It’s no secret that videogames are still fighting to dig themselves out of the hole once filled by comic books and rock and roll. Every day, their struggle plays out in newspaper headlines, televised debates and blog posts. Where some see an engrossing form of artistic expression, others simply see a mindless form of entertainment at best and the driving factor behind some horrendous crime at worst.

Is there a link, however indirect, between violent games and aggression? We may never truly know. But, can a few all night gaming sessions with a group of friends, a couple of webcams and the eyes of the internet watching you lead to some good karma? That one’s a little more obvious.

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On October 30, 2008, while we were busy making plans for the fright-filled night ahead, a group of Texas youngsters calling themselves The Speed Gamers were hard at work preparing for their 48-hour, horror-themed videogame marathon. The games, the participants and the equipment had to be in place before the event went live the following evening. They weren’t worried, though – they had this system down to a fine art, as this was their seventh marathon to date. And it wasn’t a plot to break some high score, set a world record or attract internet stardom; instead, they did it all for charity.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Child’s Play and even Barack Obama’s presidential campaign all have videogames – and the tireless marathon teams that play them – to thank for their help in raising both awareness and support over the past year. And while 2008 marked the rise of the gaming marathon, it all started in 2007 when the talented crew at LoadingReadyRun.com hit the road from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, in the 2007 Desert Bus for Hope.

According to the videogame marathon archival site GameMarathons.com, this was “the very first videogaming marathon ever broadcast online, and featured a game so tedious and boring that it was never released.” Desert Bus for Hope, a four-and-a-half-day marathon centered on the incredibly boring mini-game Desert Bus, ended up raising over $22,000 for the Child’s Play charity and drew attention from all corners of the internet.

The idea took hold, and by January of the following year another marathon group, Four 48, decided to sit down and attempted to finish four Zelda titles in 48 hours. Some “technical issues” prevented the group from reaching their goal, but they still managed to raise over $1,000 for Child’s Play and help lay the foundation for the way gaming marathons are practiced today.

Two months later The Speed Gamers arrived on the scene. Comprised of Britt LaRiviere, Tyler Worthington, Daniel Lewis and several others, this marathon group would later become one of the most successful and consistent teams in the marathon space. “I started out by tossing the idea around of making a game review site,” reflected LaRiviere. “From there, it evolved into ‘let’s play the games live for hours on in, like a marathon.’ Finally I decided that … we should do it for something worthwhile, like a charity.”

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TSG’s first marathon was also Zelda-themed, but with a few tweaks to Four 48’s formula. Instead of four titles, they decided to increase the roster to seven and adopted a speed-run mentality for the event (hence their name). The team’s first marathon was a success, clocking in at a modest 82 hours with $1,090 raised for St. Jude’s. Since then, TSG has successfully completed numerous other events, including a Mario marathon, their highly successful Metroid marathon and their latest event, the Halloween marathon.

In preparation for the Halloween event, Britt and the rest of the team broke their tradition of sticking with a single gaming series and instead brought together several different horror titles to fit with the spirit of the season. Six titles in all made the cut, including Resident Evil 4, Eternal Darkness and BioShock.

With the games selected, TSG prepared the more technical side of their event. “We use a Dazzle DVC 100 capture card to capture our video,” explained LaRiviere. “For our audio we put our games into mono sound mode and then take one of the composite cable’s sound outputs and plug it into an RCA-to-headphone jack converter which we then run into our headphone slot on our computer.”

To collect donations the group utilizes both PayPal and the web-based donation application ChipIn, which helps streamline the process. “The first time we used [ChipIn] was three marathons ago, during the Metroid marathon, but we’ve used PayPal from the very beginning.”

With regards to hosting, “the first two marathons we used justin.tv and had two feeds: one of the gameplay and commentary and another for the view of the room that also had a person interacting with that chat to keep things lively. We then moved to Ustream.tv because of the co-host feature. Co-hosting enabled us to give a view of the commentator in the same feed as the gameplay.”

Just having a feed up and running, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is going to tune in – viewer interaction is a top priority as well. “The first couple of hours we put the ‘room cam’ inside of a pumpkin and placed it outside so our viewers could see the trick-or-treaters as they came up. We were also all in costume for added fun. After the trick-or-treaters dwindled away, we took the webcam back inside and used it to give a view of the main room.”

The last, and perhaps most important, step in preparing this event is finding a sponsor for the marathon. The Speed Gamers have worked with St. Jude’s and the Giggles Therapy Autism Treatment Center in the past, but for the Halloween marathon they decided to work with the Lupus Foundation of America, for a reason very dear to them. “My grandmother has Lupus,” LaRiviere said, “and I’ve really wanted to do a marathon in dedication to her.”

And so, at 7:00 p.m. on Halloween night, the feeds went live and the two-day marathon was underway. By the time it was over the group had bested all six of their selected titles with time to spare and managed to raise $1,060. They held contests for the viewers, with rewards ranging from a Big Daddy figurine to a Dead Space art book. Other, more impromptu festivities included a YouTube all-request sing-a-long and a dramatic candle-lit reading of user-submitted “In the Year 2000” Conan O’Brien jokes.

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As of this writing, The Speed Gamers have eight successful gaming marathons under their belt, raised over $15,000 total for various charities and have established a reputation as one of the most consistent marathon groups in terms of quality and success. They’ve also grown and expanded their site to include a podcast, video content and even a Twitter feed in addition to their ever lively forum.

If you’re looking to catch up with The Speed Gamers, you can do so on the web or tune in on March 13 at 6 p.m. CST for their upcoming Zelda marathon for Ally’s House in honor of the team’s one-year anniversary. And if you’re planning on dropping off the face of the Earth around then, you can still catch up with them this summer during which they plan to carry out “five different marathons.” For their sake, let’s hope none of them involves Desert Bus.

Maxwell McGee is a college student by day and a freelancer by night with dreams of making it big in the enthusiast press. Feel free to drop him a line at pigeonflu[at]gmail[dot]com.

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