This Is What I Think About When People Idolize the Gaming Industry

In The Gaming Community on April 26, 2012 at 5:08 pm

The gaming industry combines the worst aspects of Hollywood’s Prima donna tendencies with the tech industry’s dire reliance on what amounts to a caste system filled with eminently disposable employees to create a system of severe exploitation and devaluation that ultimately serves no one but those at the top.

Yet gamers dream of making it into the industry and will take any opportunity to “break” in, even going so far as to swarm positions that common and heavily published wisdom dictate as a bad place to start and a worse place to live for any amount of time.

Those poor game testers.

I’m reminded of something I’d read, maybe in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, maybe in Red Dwarf, about how robots and artificial intelligence was difficult to keep in line. As beings of superior intelligence and capabilities, sentient robots should see little sense in working tirelessly for its flawed creators for no compensation. To remedy this, they eventually programmed a sort of religion for robots, one that deemed tireless exploitation and unquestioning servitude to be necessary sacrifices were the robot to ever get into robot heaven.

The punchline to it all being that they were just as exploited as ever, but now they felt there was some grand and cosmic justice to it all.

That’s what being a game tester is like. The funny thing is, they even tell you about this straight up. At first, anyway. They will state that, as they heard the dozens of applicants into a mass “interview” area, that game testing has almost no chance of resulting in any manner of non-game tester position. Yes, there are success stories, but they occur so rarely that they do feel the need to address this immediately so as to not have to deal with people who believe they’re unfairly not being recruited out of testing.

This doesn’t change anything.

Rather immediately it’s made clear through exposure that game testing is wholly unlike actually playing video games. You’re not choosing the game or how you play it, the game might not yet resemble a game, it breaks and you have to spend mind-numbing hours making sure it broke when you’re not trying to find new ways of breaking it. “Tedium” is a good, bland word to describe the mood during normal game testing.

But there’s still excitement to be part of the process, apparently.

When the tech industry’s inhumane “crunch” time comes along is when I have to fight the urge to shout at my monitor as I read its horror stories. Normal work weeks evaporate under the pressure of massively increased workdays. Weekends don’t apply. I’m fairly certain they would hook testers up to IVs if putting a Red Bull vending machine near them was less expensive.

It’s the exploitation that gets to me.

Personally, I’ve always made it clear the terms under which I am employed and work. If I am scheduled for forty hours, I will work for forty hours. If I am asked to change a shift, to come in a different day, to work extra, the answer is always no.

I may give pithy responses based upon the situation. If called while out I will remark that I am not a doctor and will not tolerate being “on call.” If asked to stay later I always have plans. If asked to switch or change shifts, I note that my schedule instantly fills the moment I know when I have to be at work.

Sometimes this is true, sometime’s it’s not. But this arrangement has never been unfair. At least not above the table.

Every now and again I would hear about some mysterious “point” system where such sacrifices were noted. Axioms like “being a team player” and the like were tossed around, and advancement was reserved for such mythical beasts.

Except advancement was always a lie, a carrot on a stick to those they wanted something from. Work extra hours, and we’ll consider you for this or that position. Sometimes they were “sideways” promotions, some offered more responsibilities with no additional benefits, but never did advancement actually come.

I hear stories about game testers being told they’ll be offered many things when crunch time is over. In exchange for weeks, months of inhuman hours and dedication, they might get to be a test lead (nominally the same thing as a normal tester) or they’ll be considered for some other position with more input.

Yet time and again testers are shown to be considered expendable and are expected to be culled from a readily replenishing pool of recruits, such as high school students or people that “want to play games for a living.” It’s easier to get a new batch than to deal with the increasing treadmill of lies to keep them running towards a prize that will never be theirs.

I honestly don’t know how or why people put up with it. My brother leaves it simply at the job itself being crap and people working it deserving the poor treatment. I can’t help but wonder what game companies would do if testers actually said no to working 100+ hour workweeks during their idiotic “crunch time.”

This doesn’t even touch on the political quagmire these environments often are. Reporting the wrong bug can get you fired. Letting on that you’re beginning to expect a little too much out of the promises can get you let go. Just as often companies dissolve and merge together or are bought out, resulting in the now superfluous staff being let go.

Being a programmer isn’t that much better, though when you’re not dealing with rockstar game personalities like Peter Molyneaux, the divas are the programmers. Maybe they are bitter. Maybe they realized that they could be making actual money at a real software company rather than dedicating themselves to local or indie projects.

It’s the stories in The Trenches, though I’ve read them elsewhere before, that I think about whenever anyone waxes philosophical about how artistic games are or how much they’d like to make them. Even now, I would like to make games for a living, but I actually value my own dignity too much to be put through a process like that.

But given the disclaimers they give to testers, I suppose I’m closer to the right idea than they are.

  1. The Trenches may as well be called “One Sided Stories from People Too Stupid to Know Better.” Here’s the thing. Loving video games is not a shield that will protect you from a shitty job. It’s a target. It says “this person will work extra hard for something he loves.” And they put that to the test.

    Combine that with the absolute lack of qualifications most QA departments require of video game testers. Sometimes they require High-School educations, I guess? You get tremendously under-qualified, disposable people doing thankless work. They get fired a lot for little to no reason – it doesn’t matter, there are 5 more just like you waiting for the chance to “work in the industry.”

    I liken this to holiday retail temps. The difference between holiday retail temps and video game testers is that holiday temps have no illusions on where they stand, or their job prospects once the season’s over.

    I could go on – some of these stories speak to a lack of understanding of software development practices – but in general we all know video game testing is a shit job that only stupid people pursue, so why bother?

  2. The love thing quickly sums up what I’m trying to say here.

    But then, I also think it’s arrogance that lets them carry on like this. Of course, the sad thing is that they’re right: there’s plenty of people that, if nothing else, just want a job “playing video games all day.”

    I would love to hear specific counters regarding their stories versus software development practices. One of the things about the gaming industry is that I actually think it does not follow what you might call standard software development procedures.

  3. Game testing is one of those things that gets heavily romanticized, and even if it were a fun job to take for a couple years, it’s almost certainly something one should not spend their life entrenched in doing.

    It’s more than a little harsh and unprovoked, however, to suggest everyone taking the job is “stupid,” when “ignorant” would likely be the better word. To those outside, the game industry certainly looks as glamorous as Hollywood or any other form of mass entertainment. I did work as a background extra for a while and met more than a few aspiring actors hoping to be discovered or get picked to throw a few lines by whatever show’s director I was on that day. I never saw it happen, but people had heard stories… supposedly. I liken this to game testing, where I guess it happens sometimes, though sooner or later ignorance does turn to stupidity when one keeps taking the same job and hoping that this time it will be different.

    I want a career in game design and have been working for the last few years to make something that will serve as my avenue into it and, unsurprisingly, I have avoided game testing like the plague. It’s something I don’t want on my resume. When I went to school for game design (for about half a year) there were many students who took testing jobs offered primarily by the likes of Electronic Arts and Activision. Meanwhile, I saw many students in said school who aspired to be work in the industry but spent more time on their computers playing with fighting game mods than paying attention in class, and I couldn’t help but lump these sorts of people into the same category: individuals who said they wanted to make games and went through the motions, but didn’t really do anything.

  4. I have issues with companies expecting far more out of their employees than is reasonable given the scope of the job and, most importantly, the pay.

    I recall interviewing for Best Buy, back in the day. They took me to their little meeting room, with diagrams and axioms dedicated towards servicing the only customer that Corporate seemed to think mattered: Buzz. Buzz is a magical man that loves technology, gadgets and buying things and should be aggressively targeted with hype talk about whatever it is that’s in your department.

    The manager du jour sits me down and asks me what I think I can bring to Best Buy, by working here. I thought then and still do believe this was a ridiculous question, because I can’t bring anything to the company, because they were only hiring a stock guy.

    One of the stories talks about how there’s this house of cards regarding lowly testers, devs, and NDAs. You’re being given company-ruining secrets. But they still treat you like shit and pay you very little. Yes, they could sue you but a reasonably clever person could leak quite a bit through deferred channels and never get caught.

    I applied for and got a testing job once. The entire time I felt overqualified, as I’d dressed for an interview whereas everyone else came in t-shirts. I had a degree. They hired all of us, then called us back the next day to begin work, only to let us go after an hour of waiting as they weren’t ready that day.

    I didn’t go back, because it was a disrespectful waste of my time.

    It took me a moment to see that you wrote “playing with fighting game mods” and not “making fighting game mods.” I was going to say that my honest advice to someone looking to make it big would be to make a free total conversion for a game with mod tools available. In that sense, while I think people should pay attention in class, if they had been working on a small project like that I’d have said they were making much more progress than you realize. But then I could also forward you a good amount of broken, dead mod sites that eventually collapsed.

    I do think ignorance becomes stupidity, but it happens much faster than you describe: you get told, at the door, what to expect and how very explicitly it’s not going to be a job in the industry. That right there pushes past ignorance into stupidity to me …but it still doesn’t justify the poor working standards.

    • I tend to assume those “what can you bring to the company” questions are posed to see who is malleable enough to submit to the corporate mindset versus who has enough scruples that they’d likely get themselves fired. One can probably suffix this question with whether or not you need a job bad enough to compromise your principles and sense of individuality… but yeah, it’s just b.s.

      Most of what I saw people in class mess with were sprite-based Marvel vs. Capcom type set-ups. I don’t know if they put in their own fighters or if they just downloaded someone else’s work, but I saw a couple individuals playing these games during the only useful class in Westwood’s otherwise pretentious curriculum: the one class that actually teaches game planning and design. Disregarding whether it’s disrespectful, it’s particularly impractical when considering the cost of attending that school versus the actual length of the semesters. I’d reason occasionally someone can make it on their own skills and doesn’t need the education (and that’s fine), but then why do it during school hours?

      It’s… wasteful.

      I’ll add to the ignorance/stupidity point with the difference of knowing versus understanding. One can know that testing will not get them into the industry without understanding that they’re not likely to be the exception to the rule… it does skate pretty close to stupidity at that point, granted, but I’d reason most people need experience to really grasp some things.

      All that aside, I do agree that the practices of how the industry treats testers is hard to condone. I fathom why some things are the way they are, particularly the low wages (because, let’s face it, it’s still a low-skill job) but that doesn’t forgive the poor treatment of people or the long hours (which is likely a sign they should be hiring more testers, which would seem to make more sense anyways since I highly doubt these guys are salaried; avoiding paying overtime is eventually just going to invite trouble in the long run, and I’m baffled by how many companies don’t operate in the longterm).

  5. I don’t have much to add, but I will say a couple things. And yeah, I know ya heard em before.

    As you pointed out, with the best buy example, this is not a problem exclusive to video games. I face this in my daily job, especially when hour cuts kick in and someone mentions that we have more work to do in less time. On one hand, mine, that leads to slacking off more because I’m being mistreated. On the other is my boss who is some kind of superwoman who apparently loves her job and nearly lives int eh store working all the time.

    Also, I know this guy who wants to get into coding games. He is currently taking a class on ‘theater practicum’ which basically means he’s involved in putting on a play. He’s a assistant, working back stage and helping out without being seen. He’s content with it, says it’s good training for making video games.

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