'Desert Bus': The Cultural Event/Game

Desert Bus has become an event and has become part of the larger gaming culture with its own grammar of social interaction and meaning.

Penn and Teller: Smoke and Mirrors is an unreleased mini-game compilation for the Sega CD. Around the time of its planned release, the company that was publishing it collapsed. As a result, the license was lost and so a finished game fell by the wayside to seemingly become an odd footnote in the history of a failed console and a flailing console maker.

Among other things in the collection is quite possibly one of the worst games ever made: Desert Bus. In it, you are the driver of the titular desert bus, who must make the journey from Tucson to Las Vegas in real time. At 45 mph, the in-game bus’s top speed, that trip takes eight hours -- in real time. Once you do this, you earn one point and the option of driving back for another point. You can’t just tape down the gas button and press forward because the bus will list to the right, and you have to correct for it constantly. If you go off the road, the bus will break down, and you will have to be towed back to Tucson, again, in real time. The game cannot be paused. What kind of madmen would make this game and what type of madmen would dare play it?

Penn and Teller: Smoke and Mirrors is not just a collection of games, but also a collection of pranks and critiques. Desert Bus is one such critique, and it may also serve as the first rhetorical argument developed explicitly in video game form. At the time of its creation, congress and parents groups were developing a sense of moral outrage over the violence and unreality of games, so Penn and Teller set out to make the most realistic game possible. In other words, this is a game that is supposed to be as awful and "unfun" to play as it sounds -- that’s part of the point. If gamers have proven one thing over and over again, for better or worse they will take any argument in whatever form and turn it on its head, sometimes taking it to nonsensical lengths.

A few copies of Desert Bus had made it into the wild thanks to preview versions provided to journalists, but it still wasn’t that big of a deal to anyone -- that is, until it arrived in 2007 in the living room of an internet comedy troupe in British Columbia.

The LoadingReadyRun group thought that the game might serve as the focus of an idea to help raise money for the quality of life of hospitalized children. By subjecting themselves to one of the worst video games ever made for hours on end, they could aid the charity Child’s Play, so long as donations kept coming in. The organizers expected that they would raise about $5000 for about a day of play -- that first year they raised $22,805. They knew they had to do it again. And so they did -- for five years. Last year, they raised $379,385.01 for Child’s Play. However, that amount of money is only part of the story. Over the course of its history, the team grew from a small, four-person operation working over a couple of days into a team suffering through a week long endeavor, featuring charity auctions, pay-for challenges, and raffles for donated commercial items as well as unique crafts created by the community for the event. As a result, Desert Bus has become an event and has become part of the larger gaming culture with its own grammar of social interaction and meaning.

At the beginning of a Desert Bus event, $1 earns an hour of play. Each additional hour increases that cost by 7%. By hour 149, paying for a Desert Bus driver to play through the next hour would cost around $25,000. Before having even turned the game on this year, the group had earned a starting total of $10,000. Each driver was in for the long haul for a 24-hour marathon session in the chair, an experience which consists of holding down A and pressing left on the D-pad every so often. However, the boredom and pain that such a game should elicit has been transformed into hope. For while the game is near intolerable, the players want to play longer because every extra hour, every extra minute means more money for more kids. And while you could say that Desert Bus is only the excuse for everything around it and that the donated swag and auction bring in most of the money and not really worth experiencing, I can’t agree.

I watched for most of the six days and six hours of time spent "in the bus" this year. Strangely, I found it to be an enthralling event and that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from what was going on. The smallest things became great entertainment. The bug splat on the windshield that occurs 5 hours into the game has become a milestone event for those that participate in this trek for charity. Likewise, cheers erupt when a single point is scored only marking that the journey may begin anew. Every minute something additional is also happening, of course, whether it is the dramatic reading of Desert Bus fanfiction (I am not kidding), musical performances, live interviews with gaming luminaries (from Tim Shafer to Yahtzee Crowshaw to Notch), marathon dancing sessions, nail-biting auctions, the tensest games of Jenga that I have ever witnessed, marathon dancing sessions, or any number of other things that are always marked by the ever present counter at the top of the screen ticking upwards for every dollar donated.

Despite all that, the game is still central to the whole event. Desert Bus may be something to do that precipitated the larger event, a game played within the larger game that forms the context of the Desert Bus for Hope charity event and a sort of schadenfreude spectacle for those watching on their own computer screens, but it still everything revolves around the progression of Desert Bus the game.

The long haul from virtual Tuscon to Las Vegas is matched by the real-life player’s exasperation and the boredom that the avatar representing the driver must feel. We talk about video game trying to match their mechanics to the emotional qualities of the “story” or mood -- well, here is a prime example of success. But the empty bus that you see in the rear view mirror no longer reflects the reality of what playing the video game at home would have been had it actually been released. You could have called it a metaphor for the fate of the Sega CD at the time, but that is just no longer true.

The driver is not alone on this trip.

Thousands watch and travel with him back and forth between the two cities. Some even ride in solidarity, as did the people at Fangamer, a T-shirt outlet for geeks, when they challenged Desert Bus for Hope to a race in a real life bus.

We always ask, can a video game make you cry? We look for emotional resonance powerful enough to elicit that rare response reserved for true art. But games are different: they require a player to exist, they require participation, they require a certain investment by putting a little of ourselves into the experience. Beyond the player's chair, thousands of people did just that and dozens more donated their time to making the operation run smoothly for everyone else. Whether Desert Bus is only the game on a bootlegged disc for the Sega CD or is now the larger meta-game earning dollars for time elapsed, I don’t know. But can a game make you cry? At the very end, this gamer did.


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