Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Videogame Testing / Critical Practice

background and context:

For three months in the summer of 2003 I worked as a tester for Electronic Arts (EA) developer, marketer and publisher of videogames. I was based at their studios in Chertsey, Surrey. It was a vast complex; part of the site was shared with Zanussi, manufactures of various home appliances. The main EA building is reminiscent of a corporate tower from Blade Runner or Gattaca. The interior d├ęcor enjoyed a sense of its own late 20th sci-fi inspired futurism, see-through elevators, entire sides of the building constructed from inclining panes of glass, large open interior spaces, perfectly sculpted landscapes, a neat lawn: grass meticulously and regularly cut, artificial lakes and real swans, a hi-tech gym, while in the canteen multiple screens played multiple channels. Near the main entrance was a videogame library… staff could borrow any game published by EA. Anything natural was controlled or pre-fabricated so that the entire complex felt like a simulation, or in Star-Trek parlance as though roaming through a ‘holodeck’ (an immersive hologram computer program used a holiday destination in substitution of the real thing by the spaceship’s crew). There were standing games posts where you could play EA’s latest products in the lobby area (with endless free lives, so no need for coins), the space felt clean to the point of sterilization. All staff had electronic swipe cards allowing different access to different parts of the building depending on your position. On Fridays refrigerated drink cabinets were unlocked and there was an unlimited supply of drinks. Throughout the week there was a ‘take-away’ allowance if you had an evening shift (EA had accounts with for fast-food pizza, Chinese, Indian and. fried chicken). At one level the company saw itself as a Disneyish pleasure village.

While I was there I tested a number of games on a number of platforms (the platform being the console, e.g. Playstation 2, X-box etc). These included a Harry Potter Quiditch game, a rugby game capitalizing on the Rugby World cup that year, a Japanese adapted import of the ‘beat-em up’ Soul Caliber 2, but the majority of my time there was spent testing Freedom Fighters:

testing

The EA motto is ‘Challenge Everything’. When an EA game loads up - before the game’s title screen - this phrase is whispered with the appearance of the EA logo, the gender and tone of the voice is ambiguous it is enticing, challenging, malevolent and provocative. This corporate motto was the defining mode of operation as a tester.

When playing a videogame you might pull the controller out the socket in frustration. You might press a particular button really fast. You might put the game on pause and make some food or have a conversation. These actions might lead the game to ‘crash’: that is to freeze, start from its beginning, or that level, jam not allowing you to play further. Equally, while playing a game your ‘avatar’ (the character/ object/ craft/ protagonist - you the player are controlling on screen) or the world in which your avatar moves may not behave within the logic of the system, or not follow its own rules. This is often a ‘cartoon-logic’, e.g. if you eat a yellow star you can fly for 10 seconds, for the game to be satisfactory you shouldn’t be able to fly if you haven’t eaten a yellow star.
There is also the physics of the game to be testes, is the length of time you hold a button proportional to how high you jump? Can you shoot yourself? Can you run beyond the borders of the game, can you stand outside the play space? Do the buildings have the integrity they should? Can you run through a wall that operates as the boundaries of the game, or does your avatar half-merge with something that should be solid? Do bullets pass through an enemy that is supposed to be susceptible? When the game is set on its most difficult setting is it too easy to complete, is the beginner setting to difficult for an average player. Do the multi-language formats work? Does the sniper rifle make a sound programmed for the machine gun? These are ‘bugs’, it is the aim of the testers to find them, be able to recreate them and communicate to a third party where and how the bug occurred.

We would work in teams of five or six with a group leader guiding our testing. The structure of the process was to comb through the game identifying bugs in the programming, let the programmers (unseen on the floor above) know where the bugs are, and how they reveal themselves, the programmer would then fix the bug, when he or she felt this had been done, we would be sent an updated version of the game, we would try re-locate the bug or re-create the circumstances which led to its appearance. If we couldn’t do this it was taken to be solved. If we succeeded the programming team was alerted, they would try another fix and send a new version for us to test again and so on. Sometimes we’d be given the cartridge/ disc and allowed to roam through the game as we pleased like a ‘vandal-flaneur’: disrupting the world as much as we could muster. Other times there would be much more specific testing. We’d be given an A4 sheet with instructions to test a given situation on given level. If it was an early stage of the game there would be a ‘test menu’ inserted into an options page on the game; this allowed you to go directly to a particular level, this saved the time of having to play all the way through a game to get to a particular point. As later versions of the game were provided, you got closer to its final form, the test menu would be removed.

Clearly there are different bugs, those of the mechanical sort concerning the interface of the control pad with game itself, a basic test would be to press a single button as fast as you could for a three minutes. Then there are errors of logic, the game breaking its own rules, mentioned earlier. There are errors of content or miscommunication a soldier who should be wearing red, incorrectly wearing blue, titling miscredits etc. Then there are omissions of special effects like explosions when hitting an oil tanker. Then there is checking for audience play settings, that menus lead to the right submenus and so on. The aim was to ‘eradicate’ them all.

the culture of videogame testing

I was being paid to test videogames: to find bugs, to find holes, to find failures of programming, to break the game, to the crash the game. To crash a game – to have the screen jitter, petrify, re-boot was the pinnacle of videogame testing and the act that generated the most attention and respect among your co-workers and seniors. Within this sphere of work there was culture of destruction, the more destructive you were (and able to recreate and communicate) your destructive act the better you did your job. This culture was intensified by the separation of the testers (the destroyers, the Dionysian force, from the programmers (the Apollonians) kept apart architecturally and socially. In the Logic of Scientific Discovery (1935) Popper argues science proceeds by the deductive demonstration of the falsity of scientific theory…that scientific rationality consists of the falsification of theories. For this process to be effective the creators of the theories, the scientists, need to be whole-heartedly engaged with proving themselves wrong, and this is largely alien to our natures. If the programmers, who create the games, were also the testers, how motivated would they be to find holes in their own work? By separating the creative process from the act of its testing its - the product (in this case the videogame) is most thouroughly examined for the mutual benefit of the customer and Electronic Arts, who are better able (or more confident) to guarantee a flawless product and raise the status of their brand. An internal conflict in the process of manufacture is removed by creating ‘work-cells’ without conflict for the eventual benefit of that product and its distributor. Is there potential for this model to be applied to non-profit based systems of manufacture?

the testing is executed by the same means the game would normally be played

Importantly the testing is executed by the same means the game would normally be played. We use the same control pads often the same button combinations. In fact the game could only be usefully tested this way if it is to successfully recreate situations in ‘real-life game play’. The process of playing the game and testing it are the same. However playing and testing are not the same. There is a difference in intention on the part of the operator which alters the definition and labeling of the activity from the point of view of the operator but not universally. An outside eye looking over the shoulder of the operator would not necessarily be able to define the activity. The outside eye might label what the operator considers to be testing as irrational or bad playing.

If one thinks of a videogame as a system designed for an expected function, in this case playing, the misuse/ misapplication/ deconstruction/ destruction/ critique of the system is an activity that deviates from the expected function (defined by the designer). Perversely, testing is an activity that we communally recognize as operating by (the inclusion of) deviation from expected function and normative use/application. Testing is an activity in of itself – it does not become another activity.

Many activites, like videogame playing, allow the same process to mask different intentions operating within the same system. The variation of intention may result in an unusual application or deviation from the expected function, but the definition of the activity does not and sometimes cannot be the same for both operator and outside observer.

Art, like videogame testing, is recognized by some as an activity that fulfills its function by deviating from its expected function and normative application (and this being the case means its expected function and normative application is forever shifting). The greater the awareness and collective agreement of a system’s function in relation to the activities that happen within it, the more likely there will be agreement between operator and outside observer of the definition of the activity within that system.

afterword

The mindset I developed in this culture of destruction and testing remains with me. After leaving EA it was difficult not to see oneself as the avatar within a game. I was often surprised and disappointed by the continuous and unyielding solidarity of objects I wanted to (and see others) occasionally fall through floors and pass through walls; and I remain mistrustful of the world’s materiality…I am often seized by the compulsion to run into barricades, jump repeatedly on pavements, jump off things, to catch the videogame off guard so to speak, to see if it would jam, hoping it would jam, that I might disappear through a previously invisible fissure, that I might wreck time and its passing, that I might hover suspended, frozen in the air, that the world might crash and be re-booted.

some related texts

The Logic of Scientific Discovery/ Popper
The Birth of Tragedy/ Nietzsche
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions/ Kuhn


Harun Morrison

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