Could Video Game QA Be the Next Field to Face Scrutiny for Work Conditions?

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Published on September 4, 2018

Like any massive undertaking of art, a single Triple-A video game is an artifact encapsulating the dozens of unique sectors of skilled, professional labor that went into its creation. So much of that labor is rarely seen or even conceived of by a vast number of gamers.

And that’s definitely the case for video game QA, or quality assurance, professionals. Most successfully immortalized by corny recruiting infomercials from the 2000’s that promised a chill life of getting to play video games with your bros, the field of video game QA is where the majority of testing and debugging occurs throughout the development cycle of a game.

Video game QA is most often talked about when studios and fans alike need someone to blame for video games that are shipped in a buggy state. On August 14, 2018, Twitter user @SimplyRagny started writing about her experiences as a veteran of the field in a thread that would eventually include 41 tweets. At over 7,000 likes and 3,400 retweets, her accounts include allegations of constant and targeted surveillance against employees, crowded and uncomfortable work conditions, abusive team leads and bosses, and strong coercion to come in while sick. That’s really the tip of the iceberg though, and you should read the thread for yourself to get the full picture.

Responses to the thread have largely been filled with solidarity from members of the games press, developers, and players. Multiple people who have direct experience with the field responded, confirming the general, dreadful picture painted in the tweets. A tweet from user @MSFTSxDecline spoke to the trend of the devaluation of QA labor that has appeared in several accounts of QA work.

In the days following the publishing of the original thread, @SimplyRagny’s tweets started to describe the retaliatory efforts she believes her employer is taking against her and the grim atmosphere that now surrounds her at work.

For years, harsh environments for video game QA testers have been known to some degree. First-hand accounts have come from several Reddit AMA’s as well as scattered articles that have gotten QA workers to speak candidly. Like with many other types of workers in the video game industry, any hopes to get specific, damning information about the companies responsible for these unhealthy conditions are thwarted by the looming threat of NDA’s, or non-disclosure agreements, that workers are often forced to sign as a condition of employment.

Some of the grievances from @SimplyRagny and comments on the thread who have had similar experiences speak to difficulties being faced throughout the U.S., as more and more companies opt for paying workers as contractors instead of employees. Out of necessity, these contracted workers miss out on benefits, legal protections, bargaining power, and stability in their own lives.

Despite the difficulties in organizing and speaking out against abuse that have been built into different gaming spheres, 2018 has seen some of the most dramatic movement in video game history. At this year’s GDC, or Game Developer’s Conference, developers at a roundtable spoke up emotionally about the abusive work environments they’ve been a part of as well as the benefits of a possible game developer’s union. Professional E-sports competitors — generally very young players that have historically been subject to high amounts of practice fatigue and burnout — have made concrete steps towards organization and unionization across multiple leagues. Folks of diverse backgrounds are finding the courage to speak up about the marginalization they’ve faced at the hands of leadership structures within studios. And fortunately, more people seem to be beginning to listen.

For now though, there aren’t any organizations or mechanisms in place specifically to act as watchdogs or advocates against the abuses felt by QA professionals. There is hope to be found in the autonomous, local branches of Game Workers Unite, an organization that arose after this year’s GDC that “seeks to connect pro-union activists, exploited workers, and allies across disciplines, classes, and countries” popping up throughout the U.S. and UK. While these branches aren’t unions themselves, QA professionals and other game workers have the ability through the organizations to organize and build solidarity across skill sets within the industry.

But whatever the tactics end up being for workers in QA and other sectors of the industry that have faced marginalization — whether burgeoning unions will be confined to specific fields or stretch across disciplines — the game community will only benefit as more and more of their stories from behind closed doors get brought into the public eye.

Categories: Features

D.W. Wallach

D.W. writes about video games and how to cherish our moments with technology. D.W. is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Twitter: @gaiaonline420