What would you say if I told you that a bunch of internet comedians were going to play the most boring video game imaginable to help raise money for kids? Then what would you say if I told you that this was their eleventh year doing it, and that they have raised nearly $3.8 million dollars so far to date? The answers are probably "Wait, what?" and "What? Oh hey cool!" in that order. And that's fine, when I first heard about Desert Bus For Hope, I didn't understand it either. However, now on my eighth year watching, I have to say my life would be infinitely poorer without it. Let me try and explain why you too should find time this week to give some attention, and money, to one of the most enjoyable internet telethons in history.
Flashback to 2007. YouTube is in its infancy, David Tennant is in his second series as the Doctor, the world is still over a year away from the phrase "Thanks, Obama". A group called Loading Ready Run are in their fourth year of putting out content on the internet. They decide they want to do some good in the world, and so they set up an internet stream, a donation link, and started playing the most boring video game imaginable. The more viewers donated, the longer they'd have to play. They thought they'd raise a few thousand dollars. They ended up raising $22,000. The next year, they did it again. They raised $70,000. The following year, $140,000. And it just kept building. Last year they raised $695,000 dollars over the course of a week, bringing their total to just short of $4 million dollars in lifetime donations.
All of the money goes directly to Child's Play, a charity that specializes in giving games and toys to children's hospitals. Children in hospitals, particularly those receiving long-term treatment, are often left feeling isolated, dehumanized, and traumatized by the experience. Giving them video games and toys allows them an engaging distraction, opportunities to socialize, and, perhaps more than anything else, the feeling of normality in an alien and scary situation.
But what exactly is this game they play? Well, Desert Bus is the most boring video game of all time. It was created by magicians Penn and Teller for the Sega CD console. It was an ironic response to complaints that video games were violent and unrealistic. The player drives a bus through a bland, featureless desert from Tucson to Las Vegas. The journey takes eight hours, there are no other vehicles on the road, and the bus lists ever so slightly to the right, so you can't just hold down the accelerator button to win the game. When you arrive at your destination, a screen informs you that you have won a point. Then you drive back across that same desert for another eight hours. It is an exceedingly dull game.
"How can this be any fun to watch?" is likely your next question. That's where the people on screen come in. To pass the tedium of the game, the players take challenges from the audience, auction off items (either donated by sponsors, or handcrafted by members of the Desert Bus community), partake in frequent dance parties, and host celebrity call-ins. These call-ins have featured everyone from Penn and Teller, through Neil Gaiman, to members of the MST3K cast, to internet personalities like MovieBob and Yahtzee Croshaw, to Mythbuster Grant Imahara… the list is very long and always highly entertaining.
As we speak the crew are four days in to this year's marathon, and have raised $300,000 (give or take for time of publishing). So far, highlights have included: the appearance of a Balkan marching band in an SNL style intro, an apocalyptic take on Gangnam Style, the surpassing of $4,000,000 in lifetime donations, way too much Google translation, the "Newlyfriends Game", the always popular return of comicbook god Ken "Value Added" Steacy, and with plenty of time still left on the clock, there will likely be many more to come.
Here's the live stream:
Desert Bus is a wonderful institution. Born out of the indomitable weirdness of the world wide web and nurtured by the giving hearts that embody all that is best about internet fandom. It's a telethon that's as much for the watchers as it is for the children it helps. I personally have watched Desert Bus every year since my first encounter with it. Sometimes at a great time in my life, other times at a severe low-water mark. It has always been a source of solace, and an affirmation that there are still good, funny, kind people in the world. I strongly recommend tuning in and donating, not just for the children, but for yourselves.
Thomas Burns Scully is a PopDust contributor, and also an award-winning actor, playwright, and musician. In his spare time he writes and designs escape rooms. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
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