parapluie elektronische zeitschrift für kulturen · künste · literaturen -> übersicht | archiv | suche
no. 17: improvisation -> xworld


On the frontlines of the video game racket

by Kristin Fitzpatrick

If you had the chance to get paid to play video games all day long, would you take it?

If you are an American male between the ages of 16 and 25, with an affinity for sports, cars, weapons, and women with improbably big breasts, you might.

If you are an American female beyond her 20s with no interest in any of the above, you might hesitate.

"It's a German functionality testing position," the recruiter wearily told me over the phone. "You go through the games in German and see if they're translated correctly."

Killing people in English wasn't high on my list, but killing them in another language might be OK.

"You do speak German, right?" he asked.

"Yes—should I come in for an interview?" I asked.

"No," he said, unmoved by this display of enthusiasm. "Not necessary. Can you start tomorrow?"

And so, last summer and fall I spent four months in the mind of an adolescent American boy.

The next morning found me in the "bullpen," a holding lobby crowded with hooded sweatshirts, leather jackets, ponytails, piercings, and Xbox T-shirts stretched over XXL bellies. Loud groups clustered together, individuals slouched against the walls or slumped on the floor, and a few women hung in pairs. Eyes kept glancing towards the back of the lobby.

Finally a cheery young woman appeared with a clipboard and began reeling off names. "OK—Jay's team stays the same. Adam, Jason, Manami, Steve, Taz, CJ, and Tyrell, go with Jerry. Paul, Louis..." One by one, the hoods, ponytails, and piercings filed through the back door and down the hall to the labs.

The labs, with bright names like Whitney and Shasta, were kept in perpetual twilight. The blinds were tightly closed to guard against prying eyes, lights were dim, and the stale, cool air smelled of popcorn being microwaved in the kitchen. Cables and air ducts hung exposed from the ceiling, and the chairs, cages, desks, and equipment were black, adding to the darkness. We jockeyed for chairs with backs and arms intact and pulled ourselves in front of rows of monitors. Black cages loomed overhead. The Xboxes were locked up for security, and keys passed up and down the rows to unlock the cages when new media came down the line. We were working in a cyber chain gang, tethered to our stations by our controllers and watched over by test leads strolling about with clumps of keys jangling at their waists.

We clapped headphones over our ears, picked up our controllers, and started to work. Preliminary "housekeeping" tests included checking the menus in various languages, changing the language settings to see if the Xbox would support localized games, timing how long screens took to load, checking menus and game options for consistency, and, for the localizers, checking translated text and voiceovers.

The localizers were a mongrel group. The other German tester was a Czech, whose friends back in Prague could not believe his luck in landing a job that paid him to play video games. Neither of us could believe that we, an American and a Czech, were the German testers. The French tester was a surly man from Mali. The Spanish testers were an American missionary who'd lived in Mexico and a Columbian woman who had married an abusive American but couldn't yet afford to take her daughter and leave. The Japanese testers were the most coherent group, a mix of Japanese-Americans, Japanese students, and recent emigrants.

The other testers came from a range of backgrounds as well. There were underemployed testers and programmers, refugees of the dotcom crash; recent college graduates struggling to break into a tough job market; young bohemians and dedicated snowboarders; the pierced and tattooed crowd, looking like game characters themselves; a few women, usually language testers like myself; and hardcore gamers. One gamer regularly appeared in full chain mail, complete with hood and belted tunic. He wore his headphones clamped over the mail, and in-between games he pulled out the pliers and bag of aluminum rings he compulsively carried with him like knitting. He interlinked rings and closed the loops: knit one, pearl two, like Madame LaFarge grimly knitting her way to the endgame.

After housekeeping tests were run, the real work of playing the game began. The test plan was simple: get through as many levels as quickly as possible, using as many combinations of characters and weapons as possible. There were crutches to help move us along, such as scripts detailing how to get through each level, cheat codes that unlocked parts of the game, and memory units with saved levels and characters.

I made full use of those crutches and clearly was not a natural. I had only played the occasional arcade game, and the inner logic of games eluded me. I walked right by glowing objects, blundered off trails into blank nether regions of the games, fumbled with the controls, and took out teammates with friendly fire.

The games restructured my dreams and cast them in pixilated neon colors. I dreamed through multiple variations of the same story, raced through different levels, and woke to my fingers twitching like the legs of a sleeping dog chasing squirrels. Instead of, "I haven't seen the movie, but I've read the book," I started saying, "I haven't seen the movie, but I've played the game." A former English professor, I started having morbid fantasies about turning novels into games: Moby Dick became "Monster of the Deep," Huckleberry Finn became "Shoot the Rapids," and A Midsummer Night's Dream became a complex role-playing game.

The testing felt like dreaming. We played in eternal night, with the desires of the adolescent subconscious splashed across the screens. We were racecar drivers, linebackers, assassins, and warriors. The women in our worlds had Amazonian proportions yet, when stats were given, never weighed more than130 pounds (inflatable breasts, obviously).

Playing the occasional female main character put a curious twist on things. Blood Rayne aligned us with the title character, a red-haired female vampire wearing the standard S&M leather outfit standard. The game was set during WWII, a favorite setting in the gaming world; the period provides a wide range of international backdrops for combat, and the Nazis continue to exert a morbid fascination. In Blood Rayne, Nazis in Argentina had stolen a jewel with demonic powers they hoped to unleash. Blood Rayne's mission was to find the jewel and, along the way, feed on as many Nazis as possible. (In comparison with Nazis, even the blood-sucking undead are heroes.) She broke into a submarine base and chased sailors through the Speisesaal, surprised them in their bunks, and (to much sniggering among the testers) jumped a Kommandant pissing into a bathroom urinal. Her victims raced through the game shouting, "Wo ist der Eindringling?", "Aufpassen!", and simply "Ahhhh!" as Blood Rayne wrapped her legs around their waists, her arms around their necks, and buried her face in the curve of shoulder and neck while moaning, "Ohhhhhh.... Mmmmm..." I watched my fellow gamers gleefully pounce on other men and suck their necks with sounds that could only be described as orgasmic. The boys were a little unnerved at the mention of homoeroticism: "Oh dude, that's sick! Don't even go there!" they exclaimed, before getting back to climbing on other men to give them lethal hickeys.

But some of the games also brought out the boys' sweeter sides. When we pitted XMen against each other in fights to the death, the other testers filled me in on the extended soap operas underlying the mutants' lives. I learned about the characters' affairs, unrequited loves, alliances, children, and transformations. These reflective moments rarely lasted for long, though—a few minutes after getting misty-eyed over Dark Phoenix's multiple deaths, one tester cheerfully went back to lobbing spiked grenades into the face of his own character and pointed out to me: "Dude, look! Massive grenades up his nose, and he just won't die!"

After a morning of killing, everyone was hungry for lunch. Some wandered out to the vending machines, where they blinked at dimly lit trays before punching buttons for stale sandwiches, Ramen noodles, and packs of bright red meat by-products pressed into rib-shaped "Riblets." Others lunched on the free popcorn and soda. Most came back from fast food runs with pizza, burritos, teriyaki, and the occasional one-pound monster burger topped with fried eggs. Everyone spread out in front of the monitors and kept playing.

There was an ebb and flow to the testing, which is seasonal work. The big rush came in the fall, before the holiday shopping season. During this time, teams came in shifts, day and night, 24/7. The labs were never empty, and popcorn and soda cans were cleaned out between the rows like a movie theater between shows. As Christmas approached, jobs dried up. Teams were sporadically sent home on "vacation:" teams had enforced time off without pay but were not officially laid off, which would have increased the agency's unemployment tax rates. Since we were technically still employed (albeit without work or pay), we couldn't claim unemployment benefits. We existed in legal limbo. Some testers didn't care—they were kids living at home, students on vacation, self-ascribed bohemians, or foreign nationals desperate for work. Most of us were struggling to find more stable work, but a Byzantine legal maze of non-compete and non-disclosure agreements hobbled us in our search.

Ours was a high-tech sweatshop, a cheap satellite vendor orbiting a large software client with several layers of employees between itself and our outpost. This created a bizarre caste system, headed by full-time client test leads, followed by full-time test leads at the vendor, and then permatemps like myself working on-site through a high-tech agency. At the bottom were temporary temps who came in day by day to pick up hourly work. They stood in the bullpen and waited for their names to be called, putting me in mind of the longshoremen in the movie, "On the Waterfront." If there was no work, a cheery HR rep compensated them with donuts and orange juice.

Most of us had no illusions about the long-term prospects in our field. The vendor was so desperate to save money that computer terminals were provided only for the test leads: the rest of us filled out our bug reports on paper before handing them in. It was clear these jobs would eventually be outsourced overseas, to countries where labor and overhead were even cheaper. Ours was a snapshot of the IT industry, struggling to cut costs by outsourcing work to vendors in Eastern Europe and Asia. In another year or two, this work would no longer be available to the motley crew that included career shifters like myself.

I happily escaped to better work after seeing the summer fade into fall through closed blinds. My dreams no longer have different levels, and I haven't picked up a controller or touched microwave popcorn since. I can still debate the merits of Halo and Splinter Cell with my brother-in-law and male colleagues, but those memories are fading fast. The two-dimensional gaming medium will probably give way to the world of virtual reality soon enough. Future testers in India and the Czech Republic will find themselves toe to toe with monstrous, sword-swinging English speakers, and in virtual reality the testers will win. In reality, I hope they at least get plenty of free soda and popcorn.

alle rechte liegen bei den jeweiligen autorinnen und autoren.
issn 1439-1163, impressum | datenschutz. url: