The Case in Defense of Sony PlayStation’s The Tester

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When Sony (s SNE) announced the premise of its first reality series for the PlayStation Network in February, I wasn’t the only one who thought that a competition to win an unglamorous entry-level position was kinda dumb. Internet mockery didn’t, however, keep The Tester from racking up a total of 2 million downloads over the course of its eight-episode season. And now that it’s concluded and Will “Cyrus” Powers has won the big prize, it’s worth asking: Did the series deserve to be mocked so? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

After all, The Tester‘s episodic challenges were designed to legitimately put through the paces skills a game tester must have: a critical eye, a healthy imagination, industry knowledge and communication skills. And working as a game tester is how most in the video game industry got their start; it’s considered a common stepping stone to greater achievements.

However, there are still touches of the ridiculous to The Tester. For example, everyone went not by their real names but by their “gamer tags,” which means that you have a 34-year-old man introducing himself to the other contestants as “Barmy.” That’s not a tester thing, at least not according to my brother, who’s worked as a game tester for a year and a half now and says they just use their real names. And in one episode, the producers made the contestants LARP — not an activity soaked with dignity.

In addition, the testing position won by Powers is a contract job, which means that like any other newbie, he does not receive benefits and is vulnerable to layoffs.

Susan Panico, senior director at PlayStation Network, to whom I spoke via phone, tracked the origins of the project to a day when she made a call in a break room for the quality assurance team. While on the phone, she observed the testers coming in and out of the room, and she was “fascinated by their interactions — these kids who love and live and breathe games.” This eventually lead to Sony partnering with reality producers 51 Minds to create a 22-minute-per-episode series that mimicked shows like Survivor fairly closely (though instead of getting your torch snuffed, you turn in your badge).

When asked how you create value around the experience of competing for an entry-level job in often ridiculous challenges, Panico pointed to the poor economy and the lack of jobs currently available. “Being a tester is a really great launching pad to areas of the business as a whole,” she said. “And we had thousands of applicants, so there was clearly a desire to get that foothold.”

How many of those applicants were more interested in being on a reality show than being a game tester? “Of the thousands that applied, we definitely had some people who wanted be entertainers, but the ultimate goal was to find someone who would work well within the team,” Panico replied when asked. Sony is pleased with The Tester‘s performance, and is considering adding more original content to the PlayStation Network — maybe even leaving the network open to a deal similar to The Guild and Microsoft (s msft) — though it want to “focus on quality over quantity and deliver content relevant to our gaming audience.”

I’ve watched several episodes of the series now, including the finale, which pitted the three finalists against each other both in a real-life video game-style adventure that concluded with a video game face off using Uncharted 2, one of Sony’s top PS3-exclusive titles. As a gamer-by-proxy thanks to the men in my life, the show managed to be fairly entertaining and respectful of the process; being a tester wasn’t held up as an magnificent prize, but instead the first step towards professional success, which the winner would be on their own to achieve.

If I were to offer a defense of The Tester, it wouldn’t have anything to do with the download numbers or with the opportunities for creators that might come from Sony finding success with original content. It would be this: Will Powers graduated from college in 2008. He majored in Japanese, and is interested in using his degree to localize technology in either Japan or the U.S. But he wasn’t able to find work in the game industry because he was based on the East Coast, where there aren’t a ton of entry-level opportunities, and he couldn’t afford to relocate.

By winning the top prize on The Tester, he has gotten a job in the industry of his choice and $5,000 to cover his relocation costs. And because of the show, he’s gotten to meet high-level Sony producers, managers and directors. “That’s stuff you can’t get by applying in person,” he said via phone. In short, Powers has taken a huge step towards achieving his professional goals — all thanks to winning The Tester.

Powers began work at Sony this week, and he was aware when we talked last Friday that his fellow testers might treat him differently at first. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some interteam hazing going on,” he said via phone, “but nothing I can’t handle.”

“It’s funny, though,” he added. “All of us were competing for this job that none of us really wanted.”

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