Thursday, December 4, 2008

Been through the desert on a bus with no name

Penny Arcade's yearly toy fundraiser, Child's Play, is purring along for the sixth time. Founded in 2003 by web-comickers Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik as a means of rebutting negative media portrayals of gamers. Since then, over 4 million dollars worth of games, books and toys have been donated to children's hospitals around the world, a remarkable feat of media mobilization and charity. As a symbolic act, it succeeds as a modest claim: that gamers are decent human beings, no better or worse than most. Attention must be paid.

A reassuring proof that we aren't psychotics.

This year, a good bit of attention has been given to a sister-project: Desert Bus for Hope. Organized by LoadingReadyRun, a comedy troupe in Vancouver, B.C., Desert Bus is a curious sort of virtual marathon, raising money to devote to Child's Play. In this instance collected donations relate not to miles ran, but hours spent playing video games. While that might sound like a fun arrangement, the game in question is anything but.

Bundled in the never-released Penn and Teller's Smoke and Mirrors, Desert Bus is one of several parody games. While the others are used to prank your friends by setting up Penn and Teller style magic tricks, Desert Bus was something else: a "simulation" of the most fastidious sort. The object of the game is to drive from Tuscon, Arizona to Las Vegas, a feat that takes 8 hours of real-time play to achieve. The road is empty but for you, and the bus veers slightly right, requiring constant correction. It cannot be paused. Should you veer of the road, you are towed back to the start, also in real-time. If you make it to your destination, you are awarded one point.

Then you turn around, and begin the drive back.

Desert Bus: Putting the "sissy" in "Sisyphus"

Penn Jillette has described "Desert Bus" as the "world's most boring video game", but that isn't quite right. It can better be described as a non-game, an exercise in tedium that serves to make a point in being not played. Where other non-games like You Have to Burn the Rope comically condense everything exciting about platform gaming into 30 seconds of play, Desert Bus pushes in the opposite direction, insisting that you play ad infinitum despite there being no rational reason to do so. Just as Warhol's Sleep is only a film insofar as the artist insists that it is, Desert Bus works as a game only by pretense.

So to actually play Desert Bus - in fact, to play it for days on end, spelling off in shifts, staring at the screen as trips are made to and fro through a digital purgatory - becomes a feat in itself. In drawing attention to their playing of an unplayable game, they have produced precisely the thing that Desert Bus avoids: the significance of event. And in playing on the idea of gamers as listless and inert, devoted to doing nothing for hours on end, they've managed to produce something impressive: a chance to do real, tangible good, precisely by doing nothing for hours on end.

This is the Stone Soup method of charity, where from nothing (in this case, the barren virtual landscape of the desert), a small something is scraped together. Gamers of all types understand the humour in endorsing other gamers to sit around and do nothing, and have given generously, if only to be a part of the event as well. And so it's here that an oddball game like Desert Bus has found its home, not as play but as performance.

- Rook


  1. With all the insanity of the season, i totally forgot about Child's Play this year! Thanks for the reminder Brendan.

  2. What's nice too is that they've included a number of new Canadian hospitals to their list. The Desert Bus guys have kicked up a good deal of support for the BC Children's Hospital, which is good to see.