Desert Bus

Charity is, as has been well documented, the most competitive industry on the planet. The trouble is that there are many, many things wrong with this world, and lots of people who believe that all should get the same thing- but nearly all of them are going after the same target demographic (the rich middle classes who can afford to give to them), and there are simply so many of them competing for people’s time, energy and, most importantly, financial support that many get drowned under the weight of competition. This has lead to many charity events in recent years attempting to break out from the mainstream collection ideas, focusing on charitable enterprise or other such concepts in order to be different and identifiable. However, when preparing for one such event that is happening in the very near future (hence why I’m publishing this post a day early) I saw an opportunity to combine the topic of charity with blogging and an old favourite fall-back topic, gaming- but to start with, I’m going to talk about magic, so sit in for a story folks.

In 1975 a pair of American magicians delivered a show in Minnesota that would quickly become the first of many. With another co-host, the duo built their reputation with a regular show that lasted until 1981, before moving to New York to start their own off Broadway shows. By 1985 these were garnering them some top reviews, so as the 90s approached they turned their act to Broadway proper. During the 1990s they were appearing regularly on chat shows, doing US national tours and making TV cameos, firmly establishing themselves as possibly the most famous magicians on earth at that time (and possibly the present day too). Their names were (and are) Penn & Teller.

By 1995 their career was reaching a zenith; famous both nationally and around the world, they were the closest the magical world had to global superstars. And with stardom came all the trappings of fame, including incessant requests from various publishers and agents asking to be allowed to use their name to plug something, and presumably in late 1994 one such offer from Absolute Entertainment was accepted; to allow Penn & Teller to be the subject material for a videogame.

The game in question was to be called Penn & Teller’s Smoke And Mirrors; the console, the Sega-CD (an add-on for the Sega Mega Drive that was at the time fighting a furious console war with Nintendo’s Super NES). The game itself consisted of a series of mini-games, in a similar way to how a magic show is comprised of individual tricks- or at least, that was the idea. Each game was a trick you had to master, a little bit of slight-of-hand/controller that you had to learn before inviting your friends over and thrashing them since you knew how the trick worked, as a form of payback against those friends “who come over to your house, eat your food, drink your soda, play your games and always beat you” (Penn’s words, not mine). Many have since voiced the opinion that videogaming was a rather odd choice of platform for this idea, but whether this would have impacted sales was never discovered, as Absolute Entertainment went bust after (conveniently) they had completed the game’s development, but before they got a chance to ship it and pay Penn & Teller back the licensing money they were owed. Under the terms of the contract, this rendered all deals regarding use of Penn & Teller’s likenesses and intellectual property null and void, meaning Absolute Entertainment’s owners (Skyworks Interactive Inc.) couldn’t sell the game, and all the copies they produced presumably sat in a corner gathering dust somewhere. However, before the studio went under another player entered our story, by the name of Janet Reno.

At the time, Janet Reno was Attorney General of the United States under Bill Clinton’s leadership, and at the time in question she chose a particularly opportune moment to join the chorus of voices against the violence in videogames. Reno’s argument partially centred on the idea that these games were unrealistic, and should try to depict life as it really was rather than clouding the mind’s of the nation’s children (or something), so as a rather sly joke Penn & Teller slipped one more minigame in, the only one that wasn’t a magic trick. A little minigame going by the name of Desert Bus.

Desert Bus was described as being designed to be an example of ‘stupefyingly realistic gameplay’, and in it you played as a bus driver. Your job was to drive between two US cities, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, at no more than 45 miles per hour (presumably the bus was electronically limited), in real-time, right across the Great American desert. The scenery was fairly unchanging (the odd tree or bus stop goes by), there is no traffic coming the other way, the graphics are about as good as could be expected from that generation console, there are no people to pick up, and the journey takes 8 hours to complete in each direction. After 5 hours, a bug hits the windscreen. This is considered a highlight.

However, there were three things that turned this from a rather interesting statement by the game developers to a simultaneously evil and absolutely hilarious game, depending on whether you were playing or just hearing about it. Firstly, there is no ability to pause; pressing the pause button merely activates the horn, so you’re in for the long haul. Secondly, the bus lists to the right, meaning one cannot simply tape down the accelerator and leave it for eight hours- it requires one’s constant attention (and repeated turning left) to avoid crashing. If you do crash, and stay still for 15 seconds, a tow truck comes to take you back to Tucson- again, in real time, and at 45 miles an hour. Thirdly, if you reach Vegas, you get one point- and 15 seconds to decide if you want to try for another one by heading back to Tucson. The game has a limit of 99 points, never achieved without the use of an emulator. This is the world’s greatest endurance test- Penn & Teller even had plans, had the game been released, to set up a competition for who could get the most points, the prize being a luxury trip in ‘the real Desert Bus’, a few nights in a luxury Vegas hotel and tickets to their show, but of course the game never exactly received widespread coverage.

That is, however, not until 2007, when two more players enter our story- Penny Arcade and LoadingReadyRun. Penny Arcade is probably the most famous webcomic in the world, written by a couple of games nerds for games nerds (I should probably say at this point that I’ve never actually read it, but ho hum), and very much acting as a voice for the gaming community. It’s founders, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, have become successful enough to start their own gaming convention (PAX), and in 2003 they embarked on another project- Child’s Play. Designed with the view in mind of a gaming charity, a chance for gaming culture to give something back to society and to improve its negative image as being violent and uncouth, it aims to deliver toys and videogames to sick children in hospitals worldwide, in order to make their lives a little more bearable. Some have said that it’s message is perhaps not as righteous as that of, say, Oxfam, but these people are kind of missing the point of charity and it is nonetheless charmingly sweet in concept. Penny Arcade’s prominence among the gaming community is such that many key industry figures have got behind it and the charity has so far raised over $12 million, nearly one million of which has come thanks to the work of a group of Canadians behind an 8-year old internet sketch comedy series called LoadingReadyRun.

You see, in 2007 the guys behind LoadingReadyRun decided that they would try to use their small but devoted hardcore fan base to raise some cash for such a good cause, and so decided to organise a charity gaming marathon in aid of Child’s Play. Casting around for a suitable game to play, they decided that ‘the most boring game in the world’ would form a good backdrop whilst they danced, pissed around and generally humiliated themselves on camera to get donations, and so they plumped for Desert Bus. As they slotted a copy of the game (don’t ask me where they got it from) into a borrowed Sega CD, they hoped to try and raise $5,000 dollars, the plan being that their strategy of ‘the more we get the longer we play’ would last them about a weekend. They made four times their target, and the following year did the same thing again and hit $70,000, forcing them to play for nearly 4 days. By the next year their comedy had reached a wider audience after being picked up and hosted by The Escapist online ‘magazine’, and they broke $100,000 for the first time; last year they made $383,125.10, and hope to bring their sum total to over a million this year. Desert Bus For Hope 6 starts tomorrow, at 5am GMT (or 9pm PST), it’s for a great cause, and it should be entertaining to watch the kind of challenges they get up to- they are professional sketch comedians after all. The website’s here, and the list of people ringing in is here (spoiler- the list includes Notch), and a far more entertaining history of the game is here. If you’ve got the time free, give them a watch. It’s for the children.

Way more punctuation than is probably strictly necessary*

I am not a ‘gamer’. Well, certainly not one by the popular, semi-obsessive, definition- I like computer games, sure, and I spend a reasonable amount of my time playing them, but they’re not a predominant weekend pastime, and they are far from being a focal point of my existence.

However, part of the reason I am wary to get into games is because I have an annoying habit of never wanting to let an argument die, and given the number of arguments I see online and elsewhere on the subject of gaming, its probably best for all concerned if I give in to my better judgement and give myself no reason to join in (I could spend an entire post talking about arguing online, but that’s for another time). Gaming is a topic that causes far more argument and controversy than it appears to warrant, both within the gaming community (which is normal for any modern mass media- film and TV fans argue among themselves too) and, more interestingly, between the gamers and the ‘rest of the world’. For such a rich and massive medium, this, frankly seems odd. Why such argument? Why so much worry from parents and politicians? Why are gamers always thought of as seemingly laughable, the stereotype being an overweight nerd cocooned in his basement at 3am fuelled by Mountain Dew and chips? Why, basically, do people not like gamers?

I should pause at this point to say two things- firstly that the image I portray here of the prevailing attitude towards gamers is just what I have picked up from my (actually pretty limited) interactions with the non-gaming community, and second, that this is probably going to have to be a two parter. The first will aim to lay out the complaints lain at gaming’s feet by the main protagonists (and a few other things besides while I have the opportunity), and the second will go into my favourite question: why?

So, what exactly is it that people seem to dislike about gaming? The list is quite substantial, but can basically be broken down to (in no particular order)…

1) Modern gaming encourages violence/desensitises people to it
This is probably the biggest one, and the one to which politicians and such make the biggest deal over, and it’s not hard to see why. The hypothesis seems perfectly reasonable- modern games such as Battlefield and Call of Duty are violent (true), and the general lives of everyday people aren’t (true). Thus, the only exposure gamers have to this level of violence is through these games (basically true), and since this violence doesn’t hurt anyone real (true), they subconsciously think that violence isn’t actually that harmful and this desensitises them to its effects (okay, here we’re getting into speculation…)
There is some evidence to support this idea- watching people playing FPS’s and similar can be a quite revealing experience (next time you’re watching someone else play, watch them rather than the screen). Sometimes there are smiles and gentle laughs as they’re playing for fun (evidence point 1- the violent acts they are performing onscreen are not really registering with them), sometimes there is a quite alarming sense of detachment from the actions they are performing on screen (evidence point 2- the sign of conscious realisation that what they’re doing doesn’t really matter), and sometimes people will get seriously aggressive, gritting teeth, shouting and swearing as they bite the dust once again (third, and most compelling, point of evidence- people have gone from being ambivalent about the consequences in a scenario in which, let’s face it, there are no consequences, to getting genuinely aggressive and yet simultaneously compelled to play by such action sequences)
The fundamental flaws in this idea are twofold- firstly there is the simple “Well, DUH! Of course they’re lackadaisical about all the violence- THEY KNOW IT’S NOT REAL, SO THEY DON’T CARE!”. Plonk the average person, even a game-hater, in front of an FPS, and their prevailing emotion will not be the writhing under the chair screaming in abject terror that they would most likely demonstrate if they were really suddenly transported to a gunfight in Afghanistan or somewhere. The second flaw is based more upon the fundamentals of human psychology-  people and animals, at a fundamental level, respond well to action and violence. It’s in our nature- in the distant past it was necessary for us to prompt us to go out and hunt for food, or to make us run rather than go rabbit-in-headlights when the lion appeared in the path ahead. Plus… well even before games, guns and swords were just damn cool. Thus, you cannot complain at a person getting really into a violent game (which, by the way, has had millions poured into it to MAKE it compelling), to the point where they start to feel it is semi-real enough to make them slightly aggressive over it. With a world that is nowadays largely devoid of violence, this is about their only chance to make contact with their inner hunter, and unleash the adrenaline that entails. This is why a soldier, who gets plenty of action in his everyday life, will not relax by playing CoD after his patrol, but a suburban child will. People are not, from my point of view, getting aggressive from playing the game too much, but merely during the experience the game provides.
The case study that always gets quoted by supporters of this argument is inevitably ‘The Manhunt Murder’, referring to an incident in 2004 when a 14 year-old boy (Stefan Pakeerah) in Leicester was stabbed to death by a 17 year-old friend (Warren LeBlanc). While the authorities put the motive down to attempted theft, the victim’s parents insisted that their son’s murderer was obsessed by the game Manhunt. The game itself is undoubtedly bloody and violent, rewarding particularly savage kills, and so too was the murder- Stefan was repeatedly stabbed and beaten with a claw hammer, a method of execution the game features. The event has since be seized upon by those worried by the the violence in modern gaming and has been held up repeatedly as an example of ‘what can happen’.
However, the link is, according to many, a completely invalid one. The only copy of the game found at any point of the investigation was found in Pakeerah’s bedroom (his parents claim it was given to him by LeBlanc two days prior to his death), so if his murderer was ‘obsessed’ by the game, he didn’t play it for at least 48 hours previously. Perhaps more importantly however, only two people involved in the scenario blamed the game itself- Stefan’s parents. His father described the game as: “a video instruction on how to murder somebody, it just shows how you kill people and what weapons you use”. However, the police and legal authorities, at all stages of the investigation, said that LeBlanc’s aim and motive was robbery- gaming did not come into it.
This ties into the results of several research studies that have been made into the possible link between virtual and real-world violence, all of which have been unable to come to any conclusions (although this may partly be due to lack of data). My thoughts on the matter? Well, I am not learned enough in this field to comment on the in-depth psychology of it all, but I like to remember this: as of 2009 (according to Wikipedia, anyway), 55 million copies of Call of Duty had been sold, and I have yet to hear of anyone getting killed over it.

Okay onto part two… actually, 1200 words? Already? Ach, dammit, this is looking like it’s going to be a three-parter at least then. Saturday I will try and wrap up the complaints levelled at the games industry, the Six Nations series will continue on Monday, and Wednesday I’ll try and go into whys and wherefores. See you then

*Now let’s see who can get the gaming reference I’ve made in the title…