Bus Out of Hell

How Desert Bus for Hope raises money with silliness.
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Graham Stark is a 28-year-old from Victoria, British Columbia. He's sitting in a brown leather armchair, clutching a Sega Genesis controller that has a single googly eye taped to its top. The other one fell off hours ago.

Stark has settled in for an all-night gaming marathon with caffeine and friends at the ready. But his setup is curious. For one, he's playing a solo game while everyone else in the room watches, rather than a multiplayer hit worthy of such a marathon. Worse, it's possibly the most boring game ever made. Desert Bus, a Sega CD rarity, was created as a joke by comic magicians Penn & Teller, and it makes players drive a slow bus on a straight road. Each trip takes eight hours in real time. The game, unsurprisingly, never reached stores.

Also unusual are the bright lights and HD cameras mounted on the wall. Stark may be used to them, having co-founded the online nerd-comedy troupe Loading Ready Run in 2006, but now the cameras have been running for nearly 100 hours, filming uninterrupted play of this soul-crushingly dull game.

Perhaps weirdest of all right now is Stark himself, who, after a few semi-sleepless days as host and emcee for an online audience of thousands, has taken the driver’s seat for his 12-hour shift with the game. His snappy, Mystery Science Theater-caliber ability to crack wise has faded. He's beginning to lose it, developing a case of the senseless giggles. The audience eggs him on.

They have every right to. Desert Bus For Hope, LRR's online charity telethon, began in 2007 by asking the question: How much would fans donate to charity — in this case, Child's Play, which sends games and toys to children's hospitals — to make a few nerds suffer through the worst game in history?

The answer, as of press time, is a whopping $1.2 million and counting over the past five years. Every year, each dollar donated has kept the bus going — and inspired on-camera antics like skits, dances and fan requests — just a little longer.

Blame all of that goodwill on the rabid fanbase. Or blame the members and hard-working friends of Loading Ready Run, who have turned a once-ragtag Desert Bus For Hope into a lean fundraising machine. Heck, blame Graham, the obvious figurehead-slash-host-slash-leader of LRR, whose polite countenance and quick wit make him gaming's Mike Myers.

These people, quite frankly, are nuts. Most of them would willingly call themselves obsessive, and their combined donations of time, money and work hours are far beyond irrational. But within the confines of LRR's headquarters, dubbed the Moonbase, the feedback loop of Desert Bus For Hope's charitable chaos makes sense. That includes Stark's fall, in hour 99, to Desert Bus fever.

Next to his Sega CD rig is a giant monitor, broadcasting the charity's real-time chat messages. (Conveniently, chat room members suggested such a monitor after the first year.) At this point, chatter has devolved into naming movie titles that double as awful descriptions of bowel movements.

The LRR regulars beg their fans to stop, so that they can announce their next live auction to raise more money, but the viewers don't relent. Tangled. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The room is already snickering plenty. Then Stark turns beet red, choking back laughter as if he doesn't want to laugh at a young child's inappropriate joke. This many hours in, though, his willpower has wilted. "Black ... Snake ... Moan," Graham blurts in Shatner-like fashion. The room erupts in howls. The donation total ticks upward.

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Moonbase Landing

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The word "office" applies loosely here; nobody in their right mind would call it that.

Four days prior, I arrive at the Moonbase, mere hours before the marathon begins. Call-in coordinator Liz Smith stands in the middle of the last-minute fray with a drill in her hand. "Are you okay with us drilling holes in your ceiling?" she says to Stark, with a matter-of-factness that implies she'll do it anyway — must be why she's affectionately known as "DammitLiz." Stark looks upward, then retorts, "All we use the ceiling for is to keep the upstairs, you know, afloat."

A netted mess of balloons is quickly installed; these will eventually fall from the ceiling when DBFH breaks the $1 million lifetime total. Scattered around the office's upstairs, for the meantime, are handwritten signs demanding that nobody spoil the balloon surprise, on penalty of death. (Many other handwritten notes, including rules about taking out the garbage, also end with warnings of death.)

The word "office" applies loosely here, by the way; nobody in their right mind would call it that at first blush. It looks more like an oversized dorm room shared by drama geeks and gaming fanboys. Couches fill one half of the downstairs floor, all aimed at video cameras and the all-important Sega CD system. (More on that later.)

Dammit_liz_400x266Liz "Dammit Liz" Smith.

In the other half of the room, techies sit hunched behind multi-monitor computer rigs and wire-loaded sound boards, fretting over a stuttering issue on the online video feed. Both sides are buffeted by massive costume racks and boxes with labels like "guns," "headbands" and "animal ears."

The upstairs looks a little more office-like, with desks, computers and storage rooms, but Penny Arcade Expo banners, printed meme images and a prominent chocolate fountain dispel the stuffiness. A crowd of 18- to 29-year-olds, whose volunteer duties don't kick in for a while, stay away from the pre-show ruckus by standing up here and talking about everything from classic WWE matches to a leaked Magic: The Gathering announcement. One asks, without any sense of irony, if anybody in the room is a fan of Doctor Who.

The Moonbase has been in operation for nearly three years, according to the office landlord. An older man named Glenn runs a land-surveying business in the front half of this building he owns, located at the incredibly Canadian-sounding intersection of North Park and Vancouver. Stark, in typically polite Canadian fashion, insists that I meet him.

When he first started renting the space to LRR, "I said to them, I said, 'so... how do you make money?'" Glenn recalls. "'Because this is a [pause] business, and you have to pay [pause] rent.' They kinda convinced me that they had some hope."

Glenn hasn't played a video game since Pong ("the one, you know, with the little [makes Pong noises] with the dots?"), and yes, he has been in a Loading Ready Run video — pretending to be a confused landlord seeking rent. He says the role wasn't a stretch. It took some time before LRR got to a rent-paying point, let alone a position to run arguably the internet's biggest annual charity telethon. Eighteen years, if you want to get technical about it. That's when Loading Ready Run co-founders Graham Stark and Paul Saunders met in elementary school. Their friendship formed so young, they don't really recall how it came about. "Similar interests, I guess," Stark figures.

Mutual_intererests_1100x585Paul Saunders (left) and Graham Stark.

In their case, those interests were technology and comedy. As they got older, they were the only neighborhood kids who didn't luck into newer home consoles — "everybody else had Super Nintendos and Sega Gene ... sisi?" Stark quips — so they were glued to Saunders's home PC and off-kilter games like Day of the Tentacle and Scorched Earth, not to mention British comedy shows (A Bit of Fry & Laurie, The Fast Show) and Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The duo bonded for years over that geeky combination, then finally found an excuse to team up creatively. Stark had been whipping up 3D animation shorts with friends in high school and went all-out for one of his final projects, made for a high school contest. It was called After Hours and starred suits of armor that came to life when the museum lights turned off. Saunders (who is now 29) insists it came out in 2000 — long before Night At The Museum.

"The sense of humor I had in mind felt much more like something Paul should be involved in," Stark says. "I also needed someone else who was technically minded to help with the animation. I couldn't do it all by myself because I was way over-ambitious."

After Hours won the contest. Shortly afterward, their time spent together increased when they became coworkers at a museum design firm, and continued to spend their off-hours hanging out — around which time Paul noticed Stark's increasing propensity to film, well, everything he could. Suits of armor and 3D animation gave way to cheap camcorders and a copy of iMovie.

As they began experimenting with videos, the duo came scarily close to fulfilling a college-age cliché: Let's backpack through Europe! Their twist on the idea, at least, would've been to film the whole thing and upload it in pieces online.

"That was in 2002," Saunders says, and Stark finishes his sentence: "and video on the internet was not a thing." So Stark and Saunders thought they'd start slow. "Let's do some sketches, then we'll build an audience and do the trip," Stark says.

"I needed someone else who was technically minded. I couldn't do it all by myself because I was way over-ambitious."

Indeed, they look more like a classic comedy duo than a couple of enterprising backpackers. Wiry and doughy; neurotic and goofy; Laurel and Hardy; Saunders and Stark. They named their video enterprise LoadingReadyRun — the command string to start software on the Commodore 64, which was Stark's first game system — but the gaming focus wasn't clear from the get-go. Nor was their purpose, as their earliest content bounced from sketches to live event coverage to even mild Jackass-esque gags.

Luckily, their knack for dry, observational humor crystalized early on. LRR's 2003 archives hide some gems, including a beautifully meta satire of documentary cliches. Still, Saunders and Stark say they hit their stride in 2006, at which point they'd completed two major transitions: a regular cast, made up largely of like-minded friends from high school, and a focus on sketch comedy. In the years since, they've racked up hundreds of videos, including a number of dedicated, weekly series syndicated on Penny Arcade TV and The Escapist.

Nearly a decade later, LRR has built the audience it always wanted. "As it happens," Stark clarifies, "we have yet to do this [backpacking] trip."

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The Most Boring Game Ever Made

The furthest journey they've taken begins in Tucson and ends in Las Vegas.

Before the gaming marathon begins this year, everyone at the Moonbase struggles with the best way to explain to the uninitiated how Desert Bus For Hope works — the telethon aspect, the active chat room, the variety of auctions, the weird, real-time skits. "Their eyes glaze over," Stark says with a sigh, describing a nebulous "average" person hearing about the whole mess.

The ace up LRR's sleeve is the weird video game at the core of the marathon. When players load Desert Bus on a Sega Genesis combined with a Sega CD, they're greeted with a pre-game crawl of text, which, in other games, would list copyright information. Here, it advertises that this game is "the first in a new line of verisimulators," then drops a strange slogan: "games stupefyingly like reality."

From there, a ripping guitar solo plays while players come up with a five-letter name for their bus driver. That's easily the most exciting part of the game. After that, players board the bus — an empty bus, as made evident by a rearview mirror — and must drive to Las Vegas on a barren highway.

Before the game was set to launch in 1995, members of Congress, including Janet Reno, had just railed against video games as a corrupting influence.

The bus barely tops 40 MPH. Stopping wrecks the bus. Veering off the road wrecks the bus (which can easily happen, since the bus's alignment is just barely off). Like real life, there is no pause button. The game's two strongest graphical flourishes are a spinning pine cone air freshener and the occasional bug splat on the windshield. The latter happens roughly every five hours in a drive, the LRR team asserts.

Perhaps the cruelest part of this game is that it bothers to keep score. For every eight-hour shift completed, your score goes up. By one point.

In case you're wondering how a game like this could have been produced, understand that it was part of a greater package: Penn & Teller's Smoke & Mirrors. The magic duo had put out a gag book in the early '90s, called Penn & Teller's Cruel Tricks For Dear Friends, along with a video tape of the same name. Both were designed for the owner to prank friends. The book version had hidden pages that required flipping carefully, while the video could be fast-forwarded to gags that the owner was wise to.

Smoke & Mirrors did the same for games, particularly through gag mini-games that let Player 2 mess with Player 1's head via button commands and hidden button combos. Desert Bus, however, snuck into the package as a different type of gag.

Before the game was set to launch in 1995, members of Congress, including Janet Reno, had just railed against video games as a corrupting influence. Night Trap and Mortal Kombat were going to sully children's minds, they said. The proudly libertarian combo of Penn & Teller saw similarities to the outcry years earlier about heavy metal music — and would later clarify that stance on their Showtime TV series Bullshit! — and thought Desert Bus would be a funny way to react.

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"[Desert Bus] had the thesis of, okay, if a running, shooting, climbing-trees game teaches kids how to be violent, maybe this can teach kids how to be a bus driver," Stark says. Videographer Johnny Blakeborough interjects — "and how to have a mind-numbing, boring job, and live as a drone in a drone society."

Penn Jillette once insisted that, had the game been released, the first player to reach 99 points would win a crazy party bus trip to Las Vegas, filled with beautiful ladies and booze and a resort stay in Vegas. It never came to be, thanks to the game's publisher, Absolute Entertainment, going bankrupt before the game's launch. Instead, a completed copy of game leaked online years later — conveniently for the LRR crew, in 2006, just as the comedy troupe began to hit its stride.

Tally_craft_left_400x1000Tally Heilke displays a craft item for bidding.

Saunders admits it was around then that he'd heard about Desert Bus and downloaded it for a laugh. "I had the idea that we should play Desert Bus for, like, 24 hours and stream it on the internet as one of our weekly updates." When Saunders suggested the idea at a LRR meeting, James Turner thought the Desert Bus story rang a bell.

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The charity Child's Play was founded in 2003 after Penny Arcade artist Mike Krahulik got fed up with anti-gamer stories in the mainstream press. "The media seems intent on perpetuating the myth that gamers are ticking time bombs just waiting to go off," Krahulik wrote at Penny Arcade. "I know for a fact that gamers are good people." As it turned out, Penn & Teller's bizarre political statement about gaming had a philosophical peer in Child's Play, a charity drive dedicated to donating toys and video games to children's hospitals.

Thus, Turner convinced the crew to try something crazy: "Penny Arcade was about gaming and comedy. We were about gaming and comedy. There's a natural fit there. Raising money for Child's Play is something we ought to be doing."

"I had the idea that we should play Desert Bus for, like, 24 hours and stream it on the internet."

LRR approached Penny Arcade's Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins at the 2007 San Diego Comic Con with their pitch: LRR would livestream their play of Desert Bus on the internet, and every hour of play would require donations that grew by 7% (with compounded interest). The first hour would cost a buck; the next, $1.07, and up and up. With Krahulik and Holkins's blessing, and Child's Play manager Kristin Lindsay's logistical support, LRR set about to promoting their weird venture online. Just for the heck of it, Saunders hit up a Penn & Teller online fan forum with a brief post and a link.

Five minutes into the first Desert Bus For Hope, as Saunders excused himself to go to the restroom, his cell phone rang. "Is this Paul?" a voice asked. "Yes," Saunders answered reluctantly. He then fast-walked right back into the filming room, tapped his speakerphone button, and said, loudly and awkwardly, "Hello, Penn from Penn & Teller!"

Apparently, that fan forum post got back to Penn Jillette's wife, and she ran a "whois" search on loadingreadyrun.com, which, at the time, was still registered to Saunders's parent's house. Saunders's mom willingly coughed up her son's cell phone number.

The game's creators were quick to chip in. The brains behind the game, Eddie Gorodetsky — who has since gone on to produce TV shows like Two and a Half Men — donated $500 for LRR to crash the bus and "take a dive," as it were. Teller, meanwhile, searched online for local restaurants and phone-ordered food for the LRR crew. "He said it was difficult to get a Subway manager to accept a payment over the phone from someone in Las Vegas whose legal name was one word," Stark says. "'No, seriously, my name is Teller.' [He pauses.] 'Watch. I'll not talk, and you'll know it's me!'" Stark then stands silently with a big grin for a few seconds.

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Watchability

That first year, the Desert Bus For Hope team members figured they'd raise no more than a few thousand dollars. They'd use their "limited internet fame" for good, however small it might be. The marathon wound up raising $22,805 — and keeping its crew members glued to Desert Bus for 108 hours straight. ("That's more than I made at my job last year!" Saunders blurted at the time.)

Every year since, the total has gone up progressively. $70k. $140k. $200k. $380k. $435-frigging-k. In kind, LRR has invented more donation enticements every year, from live and silent auctions to raffle-styled "donation giveaways," and even a way for fans to "challenge" marathon participants to do all matter of silly tasks, from singing geeky songs to reenacting popular skits (typically while mid-game).

"After a while, we can't process numbers any more," Stark says. "We acknowledge that [$380,000] is a number that exists. We accept that we raised that much. But when someone asks, 'How excited are you that you raised that much?' I'm like, I, I ... I have no feeling in my legs."

Roscoe_alex_400x300Roscoe the Duck (left) with Alex Steacy.
Every time LRR wants to find a video, or a link, they ask the chat room.

So they cut to the tape. Seemingly every major moment of Desert Bus For Hope from the past six years has been captured, usually by diehard fans, and uploaded to YouTube for infinite rewatchability. "Your article is only going to say, '... and then they showed me a bunch of YouTube videos,'" Saunders later jokes to me.

In the video that Stark has just loaded, everyone in the room cheers and goes bonkers over a steadily rising auction during last year's DBFH. Stark, by the end, has transitioned from glee to anger.

"I'm doing that intentionally, right? I'm gauging where [the auction] is going, amping up my excitement so it's at peak level. I can't go up from here. I need to start assaulting other people in the room. Just, AHHHH!" He turns away from the monitor and pantomimes punching someone nearby, then pumps his fists while shouting, "Oh my god!"

Doll_window_400x300Turner and a life-sized doll make a dramatic entrance.

I ask about other breakdown moments, to which Stark immediately says, "I should show you 4 O'QWOP in the morning." The room bursts into laughter before the video even loads, which shows Stark playing the oddball freeware game QWOP — for his first time ever — at roughly 3:45 in the morning. In the clip, he's in tears with a giggle that would give Homer Simpson's a run for its money.

Every time LRR wants to find a video, or a link, or even an exact statistic for what time something happened in a prior marathon, they need do nothing more than ask the chat room. Thousands have already gathered before DBFH6's official kickoff to trade jokes, memes and GIFs, and they're at the ready whenever Stark, Saunders or any other host has a question. This works out for the LRR team, in a way far more important than finding a funny video link; when the bus drivers no longer comprehend the charity marathon in dollars and cents, they instead look at their fanbase.

This is a community, after all, that donated more than 200 hand-crafted geek and gaming items to be auctioned off throughout this year's DBFH, many of which reach the thousands of dollars range. A community whose "survivors" have remained connected to the DBFH chat servers since the first marathon began in 2007. (Yes, that is a persistent, five-year connection.) A community that includes kids who have directly benefitted from Child's Play charity donations.

That's part of the reason LRR institutes a no-swearing rule during its marathon; they also try to reduce in-jokes and keep anybody participating on camera mindful of a larger audience. "It makes for better TV," Saunders notes.

Frump_left_550x1000Matt Wiggins (left) with Kate "Bear Kate" Stark (opposite).

That idea comes up repeatedly as LRR adds last-minute polish to the proceedings. "Watchability." "A great experience for fans." And a lot of people are busting their humps to maximize that. The video crew looks panicked as they seek a last-minute fix for video stutter. Members of the tech crew admit to working anywhere from 60 to 900 (900!) hours in advance of the fundraiser to build a custom system that manages donations, auctions and other database minutiae.

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A complete shipping crew works in scheduled shifts upstairs to make sure auction prizes are shipped even before the marathon ends. Steve Dengler, the founder of online currency exchange site xe.com, has ponied up untold thousands of dollars to rent a 12-core streaming computer with 20 GB RAM, just so the marathon's video feed can run in 720p resolution this year. (In exchange, DBFH is advertised as running in "High Denglervision.")

And Saunders and Stark are putting the final touches on pre-recorded silliness, set to air before the marathon launches at 9 p.m. on Friday night. One bit sees the main LRR crew walking down the street in slow motion, Reservoir Dogs-style, while wearing goofy hats and carrying things like a Sega CD box and a Sega Genesis controller. In another bit, Stark explains the latest features for this Desert Bus For Hope with a few choice gags, such as a cabal of volunteers being forced to "work" in the office bathroom.

The bits are put on hold for a moment, as longtime LRR member James Turner looks up from the tech center's crow's nest.

"Not only can Daniel not call in," Turner says, then pauses a little too long. "He can't call in because his cancer came back this week."

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For the Children

Turner gets an update a few minutes later, clarifying that Daniel can call in after all; he's been scheduled as the first of many, many people to call in via Skype to talk to fans over the next six days, though he's probably not as well-known as actor Wil Wheaton, comics artist Bill Amend or Mythbusters co-host Grant Imahara. I wait for the crew to sort out some logistics before asking who exactly Daniel is.

"Last year, we had a kid come visit us from the Make-A-Wish foundation," Stark says. "Daniel's wish of anything — anything — was to come here and be at Desert Bus with us. That was an astonishing thing to us." It's the first — and last — time I see Stark look uncomfortable during my hours and hours of watching Desert Bus.

Daniel had flown from Alabama to Victoria, BC last year with his family, accompanied by his parents and a Make-A-Wish handler. Saunders explains that Make-A-Wish recipients are followed to their requests to make sure the wisher is kind and doesn't cause trouble. "The handler left within, like, 10 minutes," Saunders says. "'These people are cool.'"

Eventually, Daniel warmed up to being on camera and proved a big hit. He kept in touch with LRR after the visit, saying he'd gone into remission. That lasted for nine months.

"If we can make people laugh, make them donate ... that's some way that we can use our skills for good." Portal_shock_1100x406Kathleen DeVere (center) reacts in shock as the bids for one item continue to increase.
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A few hours after Desert Bus For Hope 6's launch, Daniel pops up on the screen. Only his face is visible via Skype, but he looks fine — like a gangly, nerdy 18-year-old. He jokes that his senior year courseload is so easy that he has time to play Halo 4, and the LRR crew lauds him for wise scheduling. They never address his unfortunate news on camera.

In spite of DBFH's focus on people just like Daniel, most of this year's staggering 152 hours focus on the silly, not the somber. Dancing along to the Nyancat song (and wearing a matching Nyancat scarf). Forcing people to watch the bizarre "Going To The Store" video and daring them not to laugh. Changing songs from popular musicals so that their lyrics reflect games like Mass Effect.

Dengler_backstage_400x300Steve Dengler (left) visits backstage.

Eventually, I ask Saunders about Daniel, and how DBFH finds the right balance between the silly and the serious. He stutters and fumbles as he considers an answer. "Our medium is comedy stuff. I, uh ... you can be sort of ... this is obviously a serious topic. Sick children, hospitals, all that kind of stuff. But getting really earnest about it doesn't do anybody any good in this situation. If we can make people laugh, make them donate ... that's some way that we can use our skills for good" — he deepens his voice to make that word sound stereotypically nerdy — "then that's beneficial."

I push to ask if it ever feels like too much. Saunders reads my question differently than I expect, talking about his introversion. He's a sketch comedy guy, after all, not a live performer. "It can be a little bit tiring," he says about the crowd in the Moonbase and the huge, participating fanbase, and excuses himself to go home after a 12-hour shift driving the Desert Bus.

Skeletor_400x600A cast member performs as Skeletor.

In a way, Child's Play aims to be a similar source of escapist relief. Liz Smith — ahem, DammitLiz — runs an event management company, which includes stage management for the semi-annual Wootstock festival series. She happened upon Loading Ready Run because of the nerdy circles she runs in, but pursued Desert Bus For Hope because of her childhood experiences. She played her first video game at the age of 11 in a cancer ward at Seattle Children's Hospital where she was stuck for nearly a year, occasionally in isolation.

"I couldn't go out and play. Everything was very sanitary where I was. It was not ... I don't feel normal." [She drops into the present tense without realizing it.] "But I could play a video game and be like a real kid."

"No one has ever refused a Child's Play gift. You're exhausted. Your kid is exhausted. At that point, a video game is a godsend."

A few days later, Child's Play's Kristin Lindsay drops in on the Moonbase to auction some Penny Arcade items and answer chat questions. One viewer asks whether any parents have ever declined a Child's Play gift on account of disliking video games. Lindsay's eyes nearly bug out.

"No one has ever refused a Child's Play gift," she insists, recounting a parent's perspective in a hospital. "You're exhausted. Your kid is exhausted, and was just woken again to have blood drawn at a weird hour. At that point, a video game is a godsend — just, anything so you can catch an hour of sleep in the chair next to your child." She admits having dealt with that very thing with some of her own children.

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The Family

The amount of time — and money — that goes into Desert Bus For Hope is confounding. Volunteers willingly give up a week of their lives to participate, burning through vacation time at their jobs to run everything from the sound booth to the celebrity auctions to the shipping center. (Child's Play, thankfully, covers shipping costs for the 356 auctions and giveaways that viewers bid on, which will save DBFH at least $4,000 this year.)

But something else about Desert Bus For Hope confused me even more when I first arrived. How can these people endure each other for so long? This dorm room of an office is cramped — so cramped, in fact, that Stark later quips, after an impromptu Gangnam Style dance, "Oppa ... Open all the doors! It's hot in here!" These people are around each other for pretty much six days, and many of them hang around the Moonbase for at least 16 hours per shift. (At least four people are on hand at all times, broken down by a color-coded chart.)

Indeed, the post-marathon plan for most everyone I talk to is simple: sleep, and lots of it. After that, though, everyone plans on hanging out again. I only needed two days at the Moonbase to understand why. Why people give so much to Desert Bus For Hope, be that time or money or manpower. The answer: family.

For some people, family is a bond forged by challenge and suffering.
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"I have been affiliated with Desert Bus since day one," Kate Stark says, "and every day that Desert Bus has happened, I've been there."

Yes, the name is Stark: She's Graham Stark's younger sister, six years his junior. Technically, she's been part of Loading Ready Run since its inception, as she's credited with running the camera on the site's very first video from 2003. This week, Kate Stark serves as DBFH's office manager and food coordinator. By the second day, she's already behind on sleep, but that's probably not why she sounds so starry-eyed about her older brother.

"Graham has an incredible memory; he can just watch [a movie] once and, boom, it's in his head, he can quote it verbatim. He's probably the funnier, more clever of the two of us, but I try to keep up," Kate admits with a laugh.

She says their parents have always been supportive of their creative efforts, particularly their mom, who hails from England and may have force-fed the siblings TV series like Fawlty Towers. "How could you not be stoked that your kids are raising money for a children's charity?" Kate says. "[Our parents] stop by once a year, and they always bring a veggie platter. 'Better feed our kids vegetables.'" Indeed, the next day, they come by wearing sweaters and giving hugs.

For some people, family is a bond forged by challenge and suffering, by falling asleep in an awkward chair, holding the hand of a little child you couldn't possibly imagine living without. For others, it's a lucky happenstance — a kid appearing in your fourth/fifth grade crossover class, or a friend of a friend who is compelled to join your zany, geeky comedy troupe. Or it's a beacon of beaming pride — a couple of feeble-looking parents who show up in a weird office and hug their son and daughter while an audience of thousands watches. Or maybe it's a giant chat room egging a room full of goofballs on as they giggle and giggle and giggle over movie titles used to describe bowel movements.

We all wind up on a desert bus at some point — we all feel alone and stuck on a straight-line path in a hunk of junk whose alignment is just slightly off. The Desert Bus For Hope is perhaps most special because it puts as many people in its passenger seat as possible.

Even I got on the Bus. Technically, I never "drove" — never held the Genesis controller with taped-on googly eyes and tapped the steering button to compensate for a broken virtual alignment. But as long as YouTube lasts, I can be seen getting into the spirit by participating in challenges, dances and skits — quite frankly, inserting myself into proceedings without an official invite. Perhaps someone saved the video of me bidding the group farewell on the first night, and Stark responding by giving me a giant, goofy, loud high-five. He didn't have to do that.

Clan_stark_split_left_400x400Graham Stark (left) and family (opposite).

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"It's critical for people to keep watching, keep being entertained."

I arrived as a guy on assignment, looking into a seemingly insular, meme-fueled phenomenon. I asked Saunders and Stark whether the whole Desert Bus conceit was really necessary this many years in. Couldn't they raise money in another way? They responded by pointing to other video game marathons that have started in the years since theirs.

"They'll be playing Mario, Metroid, Zelda, and the focus will be on doing well on the game," Saunders says. "People will give them hints on the chat, that stuff, and concentrating really hard on the game. [Those marathons] can't do all the silliness that we do, challenges, dancing, various things. Desert Bus is a perfect combination of, it lasts forever, it takes a little attention but you can talk to the chat and interact. The spectacle is important.

"It's critical for people to keep watching, keep being entertained. I mean, we are the biggest single fundraiser for Child's Play. There's no way to guess how many people who donate through us would otherwise donate, but ... it's sort of like, after our first year, people said, 'Are you gonna do this next year?' Our response was, 'I think we have to, don't we?'"

Only a crazy person would play over 100 hours straight of this garbage and consider a repeat necessary. But it only took me 16 hours of bus-watching to leave me hooked on that spectacle.

I tuned in online every chance I could, on my home computer or my smartphone. Even at the final minutes when the donation total topped $435,000 — and when my own personal counter went up only one measly point. That point meant so much — it encapsulated a lot of friendship, a lot of laughs and a lot of giving. That single point meant I'd survived a bus ride from hell, only to reach an amazing destination.

Next year, I want to ride the bus again. I want to watch my counter tick up one more.

Image Credits: Desert Bus for Hope, Andrew Ferguson, Shutterstock

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