Help Wanted, No Experience Necessary

Curator's Note

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.”


Thanks for a great post, Nina.  As with yesterday's post, you've highlighted the often overlooked invisible labor on which our contemporary media industries are founded.

I'll admit that I'm not overly familiar with the specifics of video game playtesting, so I have more questions than comments.

What kinds of parallels do you see between playtesting and software beta testing?  It seems to me that there is a lot of overlap between the desire to test a beta version of, say, an internet browser and the desire to test a video game.  However, there are significant divergences as well.  Beta testing an internet brower gives the user access to new features and design (albeit with some bugs), while playtesting seems only to offer a kind of "first dibs" on a game experience.  While both rely on the "free" labor of the user, there is not the same kind of illusion of upward mobility within the industry.  When I use a beta version of Chrome, I never expect Google to hire me.  As you indicate in your post, this isn't so clear when testing for a game developer.

I also found the tone of the clip you posted very strange.  Was that produced by Microsoft?  If so, the video simultaneously acknowledges that a) Testers are exploited by Microsoft, and b) Microsoft won't really listen to customer comments anyway.  The video then ends by depicting testing as really fun - it's all play!  Perhaps this reflects the contradiction in game testing: yes, you're going to be terribly explioited and poorly compensated, but you're going to have a heck of a lot of fun while doing it.

Great post, Nina!

I’m struck by how effortlessly and seamlessly beta testing has been integrated into AAA game marketing campaigns (shored up by sympathetic elimination-style shows like The Tester, no doubt).  Take for example the current Gears of War 3 ad blitz where gamers are promised early access to the beta if they pre-order the title, and even earlier access if they buy Bulletstorm (an FPS co-developed by Gears’ Epic Games Studio).  As was the case during Halo: Reach’s popular public beta, the rhetoric/incentive here is largely about, as you note: “bragging rights, membership in a community, free stuff.”

It seems to me that political/cultural economic video game scholarship (e.g., your work, or that of Hector Postigo, Randy Nichols, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter, to name a few) can make useful academic and pedagogical interventions if it can disentangle gaming's cultural capital from other kinds of capital, and remind our student-players that gameplay is not always necessarily about the game or about their play.

Thanks for the comments Drew & Matt. Yes, playtesting has some relationship to beta testing non-game software, and also to product testing (for example, children's toys) and audience testing (for example, new TV shows). But, as you point out Drew, those other forms of user research have not come with the vague promise of a career. In part, my project is to track when and why that shift occurred - the professionalization of playtesting - away from jobs in game design, to an increasingly standardized industrial practice often quite separate from design (the science of "fun" as it has been called). The unpaid tester is thriving however, as Matt points out, as part of a marketing strategy that recognizes and exploits the core gamer whose early beta reviews can help hype a game. This can be dangerous on the part of publishers as well. If word spreads that a game is awful in beta, it could kill sales on final release. So I am also looking at how publishers manage beta communities.

Yes, the video is copyright Microsoft. I am most intrigued by the assumption that user research was once wrought with ethical problems that violated human subject research rules, but now it is all handshakes and smiles. And, that the reseacher is at the mercy of the user - tears of joy when they get the product "right." Loads of assumptions here about the power of the consumer that intersect with contemporary theories about the prosumer.

Excellent post, Nina, and a fascinating video. Game testing is something that has been on my mind a lot recently, mostly because I'm talking about it at a conference next month. The industry's "work-as-play" rhetoric is strong, and testing is an especially interesting site of conflict given the perception of the skills required for the job. The Tester, as an example, certainly emphasizes "soft skills" like teamwork and initiative over more specific skills like ability to write clear bug reports or reproduce bug conditions.

Matt, you're right that betas have become a standard tool in the marketing cycle for major releases, with benefits far beyond just increasing excitement. Beta access helps sell more expensive versions of products (collector's editions), staves off the pre-owned market, and assists in launching ancillary or new IPs (think Halo 3's beta contributing to the success of Crackdown or Gears of War 3's beta driving even more attention to Bulletstorm). In terms of "bragging rights, membership in a community, and free stuff," the GoW3 beta neatly combines all three by including unlockable items/costumes for use in the full game, providing players with visible indicators connoting dedication (hierarchically structured by beta access period) to be flaunted indefinitely in multiplayer matches.

As the distinction between "beta" and "demo" becomes increasingly vague, managing expectations, as you suggest Nina, becomes even more complex. The label of "beta" gives developers a bit more leeway with regard to the "polish" of the game, whereas a buggy demo can kill a nearly finished product.

Beyond marketing or leveraging player labour, I would suggest developers largely use betas for gathering data. Developers want feedback and bug reports, but they are also scrutinizing the numbers of which weapons are used most, how servers manage player load, and (on PC specifically) what hardware configurations are causing issues. This is indicative of a trend of data-driven design that reaches beyond testing and is leveraged particularly well by companies like Zynga, Valve, and Blizzard to produce games that are constantly evolving based on data produced from players. Many social games and MMOs never bother to leave beta despite acting as released products. It's also worth noting that one of the most significant games in recent history, Minecraft, became a sensation and earned millions while still supposedly in alpha. 

It’s interesting how much potential “mileage” firms can squeeze out of their betas/demos.  As has been noted, they are sites of multiple practices: fan labor, marketing, and data gathering (to name three).  But it’s also important to recognize, as Steven does with his NBA Elite 11 example (BTW, who knew there was so much Christian iconography in professional basketball?!?), that demos are not without their own risks.

We’ve seen early paratextual buzz derail projects (e.g., racism in Resident Evil 5, or realism and Six Days in Fallujah).  I imagine that there are fewer cases of demos sinking projects because of the license that the trial experience affords the firm.  Still, companies do not have complete freedom to fix gameplay issues through additional patching and design work.  

Finally, quick media studies(-ish) keyterm question: if the marketing paratext initiates processes of meaning making for the core media text (see the work of Jonathan Gray, Steven Jones), then what do we do with the game demo? Is it still a marketing paratext? Perhaps a proto-text? And does its status vary for different constituencies, reflecting (in part) the expectations that Steven observes between betas and demos?

Thought provoking post and discussion; part of what it draws out for me is the difficulty of making sense of cultural capital in relationship to video games, a point Matt brought up earlier in the responses.  This happens, in part, because most of the scholarship has focused on the reproduction of very particular forms of cultural capital that are somehow canonical.  Typically these studies either emphasize "high arts" or, if someone's being rebellious, in relation to something so seemingly Other (for example, hip hop).  In doing so, they tend to emphasize capital emblamatic of some dominant culture which has somehow emerged without the interference of industry.   What this misses is the question of the initial production of cultural texts which then reproduce cultural knowledge. 

On the other end, political economy has tended to emphasize all interactions with cultural texts - whether in the initial production stages or later consumption - as neccesarily exploitive that treat enjoyment and use in any form as an either/or proposition.  I'm reminded of the discussion at a recent conference panel that struggled to negotiate the relationship between marketing and sub-cultures that seemed to want to view the two as distinct theoretical constructs which in no way made use (or resisted) each other.   The discussion here, and the area, go a long way to muddying the waters in some very useful ways. 

Great post!  Sorry to be a little late on posting my comments, but I think you do a great job of flagging invisible labor that is so important to ensuring that games technically work and that games can be played successfully by a human operator. 

From the clip, it appears that “professional” playtesters receive training and are likely overtly subject to a regime of best practices in quality assurance. I’d be interested to see if these trappings help employed playtesters talk about their work differently than unpaid playtesters and/or how playtesters discuss their involvement in the industry and the ways that playtesting is a path into the industry but increasingly not a road into the game design community.

Indie firms and small design teams seem to use amateur playtesters because smaller game budgets demand it, but how do they train or orient players to identify and record key flaws and to act like professional playtesters? Or, is the approach to playtesting different for indie developers?   

I’m also interested in how we can borrow from and add to the concepts and language of usability studies, mixing this field of knowledge with the hybrid mode of cultural studies and political economy that is so fundamental to present media scholarship. How can we borrow from and add to fields such as interaction design? 




 Matt - Your questions suggest what I find to be one of the main limitations of the idea of paratexts, which is determining where the "core" text ends and where paratext begins. Transmedia storytelling is a good example of how the dispersal of information can decentralize a text. Or take, for example, Battlefield Heroes, a game that, like many other social or online games, went into "open beta" and never left it. The game hasn't been officially released (and probably never will be), yet players pay for content and engage with it as they would with any other "finished" text. Or at what point did Minecraft stop being a "proto-text" (I like that) and become a "core" text? When it made $30 million, made it on Game of the Year lists, or has it not even happened because it is still in Beta? 

Randy - I've found it useful to consider Sarah Thornton's idea of "subcultural capital" in relation to video games. It's almost a nested hierarchy, where gamers may gain subcultural capital through, say, fan production or beta testing proficiency, but when viewed from outside the subculture, this may actually revoke broader cultural capital. At the same time, leisurely engagement with games by people with no attachment to the subculture may conversely earn cultural capital, but disdain from those within the subculture. [Shameless plug - I've discussed this in my M.A. thesis]. As you say, it's a complex system of relationships, especially as game companies try to appease fans while broadening their markets. In terms of labour, this would seem to apply more to dedicated fans more invested in striving for subcultural capital, but I'd argue social games are changing this as well, with the importance of data-mining and games launching as "live services" that some developers claim are only 10% complete when released.

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