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.

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Another week, another attack on the web…

A couple of weeks ago, on the day of the web blackout, I put a post up here about SOPA and PIPA, the two acts planned to be passed by the US government with the potential to cripple  the web as we know it. Happily, in the space of 3 days the bill was all but dead and buried- a resounding success from the internet community.
However, the web is still a problem child to  many big corporations, and SOPA was far from the last time we’re going to see the copyright brigade try to attack it. I heard the other day of another threat looming on the horizon- this time called ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement).
Unlike SOPA or PIPA, ACTA is an international affair, being discussed in the worldwide halls of power- some have criticized it, in Europe at least, for being discussed by non-elected figures, but that’s another story. It’s actually a lot older than SOPA or PIPA- it was first put forward in 2006, first drafted in 2010, and was published in April 2011. ACTA’s aim is, once again, to deal with copyright infringement, this time by dealing with intellectual property rights. Like SOPA and PIPA, the problems it is setting out to deal with are real ones- intellectual property theft (or stealing/using someone else’s idea without permission) is a sneaky and underhand way of muscling into someone else’s market and making a quick buck out of someone else’s work. However, there is one gigantic problem standing in the way of this kind of bill ever being a good idea- the concept of intellectual property itself.
Intellectual property is notoriously hard to define- the OED lists it as “intangible property that is the result of creativity, such as patents, copyrights, etc…” because once it reaches this legally defined stage it clearly is. But there is no real distinction of exactly where the boundary of where IP starts begins. Is it when you first have the idea for a product? Is it when you first commit something to paper? Is it only when it has been filed, patented and copyrighted- where is the boundary? As such, any scale of idea can be thought of, without really stretching a point to0 far, as intellectual property. And ACTA does not introduce its own definition of intellectual property, meaning it is ripe for exactly the same kind of legal misuse as SOPA and PIPA could have been. The sharing of any information can technically be classed as intellectual property- spreading an idea that is technically somone else’s, without paying for the privilege. Of course, it is the web that would be hit hardest by the potential of ACTA to restrict the transfer of information, as this is, basically, what keeps the web running (see my SOPA/PIPA post for more details on the subject). This restriction on what can be said and shared means ACTA has been accused, most notably by the European Parliament, of potentially restricting people’s right to free speech and freedom of expression.
Like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA also grants hugely overblown powers and capabilities to countries, companies and governments attempting to enforce it- these include massively increasing the amount of surveillance permitted to be conducted on everyday people (violating your civil rights this time- people have a fundamental right to reasonable privacy), allowing the destruction of copyright-violating goods (one of the more worrying parts of the bill is that this could include generic medicines, versions of a medicine whose patent rights have expired, granting yet more power to an already selfish pharmaceutical industry), and introducing harsh punishments for violating ACTA regulations, including fines and prison sentences- the bill does not define how much or for how long these should be, which is a sign that it has not been comprehensively thought through- the power to decide what criminal charges should be applied is given to the copyright holder.
And, again like its predecessors, ACTA puts a huge onus on websites to check that they are not harbouring any copyrighted material unintentionally- this means that Google will have to continually check its servers to ensure that it is not being used as a conduit for reading copyrighted information, and that Facebook will always have to check that none of the videos being posted on it are playing copyrighted music. And then, of course, sites like YouTube, wholly reliant as they are on user-generated content, would simply implode and collapse.
But ACTA’s problems are not just repeats of SOPA and PIPA- it brings its own set of flaws to the table. Collaboration between scientists to work on improving patented medicines? No way- the big pharma would never allow it. Critics quoting lines in books and films? No- easy source of income for book and film publishers to snap up. Basically any work on an existing idea that has any connection with someone who is likely to abuse the powers ACTA gives them would be off limits- as usual in these kind of bills, the only people who benefit are big corporations who are looking to remove this pesky internet thing that keeps getting in the way.
And the worst thing? It’s already on its way. ACTA was signed last October by a large group of countries (although it has not yet been ratified by most of them), and the only countries who have complained or protested about it are a few in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland. It has slipped under the radar for most people, because it’s all been done secretively, without coming to the public attention. ACTA is dangerously close to slaughtering the web, along with bringing a whole host of other flaws with it, and unless something happens to prevent it, the proverbial shit is going to hit the fan.