On January 21 Sony announced the cast for its exclusive PlayStation Network reality TV series, The Tester. This latest addition to the reality-competition subgenre follows a familiar structure: Contestants compete through various challenges in order to land a sought-after and usually glamorous job (model, designer, chef, etc.). However, contestants on The Tester compete for a job in Sony’s quality control division testing games. As a friend of mine from the industry said to me about The Tester, the show’s premise “is like competing for a shot to become a fry cook.”
Presumably the audience for The Tester is gamers since one can only access the show through the PSN. Sony assumes this audience believes a job in the games industry is a dream come true. The recent Rockstar Wives controversy, which I wrote about on FLOW and Sean Duncan posted on Antenna, confirmed this attitude in the many online posts that followed the story. Amid sympathetic comments for overworked employees, it was common to read quips about how “awesome” it is to work in games and that the beleaguered employees at Rockstar San Diego should shut up and put up.
In addition to the veneer of “coolness” that hides the reality of unpaid overtime and exhausting, unrealistic production schedules, game testing, in particular, is widely touted as the best way to get one’s foot in the games industry door. On Sony’s website for the new show, David Jaffee, a former Sony creative director and lead designer on God of War, says, “I started as a Tester 15 years ago with Sony. And testing is still one of the best ways to break into the industry. I’m looking forward to seeing which cast member rises to the top.” The show is motivated by this assumption and we should expect to hear anecdotes from successful Sony panelists and guests about the game production career ladder that begins with entry level Q&A jobs.
Viewers should also expect to see Sony address the “hard work” of testing. It won’t be portrayed as all fun and games – where’s the challenge and voyeuristic pleasure in that? No, we will hear about callused thumbs, soar eyes and aching backsides. We will relish the “physical challenges” the contestants must endure. But will the realities of working in games and the realities of play testing be explored in any substantial way? I doubt it, because it doesn’t make good television and, for a show sponsored by Sony, on the Sony network, packed with current and former Sony employees, featuring (I imagine) PS3 and PSP games, workplace realities challenge the “cool” factor, the escapist ethos, the fun of gaming, and the sublime corporate synergy of this production.
Ask any current or former play tester (and there are far more former play testers) about their experiences “playing games all day for pay”. The stories are not pretty or cool. Most play testing jobs are temporary, part-time, non-benefited, contract-based work. Slogging through a broken, buggy, unfinished game doesn’t look or feel like “playing” at all. Furthermore, the play tester who moves to fulltime employment as a designer is as rare as the high school basketball star who makes it to the NBA.
Some of the issues I will be interested in seeing and discussing when The Tester airs in February include how this show imagines game production and the role of the play tester in crafting ludic experiences? How Sony leverages itself in this program, and how audiences/players respond to this echo-chamber for Sony-branded entertainment? And, how will the critical dialogue about labor sparked by Rockstar Wives and the announcement of this show develop?