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Jon Brown, Blogger

November 16, 2012

18 Min Read

I finally got around to writing my memoirs of my days as a games tester. This excerpt was originally posted on my blog www.pizzawhores.com but you can also buy the finished Pizza Whores book on Amazon.

Password protecting computers is not a great idea in an industry where someone might need to use your machine while you’re on holiday, sick or sacked. Therefore it’s standard policy to have either no password set or have a password that follows a formula that means your password can be worked out by your fellow colleagues. 

Of course, this leaves you wide open to hilarious japes. 

If you’re unlucky enough to put petrol in your own diesel powered car then there’s a chance that you might get away with it without anyone being any the wiser, except the breakdown man that comes to drain your tank. At worst your wife will find out and you’ll have to suffer the indignity of being told what to put in the fuel tank for the rest of your life. 

However, if it happens when you’re with colleagues, on company business, in a company car, you’re screwed. 

When one of the testers made the unfortunate error of filling a company car with petrol, when it should have been diesel, it didn’t matter that the event took place 100 miles from base. Bad news travels fast but Schadenfreude is on the cheese board before bad news has even found a parking space. The news spread like a firestorm and grown men took extraordinary pleasure in its glow. 

Exuberant at the failure of others, while ignoring their projects failing around them, a group that could only be described as the usual suspects decided to have a recording session in which they all chanted one brief phrase, in unison. If only they’d worked that hard at their jobs. 

They then stashed this digital recording of their malodious chorus cunningly upon the diesel/petrol victim’s computer, like a fist on a spring, coiled within a comedy box. When the tester came into work the next day he had the face of one who knows he’s going to have to weather the storm of comments on his petrol pump performance. A barrage of mockery hit him before he even made it to his computer, with some members of staff going out of their way to greet him as he walked to his desk. He sat down and started his computer. Sullenly he sat there; all of a sudden “It’s a diesel you tit!” erupted from the speakers. Quite creatively they’d replaced the usual windows start-up sound with their own special jingle. 

Virtual pets were popular in those days, and we were not immune to their charms, although mostly on computers, rather than in Tamagotchi keychain form. If anyone had got one of them then I expect their little pet would have been drowned in a pint of beer, or been launched on a rocket or just plain run over by someone’s car, chances are that it would have been me that did such a thing. No one was likely to do that to someone’s company PC. Most of the time. 

But other options were available to the industrious. 

One chap, who was particularly fond of his desktop pet, went on holiday, leaving his little desktop cat in the care of those with too much time on their hands. 

This little computer cat had a simple neural network behind it, which meant it could learn and its behaviour would change depending on how the user interacted with it over time. This interaction came through the cursor and a variety of items, including a food bowl for feeding, a ball for playing and a water bottle for squirting and tormenting the cat, as it roamed across the desktop. 

Most people enjoyed spraying the cat with water and watching it flee from the mouse cursor, but then they’d feel sorry for it and give it some food or stroke it or do something nice. The natural tendency of humans to get bored of one form of interaction and shift to the next, then the next, then the next, meant that most people would never see any unusual behaviour from their cat, as the neural net that controlled its responses was really just a device for balancing several different reactions and with the user being balanced, the cat’s responses stuck pretty much to those that it had when the software was first installed. 

But you remember the spray bottle? 

While the cat’s owner was away a strict regime came into its world: For two weeks solid the only interaction it got was being squirted with the spray bottle. It didn’t like the spray bottle much. Day after day the digital denizen of the desktop was sprayed with the virtual water bottle. Over time it became completely terrified of the human operator, doing its best to evade the mouse pointer and would lurk furtively in the corner of the screen. 

By the end of those two weeks of conditioning it was pathologically frightened of not just the spray bottle, but also the mouse cursor. This made all the usual petting and playing interactions impossible because the terrified, quivering wreck of a computer cat would do all it could to flee from such attempts. 

Of course, when the human owner returned from his holidayds he had no idea why his once playful and happy little pet was now a shadow of its former self, a terrified traumatised creature sat cowering and shaking in the corner of the desktop. 

I’m not sure if he then put in the time and effort required to regain the trust of the little cat or whether he simply re-installed the software and reset the furtive feline’s digital brain. 

I find myself feeling irrationally sorry for this entirely none alive animal, which seems right and wrong at the same time. 

In this kind of environment it’s hard to imagine why anyone would actually bring a living thing into work, even a plant. But I knew an artist who did. In theory this was a fine choice, he worked in a very civilised team, and it’s easy to understand why he would think that his little attempt to counter sick building syndrome would be allowed to survive, although I think he was woefully optimistic if he thought it would thrive. 

And survive it did, doing well upon his well lit desk near a south facing window. In fact, it almost seemed to be thriving. Then one day it wasn’t, and the green fingered might have even been able to discern at that moment it was already dying. 

Slowly but surely it was withering away. 

Offices with many computers in them are warm places, with all those terminals chugging out heat as they go through the arduous donkey work of sending and receiving emails about such earth moving topics as the guy that conducted his own circumcision. And we were still using old CRT monitors, not fancy flat screen things, so they were belching out kilo joules displaying these extraordinary earth shattering events to our eyes. So the mercury soon rises. And although the air conditioning units were utterly incapable of cooling the offices down to a sensible temperature in the summer they nonetheless must have had some of their usual effect of drying out the air. So desiccation was always a possibility for the plant. 

But artist’s plant care regime should have already countered this; he diligently watered his plant and even had himself a little spray bottle with which he could cool the poor things wilting leaves. But it wasn’t working; perhaps he wasn’t spraying those fading leaves enough. So he ensured that he was damping its limbs more regularly. Still they wilted. 

What he didn’t know was that he was fighting fire with fire, which works well if you’re Red Adair capping oil wells but is bloody terrible if you’re at home and your chip pan goes up in flames. 

What he didn’t know was that someone was adding a special ingredient to the spray bottle. The special ingredient wasn’t fertiliser or some tonic one would expect in a plant spray bottle. It wasn’t a fungicide or a pesticide or a herbicide. It wasn’t good. Instead it was screen wash, for cleaning monitor screens. 

Whenever the opportunity arose, in the times when the office was quiet, someone was lacing the crystal clear waters with stuff that was intended for crystal clear viewing pleasure. The artist really should have been tipped off by the fact that, apart from the sections that were necrotic, the leaves were very shiny, were bereft of finger prints and had an uncanny resistance to dust. 

I regard it as the single finest piece of practical joke mongering that I have ever heard of. Poor plant, pure genius. 

Personally, I’m not much of a practical joker, which is just as well, because I seem to have a flare for getting it a little wrong. 

Practical jokes are one of those kinds of things you hear about at quite a young age and I was still quite young when I first saw an opportunity to perpetrate such a thing. 

My dad, like many dads, had a garage which was never, ever occupied by a car. It had the standard family fitting of a chest freezer and our bicycles were stored in there, for exposure to the elements would soon render them to rust. Wellies and outdoor shoes also had a home in a large box, which they shared with rodents, or more precisely, one rodent which I once found in there after hearing it scrabbling. After emptying nearly every boot from the box I was presented with its little face staring up at me. Then I put all the boots back in again, I just wanted to see it. This little creature presumably spent most of its time gorging on the huge bag of rabbit feed we also had in the garage, but it looked pretty skinny to me. 

But the majority of the garage was taken up by dad things, like pots of paint and cans of varnish. A vast array of tools for doing many jobs, including fixing clocks and watches, which my dad did as a hobby. In fact, my dad spent a considerable time in the garage, listening to an old radio and doing stuff. We don’t really know what he was doing for the most part though, ah, the questions you should ask when folk are alive. Perhaps he too was searching for scrabbling mice. 

Various desks and draws had been wedged into various nooks and crannies, including a fold out desk, which was always folded out. One day I was trying to reach up to the paint shelves to get the can of gold spray paint. I loved that can and with it I would turn humble objects like nails and stones into golden treasure, which I would then try to sell to my parents. Oddly, I never quite managed to talk them into the transaction. 

Being young and short I had to stand on things and lever myself up to reach the whole five foot up to the shelf. This one time I chose to rest on the folded out part of the desk. This desk was not sturdy and even my child weight was enough to snap the sliding bracket and allow the desk to disgorge everything atop it onto the floor. I don’t think I was even old enough to know the word shit, so I probably said poo instead. 

My initial reaction was to hide the crime, so I raised the flapping fold out section back into position and propped it up with a stick. I then put everything back onto it. It looked as good as the far from new but as yet uncollapsed state that it had been 10 minutes earlier. 

Then my dad came along. 

At this point I had many options. 

1. I could have said nothing and allow my dad to discover the finely balanced botch job in his own time. 

2. I could have alerted my dad to what had happened and informed him that there was something else for him to fix, which I think he would have enjoyed, he always seemed to enjoy fixing things 

There was also a third option which was the most idiotic of the lot. I thought I would play a practical joke on my dad. I pointed out to him the support stick and told him to pull it. He questioned why. I told him to just do it. He was far too trusting. He pulled the stick and once more the desk flapped floorward and for the second time that day the collection of stuff, some of which might have been delicate, perhaps even a clock or watch he was fixing for someone, I didn’t take an inventory, went piling into the concrete floor. 

My dad, not an angry man, instantly vaporised and expanded to fill the space with fury. This was the one and only time I actually thought my dad was going to hit me, and I ran: Out the garage, into the house, through the kitchen and into the living room where I found my mom and hid behind her. 

Given this brush with practical joke disaster you would think that I would steer well clear of such encounters. But time makes one forget the rawness of feeling and the wisdom of learning. 

About 15 years later I was sat in the test room, with nothing to do and simply counting the hours until home time. It was winter, hardly anyone was in and those of us that were, were kicking our heels harder than an overweight tap dancer. 

But then I spied something... 

A producer had left his jam doughnut in the test room and I saw it there upon a desk and an idea struck me: For some reason a thought crossed my mind – wouldn’t it be funny if I took all the jam out of it? The producer was upstairs in another office and he might have come back to retrieve his sweet snack at any time, but I didn’t need long. I got a pen and gutted it of its inner workings, turning it into a tube of plastic. This would be the proboscis for my impression of a giant jam pilfering insect. “Watch this,” I told my fellow testers, who really didn’t have anything better to do than comply. 

Working at my maximum speed of half-ahead I made a small hole in the seam of the cellophane wrapper that was designed to keep the doughnut fresh, untampered and untouched by dickheads like me. Through this just big enough hole I slid the pen proboscis so that its tip nestled against the doughy girdle of the delicacy. This was where I would find out if the use of a pen carcass and its tapered end would be as good an idea as it seemed. Holding the doughnut firmly I gently but decisively pushed the tube onwards. This was experimental baked goods surgery in the raw. Would my makeshift tool tear the skin to shreds? Would my subject bleed out there and then? 

The tip slid cleanly through the deep fried skin and one of my colleagues mopped my brow. But I wasn’t finished, I still had to find the heart, working on feel alone. I took it steady but the ease with which the pen had gone in and was travelling through the dough was now a hindrance, because the difference in resistance when I reached the gooey centre would be hardly noticeable. I could have done a dip test but that might have left tiny but telltale traces of jam on the outside of the doughnut or on the cellophane wrapper, right next to the equally incriminating hole. No, that was too risky, I’d only get one shot at this and I just had to go with my gut 

I guesstimated the distance, and lowered my lips to the open end of the straw. I looked over my glasses at my colleagues, they nodded their approval. I exhaled, clamped my lips around the end of the pen and I sucked. The viscosity temporarily resisted the suction of my lungs, I increased the suction, it still resisted and then it was overcome. A big gob of gooiness instantly leapt from the depths of the jam doughnut and spattered the length of the clear pen tube, the blast just falling short of giving me a tasty treat. 

Carefully I withdrew the instrument and buried it deep within the crisp packets, chocolate wrappers and coke cans of a bin. 

I then returned this newly reinvented “Jam Doughnut – Lite!” to where I found it. 

And we waited. The patience needed for practical jokes doesn’t suit me, and it suited me less in those days. Finally the producer returned to our den and even then he appeared to be in no rush. Come on man, I was urging in my head, eat the cocking doughnut for cock’s sake! 

Finally, set about eating the thing. He said nothing. Didn’t he notice that there wasn’t much jam in there? 

One of my companions, who’d been privy to the delicate surgery, entered the room after a cigarette break and saw what was unfolding. He couldn’t watch and turned to the wall, all Blair Witch and stated how interesting the sign next to the fire extinguisher was. Which made me laugh more than the doughnut thing was, because the victim wasn’t actually saying anything, he was just eating the bloody thing. 

Desperate for a response I blurted out “there doesn’t seem to be any jam in that doughnut”. 

“Not much,” he agreed, still merrily munching. 

In the Iliad, Odysseus, despite the plaudits for cunning, is an idiot. Having been away from home for 10 years in the Trojan Wars and presumably having taken that long to come up with the idea of the Trojan Horse (it took the Americans less time than that to get to the Moon!) he was on his way back when he ran into a Cyclopes. This one eyed giant was called Polyphemus and trapped Odysseus and several of his men in a cave, and treated them like a buffet. To escape they blinded the one eyed giant as he slept then clung to the undersides of sheep when the Cyclopes had to let them out for grazing. Luckily Odysseus had hatched this plan in a fraction of the time it took him to conceive a horse made of wood. Having told the blinded behemoth several times that his name was “No One”, Odysseus was scott-free and no one would know he had anything to do with all this blinding nonsense. But the moment went to Odysseus’s head and he told Polyphemus that he was Odysseus, so that the poor beast would know for all time who it was that bumbled into his life, stole his sheep and blinded him. That’s when the Cyclopes told his dad, Poseidon, who then made sure that it took another ten years for Odysseus to get back home and that all his men would die horribly on the journey. 

“What a ding” I’d always thought, it’s enough to know your own smartness, who cares if others know, and you especially don’t want any victims to know it was you, that’s just stupid. 

Struck stupid like Odysseus but without having the compensation of at least falling from a good height in the first place I said, “Let’s put it this way, it doesn’t have any jam in it, I sucked it all out.” 

He was furious. Once again one of my practical jokes didn’t have the victim gurgling with “I can’t believe you got me” delight. He didn’t take even one more bite of that doughnut that he’d waited so long to enjoy, something about the thought of me sucking the jam out of it put him off, I can’t think why.

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