Blocking it out - How Ken Block and Colin McRae: Dirt 2 helped me escape the anxieties of youth

Ken Block next to his car in Colin McRae: Dirt 2.

Ken Block next to his car in Colin McRae: Dirt 2.

Celebrity deaths don’t usually resonate with me all that much.

It’s probably an age thing. Most of the time, the individual popping their clogs is one that I’ve only ever known outside of their prime years or become familiar with through other people. However, the recent death of rally driver and viral stunting sensation Ken Block has been a little different. Why?

It’s because of 2009’s Colin McRae: Dirt 2. Sure, the fun-loving American and his smorgasbord of highly tuned automobiles, the majority of which featured in at least one of his viral gymkhana YouTube videos or appearances on shows like Top Gear, have appeared in a number of video games over the years, including Forza and Need for Speed, but Dirt 2 offers the full, uncut Kenneth from the block experience.

Ken Block racing Dave Mirra in Colin McRae: Dirt 2.
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Diving into the Dirt

Every time you fire the game up and press the start button, he’s there to greet you. He welcomes you into a world of racing that’s liberally daubed in lime green and fluorescent pink paint, moves to the relentless drum beat of mid-2000s Pop-punk and has a lethal cocktail of energy drinks coursing through its veins. The intro video to this world introduces you to the likes of Travis Pastrana, Tanner Foust and, of course, Ken, via an in-progress race that devolves into a series of intense driving stunts.

Once you’re properly into the game, you’ll find that the main menu is staged in the kind of RV that would usually transport a gang of competitive skateboarders to their next half-pipe or convey a gaggle of snowboarders to the slopes. If you were still in any doubt about which trend the game is tacking itself to, above the map where you enter racing events sits a book emblazoned with the words ‘extreme sports’, because all developers who use subtext are cowards.

Adrenaline and anarchy are the orders of the day, as you barrel your way across the world, competing in an array of single events, tournaments and three regional variations of the X-Games. This is despite the fact you’ll constantly be surrounded by a massive level of advertising, with Block himself epitomising this as the face of DC Shoes and Monster Energy.

This makes the game exactly the kind of thing that, if I encountered it for the first time today, I’d take to Twitter to dismiss as a cynical commodification of rebellion in return for about three likes. But I’ll never do that, because I love it too much.

Some trophy trucks in Colin McRae: Dirt 2.
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The antidote to my crap life

I love it because of how I first encountered it. The year is around 2010. I’m making the awkward transition into secondary school life, when things like who you hang out with and how cool your peers perceive you to be suddenly start to matter. The Playstation 3 has finally come down in price enough for my parents to buy me my own to replace my ageing PS2, rather than dealing with my presence as a competitor for use of the family version that sits in the living room.

Within the same Christmas or birthday package (I genuinely can’t remember which) is Dirt 2, which I immediately fire up and became inseparable from. Sure, I’d been addicted to arcade racers for a while, but this time the hooks were lodged deeper than ever before. Going racing with Block and his crew became an unshakeable tradition that I’d rush home to observe as soon as school finished for the day. Armed with a controller, the enthusiasm of youth and enough flashbacks to erase those times when I’d accidentally test out my vehicle’s roll cage, I took on the world and conquered it. Naturally, my first PSN handle was Dirtking99.

Looking back, I think the bond that I formed with the game was heavily influenced by two factors. The first is that dreaded word that I mentioned earlier. Cool. While my ragtag band of school friends and I were many things, we weren’t quite that, at least according to my naive and warped definition of the concept. So, naturally, given the opportunity to temporarily trade in a group of polite misfits like myself for a virtual band of automotive rockstars blazing a trail around the globe, I took it.

Dirt 2’s rather laid-back approach to high-speed competition, which sees drivers like Block, Pastrana and Foust casually chat with each other over the radio as they race, dishing out plenty of boastful banter and reactions, made me feel like I was finally part of the cool club. Plus, the additions of fictional female racers Jayde Taylor and Katie Justice, as well as, in what comes off as a really surreal inclusion today, current FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, helped make things all the more immersive by breaking the American dudebro monopoly.

When I won, I knew that one of these personalities would pop up and congratulate me. When I’d crashed out or had a bad race, they’d offer me a few short words of encouragement. When I chose to join forces with one of them to take on a team event, they’d always be willing to race alongside me. It didn’t matter what I looked like, who else I was mates with or what music I listened to. I always felt like I belonged.

A$AP Rocky in Need For Speed: Unbound.
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Drowning in an ocean of economic strife

The second factor that, in hindsight, made Ken Block’s world so appealing to me relates to the social context of the time. In the two years preceding Dirt 2’s release, the Global Financial Crisis had ravaged the economies of the western world. Sure, I was far too young to directly feel the backlash of RBS having to be bailed out by the taxpayer, or even Northern Rock, based in the nearest city to me, collapsing into liquidation, but that didn’t matter. Suddenly, the world around me was coated in a fresh layer of fiscal desperation.

My parents rightly began to manage their spending more stringently. We mostly abandoned the tradition of watching the news on a morning in favour of a mixture of Discovery Channel science shows. My school studies, though always intended to prepare me for the world of work, struggled to hide the terrifying rat race, freshly filled with waves of laid-off souls, that lay beyond them. No more daydreaming, it was time to pick a realistic occupation to work towards. The fun was over.

Meanwhile, in Dirt 2, Ken Block and his mates existed in a fun little bubble exempt from all of this economic dread. Need to earn money? Just bring up the map, point to a location and go race. Wreck your ride trying to take the last corner without braking in order to beat someone? Don’t worry, it’ll be fixed up free of charge ahead of your next race. Want to visit some new and exotic places? Ken Block’ll fly you there and then tell a wry joke about the fact you should probably avoid the chillies.

Sadly, Dirt 2 isn’t the only arcade racer to have been given the lofty task of embodying a culture whose psyche has recently been rocked by major economic strife. This, along with the whole driving fast thing, is just one of the numerous similarities between it and 2022’s Need For Speed Unbound. Both games are based around attempting to make you feel like part of a living, breathing and diverse community of petrolheads. Both rely heavily on their celebrity cameos to attract purchases from those who don’t automatically buy every racing game that hits the market.

Sure, Ken Block never showed off the ability to put together bars like A$AP Rocky (though he did star in a rap video), but Unbound definitely wants you to think of the rapper as the poster child for its imitation of a Gen Z culture undoubtedly shaped by the COVID-19 recession. Racing against influencers and entrepreneurs while anime-esque visual flourishes whipped around my car and mumble rap blared over the squealing of tyres as I played through NFS’ latest instalment just before Christmas didn’t appeal to me in the same manner as Dirt 2 did. Perhaps I’ve outgrown that need to feel artificial acceptance. Maybe I’m just more at home in DC skate shoes than a gold Versace shirt.

Ken Block flying off a jump in Colin McRae: Dirt 2.
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Crossing the finish line

At the end of the day, I’m aware that when I found happiness through Dirt 2, I was a borderline middle-class kid with loving parents who could still afford to buy him video games, so the issues I’ve outlined could easily be dismissed as first-world problems, but I don’t think doing so helps any of us. After all, who doesn't use games as a way to get away from the practicalities and anxieties of their everyday lives? Hopefully, games like Unbound can offer that kind of refuge to today’s confused kids.

In my case, Ken Block wasn’t just the main character of Colin McRae: Dirt 2. He was the poster child for escapism, an embodiment of hope that adulthood might offer something less depressing than my surroundings kept subtly suggesting.

That’s why, even though celebrity deaths don’t usually resonate with me all that much, this one did.

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