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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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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