Playtesters play videogames that are unstable, unbalanced and riddled with broken code. Their labor is also unstable in that playtesters are frequently short-term contract workers, unpaid volunteers, or “family and friends." And yet, from these unstable labor and play environments, testing is “the backbone of software development” (Petro Piaseckyj, Managing Producer, Sony)
Playtesting is recommended as a door into entry-level employment and a training ground for cultivating future designers. Despite periodic exposés about the unfavorable working conditions at game studios (most recently, Homefront's 6 months of crunch), playing or making games for a living is still a “dream job.” Sony contributed to glamorizing playtesting in its made-for-PlayStation Network reality show, The Tester, in which contestants vie for a fulltime tester position at Sony and a $5000 signing bonus. Playtesting and quality assurance (two related, but different jobs) are the lowest paid disciplines in the production-side of the game industry.
Changes in the economic structure and industrial practices of game development over the past decade, namely the concentration of development into large conglomerates, have lead to the professionalization of playtesting and reflects a trend in creative digital labor generally. The ‘democratization’ of media production brought by digitalization elevated user-generated content, but has the reciprocal effect of depressing wages and decreasing paid opportunities. Playtesting now is less often an entry to future, long-term employment in game design and more often an outsourced branch of quality assurance or an internal division of usability research (see Halo 3 testing at Microsoft Labs). The free labor of gamers during beta testing still plays an important, productive role in finalizing a game, but entry to a career in design is a closing door.
I am not suggesting that all gamers who willingly give free or part-time labor to testing have dreams of working in the industry, and thus are deceived and exploited. My interviews with beta testers, not surprisingly, suggest multiple motivations for playing unfinished, broken games (bragging rights, membership in a community, free stuff). As David Hesmondhalgh cautions, pairing free labor with exploitation in a broad stroke manner dismisses the “genuinely positive experiences” of some creative workers. But a critical account of playtesting – alongside other sites of game industry labor – that recognizes the inequities and opportunities of this work contributes to understanding media production in the 21st century and what it means to “play games for a living.”