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Slacker or Hero?: A Taste of the Life of a Video Game Tester

A scene from Grandma's Boy

Video Game Testers are rather like UN weapons inspectors (and have about as much credibility, now that I think about it).

At the risk of sounding completely ludicrous, my recent six-month tenure as a tester at a Los Angeles-based video game company was one of the most difficult periods in my life. When I say "difficult", of course, I don't necessarily mean I was conscripted into some sort of modern day Charles Dickens-like sweatshop, toiling 18 hours a day in a cramped factory while a floor boss whipped me as my gnarled hands feverishly gripped an Xbox controller until they bled. The job itself is fairly mindless and easy. The hardest part, actually, was the curious way I was treated by outsiders and acquaintance when they learned of my occupation.

The fact is that when you mention to someone that you work as a video game tester, one of two assumptions are automatically and unequivocally made about the nature of your character. You are considered either an immature slacker or in rare cases, a genius. I blame society for this treatment, of course. I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point in the history of our cultural lexicon, the job of video game tester for many became lazy shorthand for "slacker" in nearly the same way that rocket scientist is synonymous with brainy complexity, political lobbyist with sycophantic smarminess, and attorney with the decline of Western Civilization.

This certainly proved true when Adam Sandler buddy Allen Covert recently created a lowbrow stoner comedy called Grandma's Boy, about the ultimate man-child fantasy -- (the kind Sandler himself is infamous for). In it, Covert cast himself as a -- yes, you guessed it -- 35-year-old video game tester whose modest ambitions have been all but drowned in a mélange of bongwater, porn, and Playstation 2, but who can somehow muster enough low-key charm to seduce a power-suit wearing game executive in the form of a fetching Linda Cardellini.

How one responds to Covert's character depends almost solely on who you are. If you don't believe me, read some of the wildly divergent user comments on the Grandma's Boy IMDB page, many of whom either revile, pity, or idolize the characters in the movie. I grew cognizant of the effect of these snap judgments firsthand and eventually trained myself to accurately judge the nature of the person I was speaking with before revealing in casual conversation what exactly I did from 8 to 5 everyday.

Was I replying to a responsible adult? If so, it was OK to tell them I played video games for a living, but I did so in an apologetic, slightly embarrassed aw-shucks-I-know-it's-kind-of-ridiculous-but-what-are-you-gonna-do kind of way. Because these were the people that instantly labeled me a slacker. In such situations, I'd always feel compelled to explicate that testing meant constant hard work and that it wasn't just a bunch of guys lounging around on a couch in their sweatpants, drinking Mountain Dew and playing games all day…because, well…we had office chairs instead of couches.

Was the person standing before me a female, specifically one that I might be interested in dating? Then I'd lie. Straight up. Or at least stretch the truth, because for most women, a video game tester is the career equivalent of a circus clown or the schlub who dons the goofy mouse suit at Chuck E Cheese. "I'm a software engineer," I'd announce to women with a straight face. If asked for further information, I'd simply add, "I umm... make sure specific applications are running correctly." This may be a half-truth, but at least, I told myself, I'm not claiming to be an architect named Art Vandelay.

If, on the other hand, I was chatting with a teenage or 20-something guy, especially the type who interjects the word "Dude" into most of their sentences, I jumped at the chance to reveal my vocation because it inevitably consummated with a high-five or a fawning, "Oh my God, you're the man!" type compliment.

But the truth is...video game testing is everything and nothing like you can imagine. Here was a typical day in the life…

It's 8:30am and I trudge zombie-like down the long, sterile, white hall, half-listening to the sound of my security scan card jangling against my belt. It could be like any other drab corporate office except for the out-of-order Primal Rage arcade cabinet tucked in the corner near the elevator. A step inside the QA basement reveals a white-collar environment unlike any other. The office affectionately nicknamed "The Dungeon” is a vast room overflowing with space-age electronics and unkempt, poorly-dressed, 20-something men. Televisions, funky tattoos, Star Wars T-shirts, computers, black-hooded sweatshirts, frumpy football jerseys, baggy jeans, shaggy facial hair, and backwards baseball caps as far as the eye could see. An occasional female can be spotted, but the ratio of guys to girls here (30-to-1, I'd guess) makes the Army look like the feminist studies department at an East Coast liberal arts college.

While all game testers don't fit the preconceived notions you might harbor (my team included a 30-something single mother and a gruff middle-aged Harley rider type), a vast majority are indeed young, pale, nerdy white males who spend a little too much time playing World of Warcraft, reading SlashDot, or arguing about arcane comic book minutia like who Lex Luthor's sexual partners were and what kind of space age material Captain America's shield is made of. (For the record, those discussions really did happen.)

I stroll into the breakroom to grab a drink -- a breakroom that resembles a run-down version of what, as a 12-year-old, I always hoped I'd win in the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right. An aging, banged-up pool table and discolored Foosball table dominate the center of the room, several arcade cabinets lurk on the far wall, and a free soda fountain and vending machines take up much of the remaining space. A tall thin man with a green Liberty-spiked mohawk haircut reaches in the front pocket of a black leather jacket riddled with safety pins and punk rock patches as he lounges at a table. He is, by the way, a manager at this company.

I eventually depart for the locked down "high security" room where I will spend the next nine hours of my life. There are about 25 total employees working in a space the size of a classroom, which makes this experience as much like high school as the fact that I'm overhearing an in-depth conversation about Super Mario Kart. And with all of these beefy men and rocket-powered gaming systems, it is also approximately 100 billion degrees in this room. Each person sits nearly back-to-back at their own cramped gaming station, controller or mouse in hand, playing the same game we'd been working on for three months now -- a soon to be released first-person World War II shooter for the Playstation 3.

"Hey Jackson, hey Birdman," I call casually to the two teammates sitting at stations adjacent from me.

Like a geeky version of a fraternity or Tom Cruise's unit in Top Gun, most of us address each other by last names or by our nicknames/Xbox Live Gamertags. I, for no good reason, was The Doctor. As was his custom, The Emperor (as I secretly named him) was hunched over in his chair with his face nearly obscured by the black cowl-like hood he wore every day to work.

Video games, truth be told, are usually enjoyable diversions when experienced in smallish doses. But a majority of the time, testers are not even technically playing games -- not the way we would when playing for enjoyment at home. Rather, testers are charged with combing them meticulously, hunting for the slightest and most obtuse bugs, mistakes, glitches, and errors to report. In this way, we sort of resemble UN weapons inspectors, (and have about as much credibility now that I think about it). Once a bug is spotted we type up overly detailed reports in a computer database that faintly resembles proofs from sophomore year Geometry class.

“If Spider-Man’s head equals the angle of an isosceles triangle….”

Sometimes, testers go way overboard about what is considered a "bug". A particular report that stands out was one in which a X-Men character, Colossus, had an unlockable special costume that bore "unusual shadowing in the groin area" which may cause issues with the video game industry's ratings board.

Not that testing is all drudgery. Things turn very entertaining when we test the multiplayer version of the game and battle back and forth on two teams against each other. It's rather like a pickup basketball game at the YMCA with all of the competitiveness and constant testosterone-fueled banter of "Oh my god, you so should of died there!" or "Dude, pick up the flag!" and such. It might be the only place in America where you can tell your boss to go "F--- himself" for shooting you in the face with a rocket launcher and you get laughs instead of a pink slip. It was times like these that I felt like I was actually getting away with something by working there.

This was my work day. Day-in and day-out.

And behind the seductively non-conformist, anything goes, piercing-and-tats "cool" of the tester life lies the harsh realities of temporary work, relatively low wages, a huge amount of overtime, zero paid health benefits, and an "at will" contract that means they can fire you for urinating in the wrong toilet. And then there are the horror stories; whispers of 24-hour shifts, atrocious working conditions and other tales reported throughout the industry, like the one found here in Developer tales: The true story of an abused game tester on Destructoid.com.

Like many things in life, though, the daily existence of a video game tester has both desirable perks and regrettable downsides. The experience lies somewhere between the firmament of heaven and hell, the feeling somewhere between fortunate son and underachieving loser. If nothing else, remember this lesson: Don't always believe what you see in the movies. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a bong to clean out.

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