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Steller: Boring video game makes Tucson a big fund-raiser

When you crank up the motor of the Desert Bus in Tucson, there’s no need to strap yourself in or prepare for a rough ride. But a thermos of coffee might help.

You are starting what may be the most excruciating video game in history.

In Desert Bus, you drive from Tucson to Las Vegas at about 45 mph on a straight road across a nearly uniform desert landscape, using the arrow keys on your keyboard for steering. Once in a while you may creak to a stop at a bus stop and open the door. No one gets on. A lone cactus or pile of rocks occasionally appears.

The trip takes about eight hours — in real time — for which you get one point. If you drive back to Tucson, you get another point — and lose about 16 hours of your life. The bus pulls slightly to the right, and if you drift off the road or swerve too much, you are towed back, still in real time, to Tucson, where you can start again.

Amazingly, the unremitting boredom of the game has been put to good use. For seven years in a row, a Victoria, British Columbia-based comedy troupe/video-production company called LoadingReadyRun has put on a fundraiser whereby a series of players drive the bus, and the team collects donations in what amounts to an Internet-based telethon.

Desert Bus for Hope has been successful to an inexplicable degree, and one of the beneficiaries is in Tucson.

What began as a substantial $22,805 collection in 2007 has grown each year, until this year the money raised totaled $522,348 in a drive that took place all last week. The money goes to a gaming-industry charity called Child’s Play, which gives hospitals toys, video games and playing equipment to help keep pediatric patients occupied.

The University of Arizona Medical Center’s Diamond Children’s Hospital is one of 90 beneficiaries nationwide.

Performers Penn & Teller designed the video game in the mid-1990s as part of an unreleased set of games called Smoke and Mirrors. This one was a sort of protest against then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s efforts against violence on television and in video games. Penn & Teller specialize in skepticism and lean libertarian.

Tucson’s presence in the game is, it appears, coincidental. Teller (who goes by one name) explained it to me this way in an email:

“To the best of my recollection, we were looking for an eight-hour ride that would be over scenery that would be primarily flat desert, and I think we guessed that Tucson to Vegas would be just the ticket. I doubt we ever consulted a topological map.”

The game disappeared for years but was resurrected in 2005, when a video-game reviewer sent a copy to Frank Cifaldi, who had begun an online archive of games, called LostLevels, that were made but never shipped out.

It was “the worst game ever made, basically,” Cifaldi said. “It’s intentionally bad, but it’s a joke.”

Now it’s something of an ironic techie sensation, thanks in part to the charity drive. LoadingReadyRun runs Desert Bus for Hope every November, putting drivers of the bus at the wheel for 12-hour shifts.

Graham Stark, a founder of the group, explained it to me yesterday: They stream video of the bus ride online, and donors contribute steadily escalating amounts. The first hour costs $1, then the amount required to keep the bus going rises by 7 percent each hour, till the last hour may cost in the $30,000 range.

LoadingReadyRun has T-shirts made for every year’s campaign, and the company that makes them, called FanGamer, is based in Tucson. One year, Stark said, FanGamer employees raced the Desert Bus for Hope drivers, piloting their own van from the Greyhound station in Tucson to the Greyhound station in Las Vegas.

The online drivers won the race by a mere 15 minutes, Stark said. Hard to say which drivers had more — or less — fun.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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