Video game industry internships are inspiring games, if not change

Diego Arguello

THE WASHINGTON POST – In recalling her internship at a San Francisco based video game company, a developer told The Washington Post that she remembered the experience fondly – except for one particular Friday. This was the day of the week when the team would usually have a drink and socialise in the afternoon. On one occasion, a producer ordered her to clean the drink machine. It was “the intern’s job”, she recalled him saying.

“I point-blank told him no, and that I wasn’t hired to clean drink machines, but if he wanted help, then he could ask me rather than order me,” she wrote in an email. She was eventually made a full-time staff member, and worked at the studio until the next summer; she lost her position in a mass layoff.

Internships help students and aspiring game developers get a foot in the door. They provide insight into the daily workings of studios, along with experience that can prove vital for future staff roles. In some cases, they are fulfilling, positive experiences. In some, interns find themselves in an environment where, beyond their ordinary responsibilities, they face the arbitrary indignities of temporary employment: dubious management practices, misogyny, crunch, unpaid extended contracts or low wages with no contracts involved.

Video games have started to reflect the conditions in which they’re made, sometimes literally. Aggro Crab Games’ Going Under and Studio Fizbin’s Say No! More feature interns as main characters, critiquing the work culture that does not prioritize the work of developers trying to break into the industry. Based on the statements from the studios behind them, along with interviews with over a dozen former and current game development interns across the United States (US), Finland, France and United Kingdom (UK), these portrayals resonate more than ever.

In ‘Going Under’, you play as an intern tasked with fighting enemies across failed start-ups. PHOTO: AGGRO CRAB GAMES

The idea of “the intern’s job” is often mocked in Say No! More.” In the game, an intern goes through their first day at a company, where it only takes a couple of seconds before co-workers start asking them for coffee, help fixing the printer and so on. The power imbalance is heightened to absurd levels, though some of the in-game interactions reflect the realities of how interns are treated.

“Playing an intern is an easy (way) to understand position and perspective,” Say No! More Game Director Marius Winter said. “We want to tell the story about someone who just started a job and doesn’t know anyone at the firm. We want to give the player the opportunity to face a boss who smirks ‘experience is more valuable than money’ and reply with a satisfying ‘No!’ “

A picture of what a workplace really looks like can sometimes be found on job sites such as Glassdoor, but context about the boundaries that define a positive workplace culture can take time to understand. Industry whisper networks, in which developers discuss rates and share stories about studios privately for fear of losing their jobs or burning bridges, often are not easily accessible to new entrants. Losing out on potential employment opportunities also discourages developers from speaking openly and on the record about work conditions – as was the case with several current and former interns contacted for this report. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Nightmarish stories of overtime work and employee disposability are common in Seattle, where Nick Kaman and Caelan Pollock, the developers behind Going Under, were born and raised. They witnessed firsthand how the city “changed from its growth”, as the presence of corporate giants including Amazon and Microsoft inspired a start-up boom. They wanted to portray that in Going Under, a third-person game in which the protagonist, Jackie, is tasked with fighting enemies at failed start-ups.

“It kind of just naturally made sense to put Jackie in the weakest position she could be in at the company,” Caman explained. “She’s forced to listen to these higher-ups who think they know what’s best, when from her perspective their ideas are silly, shortsighted, or actively harmful.”

One recurring theme about internships and contract-based work is the constant worry of losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove oneself. Crunch – overtime, often at the end of a project – and overwork often are not mandated by a company, but originate from personal expectations, leading to self-imposed pressure.

“The most stressful times were those when I had only a few days left in my contract and the next one wasn’t discussed yet,” one intern from Finland said. In one year-long stint, the intern said they signed six contracts with their employer. Abruptly, the studio declined to renew the contract. The intern was let go in the midst of production on a game about mental health.

Get Set Games’ current level design intern, Shepherd Cameron, found himself working overtime during his first few months on the job.

“My first few months, I worked myself to the bone. If there was something I could do, I did it,” he said. “I stayed late every day and worked on weekends to get my own stuff done and as good as I can get it. My boss and workmates observed that I was burning myself out and really discouraged me from staying late and overworking, etc. I think with most interns they need to prove themselves, but I was lucky to work with a company that doesn’t support crunch.”

Depending on a country’s labour laws, some studios have been known to hire interns for as long as possible before it’s mandatory to start paying them. In France, interns must be granted a paid position if the internship lasts more than two months; one game development intern interviewed said a stay at a French company was slated to last two months.

Despite low or no pay, the responsibilities of an intern often mirror the expectations made of full-time staffers. The former intern from France described working at a different studio, in a longer-term role, receiving the minimum intern’s wage, ranging from EUR550-650, “depending on the month”. There was a crunch culture at the company; developers worked late from Monday to Sunday. Holidays could be negotiated as long as he caught up the hours. If he wanted a half-day, he would work through lunchtime for a couple of days to compensate. “I had the responsibility of a dev without the status or pay,” he told The Post.

Some of the people interviewed for this report described positive and healthy practices at past workplaces. Integrating interns into development meetings and letting them see or take part in different tasks can be rewarding. Micah Lapping-Carr, a 2008 intern at EA in Los Angeles, recalled being present during project management meetings three times a day. “I learnt a lot about the behind-the-scenes aspects of AAA game development that most people don’t get to see,” Lapping-Carr said.

Receiving support from management is key, too. Failbetter Games helped Lucy Ann Jones relocate from Chester to London in January 2019, where she spent six weeks as an intern in the studio working on Sunless Skies. The studio also helped by introducing her to key contacts during her job search and helping to redraft her CV before her internship ended.

“I worked under Hannah Flynn, who not only ensured that I was involved with as much work as was feasible, but also supported me throughout the stressful experience of moving from a quiet town to London all on my own,” Jones said.

There is no industry-wide union, though 54 per cent of the nearly 4,000 game developers surveyed in the Game Developers Conference’s 2020 State of the Game Industry Report said workers should unionise. Twenty-three per cent said workers in the industry would organise.

Workplaces and networks including the Campaign to Organise Digital Employees have been trying to tip the scales in favour of unionisation in the industry. There have been examples of this throughout the year: The writers team behind Lovestruck, for example, went on a 21-day strike to obtain an agreement for better wages and transparency in the studio.

Balancing boundaries against the value of experience and getting noticed in an industry with few openings and opportunities can be tricky for interns trying to earn a living.

“It’s a horrible reality, but it is very possible that doing grunt work led to me being able to get where I am today,” another developer told The Post, recalling his time studying in the UK. During that time he worked on an unpaid basis at a smaller studio, with the general agreement he would use it “as an opportunity to develop skills” while creating a portfolio.