancy

Feature: Why are Flight Sims so popular?

Controversy. videogames. Two words that tend to snuggle up to each another. But it's hard to believe that, for a spell, the most contentious game of all was not your run-of-the-mill murder/death/kill title, but a flight simulator.

When terrorists flew planes into the New York World Trade Center's towers in 2001, allegations abounded that they had practiced on Microsoft Flight Simulator. The horrified software giant promptly delayed the release of their 2002 version and deleted the destroyed towers from its New York scenery.

The ripples of 9/11 were also felt on our side of the Atlantic says John Davis, flight sim fan and owner of a 747 cockpit at his home in Coventry: "A few companies in England hire time, for the general public, on British Airways simulators.

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"They were not allowed to do so for at least a year after 9/11. Now they check your background and your passport before you use them."

Flight simulators can't be blamed for terrorist attacks, but this controversy illustrates just how realistic simulation software has become. While RPG fans croon over Oblivion's shimmering fields and first-person shooter enthusiasts stare endlessly at light diffusing through Crysis' lush foliage, the flight simulators' relentless quest for realism is almost endearing. Like Haley Joel Osment in A.I., before he grew up and went a bit potty.

Virtually real

Bruce Williams, a real-world pilot who's worked on six versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator - from Flight Simulator 95 through to Flight Simulator X - explains: "[In my role] I co-ordinated with partners in the aviation industry - aircraft manufacturers, data supplies, and organisations like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

"I also guided the discussions about each new version, proposing features, aircraft and other details that the individual teams then decided on and implemented."

PC simulation, he says, has transformed dramatically in terms of graphics over the years. "But there's so much more under the cowling: ATC (Air Traffic Control), real-world weather, thousands of airports and their supporting infrastructure."

On the surface, flight sims appear to have more in common with pigeon fancying, train spotting and other hobbies that middle-aged men get obsessive about. But ever since their inception, flight sims have been a core part of PC gaming.

In 1975 Bruce Artwick created Flight Simulator, the first flight sim of its kind, which was ultimately bought by Bill Gates and morphed into the Microsoft series.

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Artwick's Flight Simulator and its subsequent incarnations, laid the groundwork for gaming in the form of 3D graphics.

Flight sims were among the first games to have online play and modding. Today, their online community amounts to hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts, many of whom design virtual airlines, aircraft, scenery and entire simulations.

In 1997, Curt Olsen made a new sim called FlightGear (flightgear.org) "a community driven, open-source project based on open protocols, supporting libraries and communication, and distributed bug squashing".

FlightGear is now a collaborative effort involving hundreds of bedroom developers.
Realism is FlightGear's ultimate goal, Olsen says.

"[We have] aircraft designers developing complex gear animations and retraction sequences, and building advanced fly-by-wire flight control systems, specific to a particular aircraft. We have designers building fully animated, fully interactive 3D cockpits, and modelling complex aircraft and cockpit systems..."

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