I spent almost a year working for a Double-A video game company about five years ago. I just want to share the slow decline in human rights that the Quality Assurance department suffered during that time.
When I first joined the department we were set up on one of the floors of a nicely modern three story office building. The area was not a part of the expansive, impressive, and cheerful home office of the Double A company, but rented space a few miles down the road. The building was nice, well lit, and everyone had a cubical where they could pin up a poster to make you feel like you had some space of your own. The paint, curving walls, and central air made the entire place feel warm a cozy… except for the one large room nicknamed “Death Row” because it had no air, lights, and was so filled with the support team of a flagship RTS that the body heat and computer thermal byproduct made the entire room a horrible sweat shop. Aside from that, wonderful space, and plenty of parking.
Except the building owners hated us and would only allow the QA department to enter and exit from the rear entrance. And the fact that less than a month into my employment the lease was ended after years of QA being housed there (no one knew who broke the lease) and we were moved into a much smaller two story building across the street from the main headquarters. The entire first floor was almost all administration staff and their administration stuff. The second floor consisted of two giant rooms, PC testing in one, and Console testing in the other. Since we had the same number of people in far less space, we all lost our cubicles and the ability to personalize our workspace, and were reduced to having to sit almost shoulder to
shoulder in an elementary school cafeteria style workplace, PCs sitting where a lunch tray would sit.
To this day I cannot tell you what color the walls in that new space was, because the lighting was complete crap. Little light was shed by the fluorescent lights, and every window was covered with dimming plastic. That’s a horrible environment to be testing a game for twelve hours a day, (my record work week was 84 hours) and made it tortuous to stay awake when the only thing you are suppose to do is play two levels in Campaign mode consisting of “Set up a defensive line, and now wait for 30 minutes to see if the game crashes.” And you could easily strain your eyes reading the printed out bug lists that had to be checked every few days while testing the new builds.
The move wasn’t all bad, except that the new building had no parking and we had to petition for a month to be allowed to use the headquarters’s parking lot, because now we could head across the street and use the employee’s cafeteria during our lunch hour. New menu every day, and walking through an actual workplace helped brighten your day! Look! they have personalized cubicles and proper lighting!
Then QA was told that they are having their lunch hour changed because the home office doesn’t like eating in the same room as them. So our lunch break was forced to occur an hour earlier. Not so bad for me, since I typically get hungry sooner than other folks, but most of QA stopped using the cafeteria at all, though even in the heyday, I never saw more than 10 of us in the large cafeteria at a time. Lunch quickly became lonely for me.
But being a company employee, even just a Temp Worker like 95% of QA, had it’s upsides. We got the company discount on video games. Company employees could buy their own games for about a quarter of the price sometimes, just write a check for the amount as part of the order and you can pick up your game next week as part of a bulk drop off. At least that’s how it went before a single person had a check bounce four months into my employment when the guy ordered a game. The week after, all of QA was told that we had to present cash money, no checks or credit cards, when we asked for a game. Lots of people griped about it, but I was working 7 days a week and didn’t have the energy to care.
Besides, I’d already bought the only two games the company had made that I wanted already.
And yes, we worked 7 days a week. According to state law, a company could not work a person every single day of the month though. Every employee had to have at least four days off per month. One employee I spoke to, she told me with cheerful acceptance of her schedule that she’d routinely worked shifts of 27 days in a row, finish the month with four days off, start the next month with four days off, and then work the entirety of the next month without a break. Yes, it was legal. While I was working full weeks constantly, it never got that bad for me, though I routinely got overtime pay that would make a man’s eyes stretch, especially on holidays like the 4th of July!
That ended about 8 months in, when the parent company sent a decree that a woman from admin on the first floor called us in by sections to deliver to us. There would no longer be any holiday pay for QA. We would still have to work on holidays, but we would only get normal rates for doing so. The emotions of people in that room with families living hand to mouth ran high, and the person tasked with delivering the news nearly broke out weeping before we were sent back to our machines.
Two months after that, I had just been transferred from a just released Diablo 2 clone’s expansion pack that bored me to tears and nearly gave me carpal tunnel over to working a world exploring FPS.
God, I was so happy. I was so happy that when we were assigned to test and give feedback on 20 man multiplayer systems I used my voice to communicate with my fellow testers instead of using in game chat. That was a fatal mistake, as I was fired the very next Friday for undisclosed reasons. The timing was pretty obvious, though. But everyone who knew me at QA was surprised, as I was one of the more professional workers and never caused problems.
But you know, my getting fired at that time was just moving my fate forward by six weeks. That particular company would only hire people as Temp workers for 12 month contracts at a time, allowing them to fire anyone on a whim without any backlash. The company also had a policy that they would NEVER hire anyone a second time in QA. So even if you are the best bug hunter the company had ever seen, you’re done for good after 12 months. Bye-bye, no take backs.
The company counts on the fact that there is a never ending supply of local young people who are not only capable workers, but willing to work crap hours while being treated like sub-human laborers, denied any personal space and all contact with people outside your immediate department inside a dim and overcrowded room with shifts starting at eight a.m. and ending at midnight.
The saddest part is that they’re right.