Read Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline Online

Authors: Simon Parkin

Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Popular Culture, #Social Science

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline (27 page)

‘In the centre of these figures is a smaller one. On top of the black box is an adding machine. The adding machine says 1, 4, 5, 10, 10, 10, then it says 40 and repeats that number endlessly on the paper as it spills down to the floor.’

Romero’s kitchen is currently littered with inch-tall figures, tokens that will be used in the game, the debris of her memory, slowly being ordered and arranged into game form. It seems to be a way to, if not to make sense of evil, then at least to place it within a system where it can be controlled and mastered.

This is, for many, the great appeal of all games: to experience a reality that runs on unflinching logic and justice, where the rules are never broken, where randomness can be contained and tamed. As Caballero put it, in the midst of chaos, games are sometimes the only available space where one can be in control and experience safety and predictability.

But it’s more than that, too: these games elicit not only understanding, but also personal healing. We have seen how video games offer a compelling and comforting refuge from life’s trials. But escapism isn’t their only offering. For their creators, they can also offer a way to process grief, trauma, and turmoil; a safe prism in which to experience or, at least, move towards healing.

And for those of us who choose to enter into the game-maker’s story, there’s an opportunity to understand and perhaps move towards healing some of our own wounds too.


Morgan van Humbeck completed his shift in front of the television and passed out. Ten minutes later, his cell phone woke him.

‘Morgan, this is Teller,’ said a voice on the other end of the line.

‘Fuck off,’ van Humbeck replied in disbelief.

He hung up the phone and went back to sleep.

The drive from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, takes approximately eight hours when travelling in a vehicle whose top speed is forty-five miles per hour. In
Desert Bus
, an unreleased video game from 1995 conceived by the American illusionists and entertainers Penn Jillette and Teller, players must complete that journey in real time. Finishing a single leg of the trip requires considerable stamina and concentration in the face of arch-boredom: the vehicle constantly lists to the right, so players cannot take their hands off the virtual wheel; swerving from the road will cause the bus’s engine to stall, forcing the player to be towed back to the beginning.

The game cannot be paused. The bus carries no virtual passengers to add human interest, and there is no traffic to negotiate. The only scenery is the odd sand-pocked rock or road sign. Players earn a single point for each eight-hour trip completed between the two cities, making a
Desert Bus
high score perhaps the most costly in the medium. Van Humbeck, again unconscious on the couch, had just contributed to what was then a
Desert Bus
world record: five points.

Whenever Penn and Teller were booked to appear on
Late Night with David Letterman
, a close friend, Eddie Gorodetsky, the Emmy Award-winning television writer whose credits include
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Two and a Half Men
, and
Saturday Night Live
, would visit their office and pretend to be Letterman to help them prepare. During one of these rehearsals, the trio came up with the concept of a video game that could work as a satire against the anti-video-game lobby.

‘Every few years, video games are blamed in the media for all of the ills in society,’ Teller tells me. ‘In the early 1990s, I wrote an article for
The New York Times
citing all the studies that show video games have no effect on a child’s morals. But we wanted to create some entertainment that helped make the point.’

The conversation with Gorodetsky seeded the idea of a video game that casts the player as a bus driver in a rote simulation. Where most game designers choose the extremities of life for their metaphor, Penn and Teller were interested in the most mundane and irritating job they could imagine.

‘The route between Las Vegas and Phoenix is long,’ says Teller. ‘It’s a boring job that just goes on and on repetitiously, and your task is simply to remain conscious. That was one of the big keys—we would make no cheats about time, so people like the attorney general could get a good idea of how valuable and worthwhile a game that just reflects reality would be.’ (The U.S. attorney general at the time, Janet Reno, was a vociferous critic of on-screen violence.)

The New Jersey–based video-game developer Imagineering created
Desert Bus
as one component of a larger game collection, called
Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors
, for the Sega CD, a short-lived add-on for the Sega Genesis console. Penn, Teller, and the game’s publisher, Absolute Entertainment, planned a lavish prize
for any player who scored a hundred points, a feat that would require eight hundred continuous hours of play: a real-life trip from Tucson to Las Vegas on a desert bus carrying showgirls and a live band.

‘But by the time the game was finished, the format was dead,’ says Teller. ‘We were unable to find anybody interested in acquiring the game.’

Imagineering went out of business, and
Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors
was never released. The only record of the game’s existence was a handful of review copies that had been sent out to journalists in the weeks before the publisher went bust, in 1995.

The game remained a rumour until September 2005, when Frank Cifaldi, a freelance American journalist and self-professed video-game historian, received a package in the mail. Cifaldi is the founder of Lost Levels, a website dedicated to the preservation of rare and obscure video games.

‘The site attracted the attention of some people who happened to have copies of unpublished games they didn’t know what to do with,’ he explained. ‘One guy who used to review games for a magazine in the 1990s still had his review copy of
Smoke and Mirrors
.’ Cifaldi posted a review and a copy of the game to a number of Internet forums.
Desert Bus
had been rediscovered.

Humanity’s oldest quest is survival. We eat, drink, fight, and reproduce in service of this quest, passing on our DNA to each successive generation, ensuring that we survive, not only in life, but also after death. It’s logical, then, that the quests found in our video games reflect this daily undertaking, from which no living thing can escape. From the earliest titles in the arcades, video games have tasked players with staving off the inevitable ‘game over’ screen, that black,
mournful purgatory into which we are deposited when our virtual opponents (be they space invaders, enemy soldiers, or a rival football team) get the better of us.

Almost all video games have this survival element coded within their rules, and ‘losing’ a game is usually closely linked to some idea of death. Video-game designers routinely employ the metaphor of life and death in their games’ terminology: characters have ‘lives’ (when they are depleted, you are ‘over’; do well in the game and you often earn extra lives, second chances that prolong your journey and provide a buffer from death), or ‘health,’ usually represented by hearts.

In many games, you replenish this health with food (
), medicine (
Halo: Combat Evolved
) or bandages (
Dead Rising
). The language of survival is used across the medium with such regularity that we no longer notice its origins.

Some games turn characters into ghosts when they ‘die’ (
) while others, such as
Demon’s Souls
, make you return to the site of your most recent ‘death’ in order to collect the items you dropped there. Other video-game characters, such as
, mark the spot of their passing with a gravestone. In
Cannon Fodder
, for each of your soldiers that perishes during a mission, a new grave is added to a virtual hillside, a mark of their deaths (as well as an indication of the cumulative human cost of your various sorties). This language, both written and visual, infuses video games with primal urgency that we instinctively respond to; it’s a kind of shorthand by which a designer can indicate to a player that the stakes are tremendously high. They suggest that the loss is ultimate, even if, in the majority of cases, it is merely a temporary setback.

Eugene Jarvis, one of the most influential game designers of the 1980s, once said: ‘All the best video games are about survival—it’s our strongest instinct, stronger than food, sex, lust for money.’
(Jarvis’s best-known game,
, makes the player responsible not only for his or her own survival, but also for that of human characters, who must be carefully rescued.) Whether or not the central quest of survival makes for the best games is debatable, but survival is indisputably the dominant underlying quest of video games, from
in the 1960s, all the way up to the latest military-themed blockbusters.

Video-game survival comes in many different guises. In
Geometry Wars
you play as a bright speck, trying to outmanoeuvre a firework display of angry particles.
is a postapocalyptic scavenger hunt, in which players forage in the countryside, trading tins of beans, packets of biscuits, and scarce ammunition with people they meet, never quite sure whether the player they’re trading with will shoot them the moment their backs are turned.
The Binding of Isaac
is a game about surviving the shifting mazes of an underground basement. Here, enjoyment comes from being able to react to unexpected threats (which change with every play-through). Part of the appeal of this kind of survival challenge is the chance to learn and improve in a safe, consequence-free space. Like the lion cub play-fighting with its parent, learning how to handle itself, feint, pounce, and bite, we are somehow learning how to improve our chances of survival within a virtual dimension, perhaps so that we might better master survival in our own.

Not all kinds of survival in video games are so primal.
Desert Bus
explores a different kind of survival skill: that of endurance in the face of terminal boredom. Its challenge is that of persisting with a mundane task, the kind of situation we might face at our place of work. This kind of survival has to do with persistence, not for one’s life, but for one’s livelihood. And, in
Desert Bus
, some players were inspired to test just how long they could persist.

Van Humbeck is a former member of LoadingReadyRun, an Internet sketch-comedy group founded by Graham Stark and Paul Saunders in 2003.

‘I heard about
Desert Bus
in early 2006, on a website called,’ Saunders tells me. ‘The blog post linked to an extensive description of the main game, as well as the various mini-games included on the disc—and, most importantly, it had a torrent of the entire game available for download.’

Saunders wanted to film the group as it attempted to complete
Desert Bus
for a sketch. But another of the team members, James Turner, had another idea. He suggested that, in the group’s quest to survive the monotony of the game, they might have a chance to join in a survival project on this side of the screen. He suggested using the game as a way to benefit Child’s Play, a charity that donates video games and consoles to children’s wards in hospitals around the world.

‘His idea was a live competition event where we would take pledges depending on how far we made it in various video games,’ says Saunders. ‘We decided to combine both ideas and play
Desert Bus
for charity.’

Desert Bus for Hope
, as the event was dubbed, was scheduled to begin late November 2007, and Saunders built a simple website to promote its existence.

‘I initially called the website “The First Annual Desert Bus for Hope,” but only because I thought it sounded funny,’ he says. ‘We hadn’t thought about repeating the event at this point.’

For every donation they received, the group pledged to drive a portion of the game’s route between Tucson and Las Vegas. They would film their progress and live-stream it on the Internet.

‘The event itself was very cobbled together in the first year,’ explains Stark. ‘The camera’s wide-angle lens was held on with rubber
bands.’ On the weekend of the event, Saunders and Stark set up the camera and a Sega CD system, and embarked on the first leg of the virtual journey.

‘They didn’t contact us,’ says Teller. ‘Someone sent me a news story about the event over e-mail. So I got in contact.

Saunders e-mailed Teller back, thanking him for his interest. He asked whether Teller might consider giving the team an encouraging phone call to inspire what had become a ‘hub of sleep deprivation.’

After Morgan van Humbeck hung up on him, Teller found another number to reach the team, and asked what they’d like for lunch.

‘They sent me the menu for a local Chinese restaurant,’ Teller recalls. ‘I made the calls and had it all delivered.’ Teller called back every day to buy the group lunch; he and Penn each donated five hundred dollars.

‘That first year, we had no plans for food or scheduling,’ says Stark. ‘If it hadn’t been for friends and family coming by with food, and to just hang out and keep us awake, I don’t think it would have succeeded.’ The team managed to score five points in a hundred and eight hours of continuous play before a driver, in the fug of drowsiness, crashed the bus.

‘When we discussed our fund-raising goal, we decided to aim for one thousand dollars,’ says Stark. ‘But I lobbied to increase our goal to five thousand dollars, to give our viewers something crazy to reach for. We raised twenty-two thousand and eighty-five dollars that year.’

Desert Bus for Hope
is now in its tenth year, and has raised more than a million dollars.

‘I liken it to AIDS walks,’ says Teller. ‘When they first started, I think everyone was quite puzzled by them. Then people began to understand that performing a mundane task and having someone sponsor you is an interesting way to raise money.’

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