this conversation happens at least once a week...
random: so what do you do?
me: i test video games.
random: hahaha! really?
me: yes. really.
and then the random will flip out in some marginally embarrasing manner, exclaiming to the heavens about how lucky i am, about how inexplicable it is that my job even exists, that there is even need for such labor, about how fortunate it is to find a job in which one's sole responsibility lies entirely in leisure. i can only imagine the visions that race through their head... me sitting in a room decked out with bean bag chairs, kit-kat wrappers and empty big gulp cups, furiously mashing buttons and staring intently at the latest 'the shit' in video entertainment, my co-workers lounging in hammocks around me cheering me on as they peek over their sweaty gameboys smudged up with corndog grease. or perhaps they envision me in a post-modern euro style office that would make even the wealthiest of ikea shoppers salivate, a sony flatscreen on the wall and a single controller wire extending across the smoke grey diamond plate paneling to my cardboard thin desk, me on the phone urgently speaking to dr. mario himself. "sir! we have a problem. it's serious. fox mccloud's blaster is not up to spec... i already called skippy!!!! he told me this was your department!!! DAMMIT!"
and then the conversation inevitably goes here: "it's actually not as cool as it sounds." yes, i am paid to play videogames, full time. i know it sounds like a dream. it is a dream. it's a dream i have had since i bought my first NES in 1988. a dream i followed as an embittered teen constantly on the cusp of "cool" and "that kid is a dork", balancing my magic cards with flannel shirts and a pony tail [see "GRUNGE" era '90-'93], fantasy novels set in the Dragonlance realm nullified with spiky hair, self drawn minor threat shirts, and home-made studded bracelets, and an unnatural obsession with horror movies covertly hidden by hanging out with people that smoke. so of course, after i escaped the social pressure chamber of high-school, it was time to let the frothy faced nerd back out of his little cage in my heart. in community college i had a friend with similar asperations, and one day we met in the atrium just outside the arcade after i had probably spent a good $3 on either metal slug 3 or house of the dead, and he giddily tells me "i got a job at nintendo testing videogames." my heart leapt like a nubile fawn. the legend was true. there was gold in them hills. it was all over. i set my phazer to "zelda" and fired.
but really. like any job it can be severly taxing on one's patience. some of the most excrutiatingly and horrifically boring moments of my life have been spent planted in a second hand office chair within a cold, fluorescent room, dedicating hours to tasks like manipulating an animated hamster across a beach volley ball court in order to find a zebra suit that DOES NOT FUCKING EXIST.
one of the brutal lessons of game testing one learns in a rapid and often heart-breaking way, is that temporary contract positions as a tester are abundant and permanent positions are almost non-existant. as a contractor, you are 100% expendable, a goombah, a pawn that must bend over backwards and perform flawlessly lest ye be banished from the mushroom kingdom and replaced instantly with a phone call by the next shivering, near-sighted, pudgy, soft-palmed drone in line to take up your righteous controller. my experiences with the variations of how contractors are treated vary from company to company, but it is rare that we are given any regard beyond being a desperate nerd fulfilling his uber geek fantasy of working for a game company, and the exploitation of labor is savage and ruthless. my first contract at nintendo had me testing three games, one after the other. each game, commonly referred to as your "project", went into overtime and had me working long hours and weekends, all the while my productivity under the microscope for any signs of weakness. at it's worst, i was working on a game 7 days a week, 15 hours each day. but hey, it's not all bad... i was making money playing videogames.
one of the best parts of being a game tester is working with other testers. these people are some of the most potent nerds you will ever meet, vomiting trivia at the mere mention of "star wars" and squaking together like a herd of angry ducks wearing glasses... and for the most part i find it absolutely endearing. it's kind of like they're in their favorite chatroom or message board, only it's real, and any shame for their lifestyle (come on, it's a goddamn culture) has been left in the hands of the 4 foot mario statue guarding the door to the testing department. i've been involved in software/videogame testing for 6 years now, and have been fortunate enough to witness some key moments in dork history through the eyes of my co-workers, including but not limited to: the nu star wars movies, the introduction of the xbox to the videogame world, ipods, the seemingly endless barrage of hollywood comic franchise movies, the MMORPG revolution (everquest, world of warcraft, diablo), d&d 3rd edition... it goes on, and while some of these things may seem trivial to you, the norms, these are subjects of endless, ferocious debates in dark places that are punctuated with nasal defiance and lit by the dim glow of a thousand gameboys. and i don't mean to come across like i'm better than them, or am observing the creature in it's natural habitat only to return to my underground lab after collecting data. i am every bit as emotionally invested in crucifying Rare for selling out and moving to xbox, and i will savagely challenge any who say metroid prime was not true to the original format just because it switched from 2D to 3D. there's a certain brotherhood that develops when a mass of grown men (and sometimes women, whom i feel endless sorrow for when they willingly subject themselves to an environment like this), plunge headfirst into the rigors of software slavery, dilligently testing a videogame just for the namesake and working under a shroud of fear at the thought of losing the cross they bear so well. a brotherhood that in no way necessitates clasped arms and trips to jillian's after work for brewskies and pork chops, but is most easily recognized in awkward conversations about metal at the soda machine and the eventual admission that pokemon is a fun game AND the harry potter series is fucking riveting.
over these long years i have noticed varying types of nerds, not all that i am fond of. i've also seen the game industry from different perspectives, as i was lucky enough to hold a permanent management position for a few years when enix had an office in seattle (before their legacy was tarnished by merging with square soft. that's right, i said it.) recently i also started writing down quotes of some of the more ridiculous things i've heard my co-workers say. but all this will have to wait for inspiration and a few free hours, as this will be an ongoing observation of videogames and the people who make them.