atari

The BART Video Game Arcade (Circa 1976)

Gary Fong / The Chronicle
Gary Fong / The Chronicle / December 1, 1976

While at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple personality disorders), I had to trained fresh out of high school graduates on being video game testers. These youngsters didn’t believe I played video games in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. So I introduced them to a tester who tested video games for the original Atari in the 1980’s, and then introduced them to a tester who tested pen-and-paper games in the 1970’s. Their young heads often exploded in amazement that video games existed before the Sony PlayStation in 1995. As further proof that early video games existed, SFGate recently noted that the Powell Street BART Station installed video arcade games in 1976.

The first time I ever played a video game was Atari Pong in the basement of the Sear’s building in downtown San Jose—where the Midtown Safeway is today—during the Bicentennial (1975/76). I was five- or six-years-old at the time. My mother was returning something at the exchange desk. My father slipped a quarter into the arcade machine and we played a short game. Several years later I got a TV pong game for Christmas, the first of several early video game consoles that would prepare me for the working world.

Most arcade machines were hidden away in pizza parlors, bowling alleys and public venues like the BART station throughout the 1970’s. Arcades with wall-to-wall machines didn’t happen until the early 1980’s. The arcade that I grew up in was at Oakridge Mall in South San Jose. A dark hole in the wall that sucked in kids and their quarters like nothing else, and quickly doubled in size after taking over the storefront next door. This was my favorite after school activity.

My parents didn’t approve that I split my weekly allowance—a princely $30 USD that I didn’t know was a small fortune for a teenager—between the arcade and the bookstore. Video games were much worse than the pinball machines that they grew up on. Reading inspires all kinds of subversive behaviors, such as being smarter than anyone else. On the bright side, I wasn’t buying drugs like so many of friends who got stoned out of their mind in class.

After the Atari E.T. cartridge scandal killed the video game revolution, the wall-to-wall arcades started fading away in popularity. Newer video game consoles and PC’s brought the video games back into the home. Arcade machines are still tucked away at various locations today. The only real arcades left in Silicon Valley are Chuck E. Cheese’sDave & Buster’s or Nickel City. I don’t play arcade machines anymore, as any five-year-old youngster can beat my sorry ass with faster reflexes.

Awakening The Star Wars Trailer

I no longer see movie trailers when they come out on the Internet. I’ve seen too many movies over the years that fell short of a well-made trailer.  (Or in the case of “Cloverfield,” a well-made end credits with awesome music that was better than the movie.) If I have a low expectations walking into the theater, the less disappointed I’ll be after seeing the movie. The only exception to this rule is Star Wars, as the first “Episode VII—The Force Awakens” trailer has come out.

When I worked at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple personality disorder), my fellow video game testers and I went to see “Wing Commander” (a video game-based movie) in 1999. The “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” trailer premiered with that movie. People got up after the trailer was over and left without seeing the movie. As for the movie itself, low expectations made “Wing Commander” almost enjoyable for being so bad.

What does this new trailer tells us about the plot of the next Star Wars movie? Next to nothing.

Although I saw the trailer on the Internet, I’m not going out of my way to read about various plot leaks. (Except for Harrison Ford being injured on the set after the Millennium Falcon door clobbered him.) Since director J.J. Abrams is responsible for re-imaging the Star Trek franchise, he literally threw out the books regarding what to expect with the Star Wars franchise. Anything is possible.

The two parts that I liked the most were X-wings fighters skimming above the water and the Millennium Falcon flying into the air before flying low over sand dunes while under fire from Tie fighters. Unlike the previous six movies, the spacecraft really do blend in with the environment. A promising start for a venerable franchise.

The Video Game Industry Sexism

[youtube url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYqYLfm1rWA]

Anita Sarkeesian has a video web series, Feminist Frequency, that picks apart the sexual stereotypes in video games and pop culture. Her most recent video, “Ms. Male Character – Tropes vs Women,” is a delightfully entertaining look at two predominant tropes in video games: the female character is always an extension of the male character, and most video games feature only one female character among the many male characters. Unfortunately, her work has drawn death and rape threats for pointing out the obvious sexism in video games. Having worked at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), it doesn’t surprise me that nothing has changed in the ten years since I left the video game industry.

The Q.A. department I worked in for six years always had at least one or two female testers. They were good enough to become lead testers, but they never stayed longer than a few years. Most got tired of the relentless 80-hours-per-week crunch time and left on their own initiative to find better work elsewhere.

Some female testers got fired because of their sex.

  • A female lead tester got fired for calling a male tester an asshole for not doing the work that she assigned him. She shouldn’t have said that loud enough for everyone in the department to hear. One bruised male ego went scurrying to HR for comfort. What HR didn’t take into consideration was that everyone else regarded that particular male tester as an asshole as well.
  • A female tester and a male tester got into trouble for making out during the company event to see “Star Wars: Attack of The Clones” at the AMC Mercado 20. That raised some eyebrows. What got them fired was jeopardizing the code release date for my project by falsifying the test data before and after the movie. Screwing around during a bad movie was one thing, jeopardizing the code release date was something else.
  • A female tester got fired for being a “poor” tester. That’s the official reason. I was the only lead tester who offered to provide her with more training. My supervisor later admitted that some male testers didn’t want to work with her because she wasn’t that good-looking from the chicken pox scarring on her face.

If this environment seems familiar, it’s the classic high school locker room. The only women who excelled in this environment are tomboys who aren’t afraid of asserting themselves without being too feminine. The underlying culture of sexism won’t change until the gender ratio in the video game industry changes to influence the development process for new video games.

Unburying The Atari E.T. Video Game Scandal

E.T. The Extra-Terrestial Video GameThe 1980’s home video game revolution crashed and burned in after Atari introduced “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” a movie-based video game that it overpaid to license, ordered millions of cartridges more than all the Atari 2600 video consoles in existence, rushed the game to the store shelves, and buried the whole thing in a New Mexico landfill. According to Snoops, the E.T. landfill burial was an urban legend. A documentary team went sifting through the landfill and found the E.T. cartridges. For those of us who lived through this particular episode of video game history, some things are best left buried in the ground.

I had an Atari 2600 and 30+ video game cartridges worth $1,000 USD when I was a preteen, a small fraction of the 500+ cartridges available back then. Toy “R” Us had one whole aisle dedicated to video game cartridges, where consoles and empty cartridge boxes hung from pegboard. You take a tag from the sleeve below the item you want, pay at the cash register, and take it over to the “cage” that used to house the high-priced specialty toys. At the height of the video game revolution, so many cartridges lined the cage from floor to ceiling that the clerks had little room to move around.

I knew the industry had jumped the shark when a camera store sold video games along side their expensive cameras under the glass case. The young sales clerk reassured me that “Shark Attack” by Apollo—one of the first cartridge companies to file for bankruptcy—was a great game. It wasn’t great; it was horrible. My friend and I exhausted the replay value of the game in less than an hour. I paid $30 USD for this piece of crap. That was the last cartridge I ever bought for the Atari 2600.

As for E.T., I paid little attention either the movie or the video game because I detested Reese’s Pieces.

After being split into several companies by Warner Communications in 1983, the intellectual property rights floated around the industry for years. I was working as a video game tester at the family owned Accolade when Infogrames, a French video game company that no one heard of, bought it out while on a buying spree to become the next Vivendi Universal that bought its way into the American multimedia markets. One of the companies that got bought was Hasbro Interactive, which owned the intellectual property rights for Atari.

Speculation was rampart that Infogrames would change its name to Atari after relocating the office from San Jose to Sunnyvale, which was where the old Atari had its headquarters. Shortly thereafter, the company became the new Atari and I became a lead tester in 2001. Alas, the new Atari didn’t escape the old Atari curse when every video game title became available for every platform (i.e., Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube/GameBoy Advance, PC, and Sony Playstation 2), flooding the market with DVDs for games that were excellent on some platforms but terrible on others.

I knew the new Atari jumped the shark when it acquired the rights for “Enter The Matrix” in 2002, a movie-based video game based on the popular Matrix movies, featuring two-hours of exclusive video from the forthcoming sequels. Security was tight. When a DVD without the exclusive content disappeared, five testers got fired. I avoided the game like the plague and spent only three days testing the rabbit hole tunnel sequence that was a black screen for the Nintendo GameCube version towards the end. Although it sold five million companies, the game was so horrible that it made E.T. look good in comparison.

The new Atari sold off all the video game studios that it bought over the years, realizing that it paid two to three times for what each studio was actually worth, reduced itself to peddling Facebook games for a while, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. The newly reformed Atari has only ten employees out of a company that once employed hundreds.

Meanwhile, I quit the company after six years in 2004, finished my associate degree in computer programming, and changed my career to help desk support. That was the best decision I ever made in my life, as being a video game tester was a dead-end job if you weren’t young and stupid to tolerate the abuses that went with it. After a while, you stop being young and stupid.

Please No Talking At The Urinal

iStock_000001699103SmallOne of my pet peeves at work is standing at the urinal in the men restroom when somebody comes up to the urinal next to me, unzips his pants and strikes up a conversation. Not the manly grunts to acknowledge the other person existence, but the “Whazzup!” conversational opener. I cannot talk and pee at the same time, a level of multitasking has always eluded me. Talking at the urinal means I need to stop peeing, think about what I need to say, say my piece and resume peeing again. Talking shop is the last thing I want to do at the urinal.

As a child prodigy tragically misdiagnosed as being mentally retarded (whenever I blew the evaluation exam on the genius side the teacher called it a “statistical fluke” every time), the boys restroom was a dangerous area for a fat white boy like myself in the Special Ed class. If someone turns off the lights, the student next to me always turned sideways to spray me with piss. An accident they told the teacher. Yeah, right. Because I rode the little yellow school bus, my mother didn’t drive and my father worked in San Francisco, I had to sit in piss-soaked pants for the rest of the class day and the two-hour bus ride home. My classmates would taunt me that I needed to wear diapers. I’m surprised that I never developed homicidal tendencies towards my classmates.

When I worked as a lead tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises), we had more testers than the men restroom could accommodate. The custodians had to clean and stock the restroom three times a day to keep up. Someone always “forgot” to flush one of the toilets in the stalls. If you “read” the toilet bowl like tea leaves in a cup, you can figure out what they had for lunch at Taco Bell. The splatter pattern was different each day, as if someone tossed in a cherry bomb for good measure. I wrote up a proposal for management to install Porta-Potties out in the parking lot. The mad bomber of the restroom eventually left the company.

I did a six-week contract at Sony in 2005 to test what later become the Sony eReader. With no possibility of an extension, I looked for a new job while working on this one. I was standing at the urinal when a woman recruiter at Microsoft called my cellphone, answered the call and stepped away as I zipped up my pants. The urinal, of course, had an automatic flush. She asked if this was a good time to talk. I reassured it was, although my voice echoed in the restroom, Indian coworkers gave me strange looks, and toilet seats got plopped down for business. I conducted many interviews there since I couldn’t find a more private spot elsewhere.

My boss recently asked me for a status report while at the urinal. I had a catastrophic brain freeze. A status report meant collecting data, analyzing it and offering an interpretation relative to yesterday’s status report. That wasn’t a yes/no or one-sentence answer. I hemmed and hawed in answering, both verbally and peeing. As we were washing our hands (separately, of course), I stammered out that I would send him an email and ran out of the restroom. I was fortunate that I didn’t piss my pants.

Getting Slimed At Work

After coming back from lunch at my non-writing tech job, I noticed a pair of heavy-duty hoses running from the men restroom, up a ladder in the hallway and into the plenum space above the dropped ceiling. I carefully stepped past the hoses and warily watched the ceiling tiles as I made my way back to my desk. I remembered the last time the AC units got worked on and rubber hoses ran through the plenum space at a different company, where someone almost got slimed at work.

While working as a video game tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) in the late 1990’s, I became the intermediary between the Q.A. and I.T. departments when the company was still called Accolade at the Stevens Creek Boulevard office in San Jose. A long-running love/hate relationship had developed between the testers and the techs over the years. The biggest complaint then was that the techs ran a Diablo game server that slowed down the entire network during the lunch hour. The testers can’t read Blues News if the network crawled like molasses.

Management decided to upgrade the network infrastructure by replacing the network operating system (NOS), Netware (which didn’t allow more than 254 computers) with Windows NT Server (which was surprisingly stable for a Microsoft operating system), and changing the physical network from 10Base100 (10Mb over thin coaxial cable) to 100BaseT (100Mb over twisted pair cable) to increase the available bandwidth.

Since the techs weren’t welcome in the Q.A. department, my job was to upgrade all the computers with the new network cards and plug them into the wall. If a network issue went beyond the wall, I had to walk over to the I.T. department and try to convince them that the problem was on their end.

One day I was talking to the I.T. manager about something. His work area in the corner of a narrow room had a Viewsonic 21″ monitor. A very big, very nice and very expensive monitor. CRT monitors like that cost about $2,000 USD in 1998. A few years later, I would get a Viewsonic 19″ monitor for $400 USD. Since I wasn’t welcome to stand inside the tech room, I stood outside the doorway to talk him.

We were, in fact, talking about his new monitor when something started banging around in the plenum space to violently shake the ceiling tile. He pushed himself away from his desk to roll back in his chair. The ceiling tile broke into big chunks that gave away as green goo slimed his new monitor. We both got out of there. I left him alone as he had a complete meltdown over his ruined monitor.

The maintenance crew transferred coolant fluid between AC units on the roof by using an ordinary garden hose that had a weak spot that ballooned with green goo before exploding. Not sure why the hose through the plenum space and not on the rooftop. As for the I.T. manager, he went back to his old 17″ monitor.

Becoming A Registered Democrat Again

The American VoteI got a DMV notice in the mail to renew my California identity card. That’s weird. I surrendered my identity card to the DMV in 2007 when I got my driver license at the tender age of 37. (Yeah, I’m a late bloomer.) Both my identity card and driver license have the same identification number. When it came time to shop for car insurance, AAA charged me $420 USD per year for minimum liability and no collision because of my unblemished driving record that dates back to my teenage years.

No sense in renewing my old identity card now. Looking through the paperwork inside the DMV envelope, I came across a voter registration form. The last time I filled out one of those was when I moved into my apartment almost eight years ago.

I was a flaming liberal as a teenager, growing up on the various political scandals during the Carter and Reagan administrations to become a political news junkie in the 1980’s. If the Internet was available ten years earlier and I wasn’t 20 years behind the times, I would have blogged those Republican scandals to death.

My first election was in 1988. I voted for Governor Mike Dukakis (D) who lost to Vice President George H.W. Bush (R), which my mother cruelly jeered me because my “wasted” vote didn’t count towards the winner. But I also voted for a state-wide cigarette tax initiative that forced my father to quit smoking because he couldn’t afford to buy his weekly carton.

After becoming a Christian in college in 1992, my political views became more conservative and I eventually registered as a Republican. I voted twice against President Bill Clinton (D) after he defeated H.W. in 1992 and Senator Bob Dole (R) in 1996. Although the Internet came about in the late 1990’s, I was still 20 years behind the time and didn’t blogged those Democratic scandals to death.

I was working at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) during the 2000 election, being the only fat white boy Republican in a QA department filled with Democrats. Everyone gave me a hard time for voting for the “losing” side. The mood turned ugly when the Supreme Court anointed Governor George W. Bush (R) over Vice President Al Gore (D) as president a few months later. No one was a happy, and, being a Christian, I couldn’t gloat about my “winning” vote.

I voted for Senator John Kerry (D) in 2004 after W. ignored the real war in Afghanistan and dragged the country into an unnecessary war in Iraq. I voted twice for President Barack Obama (D)—the best conservative president that the Democrats ever nominated—after Senator John McCain (R) in 2008 and Governor Mitt Romney (R) in 2012 led the Republican Party down the rabbit hole into political extremism.

With the registration form in hand, I filled it out to become a registered Democrat again to match my recent voting record. I still consider myself a moderate conservative. This comes after the Supreme Court announced their 5-4 decision to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protects all Americans.

Who Knew We Were Playing Monopoly Wrong?!

Monopoly The GameAn old blog post about how everyone doesn’t play the Monopoly board game according to the official rules has gone viral on the Internet. (I first read about this on the Huffington Post.) We were all taught as children from our parents and friends that when a player lands on an unoccupied square, the player has the option to buy the property from banker at the printed price on the card. If the property isn’t bought, it becomes available for purchase to the next player who lands on the square.

According to the official rules, the banker has to auction the property to the other players if the player chose not to buy it. The purpose of this rule is for the players to complete the property sets to start building houses and hotels, reducing the amount of cash that players are holding—or hoarding—to bring the game to an end sooner rather than later.

I wished I’ve known that rule as a child when my father taught me how to play Monopoly. After spending two to three hours going around the board, someone would win and someone would lose. I seldom won—and left the kitchen table crying in frustration. Not because my father was being cruel (he wasn’t). I just hated the idea of investing so much time into a game that I ultimately lose in the end.

We eventually switched to the Yahtzee dice game, where the shorter rounds made losing more bearable for my father and the probability of the dice rolls made winning more likely for me.

The crying frustration of losing after a long game wasn’t beaten out of me until I became a professional video game tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) for six years. My first assignment was testing a broken build of Test Drive 5 for the Sony PlayStation. Every game ended in a crash after the car cross the finish line. I played ~3,000 races for six long weeks. Race, crash, reset. The daily monotony was soul crushing.

Jonny Nexus, the author of the old blog post, has written a blog post about being part of an Internet viral sensation. A fascinating read about having the international news media bang down your door for pointing out the rules of Monopoly in an obscure corner of the Internet that someone else tweeted about.