“I point-blank told him no, and that I wasn’t hired to clean margarita 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. But often, 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. In 2020, both Aggro Crab Games’ “Going Under” and Studio Fizbin’s “Say No! More” feature interns as main characters, critiquing the work culture that devalues hopeful young 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, Finland, France and United Kingdom, these portrayals resonate more than ever.
The earlier 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,” Marius Winter, game director of “Say No! More” 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 sites like Glassdoor, but for the most part, young developers and recent graduates lack context around the boundaries that define a positive workplace culture. Industry whisper networks, where developers discuss rates and share stories about studios privately for fear of losing their jobs or burning bridges, often aren’t 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 story. Those fearing reprisals from current employers were granted anonymity.
Nightmarish stories of overtime work and employee disposability are common in Seattle, Washington, 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 like Amazon and Microsoft inspired a start-up boom. They wanted to portray that in “Going Under,” a third-person roguelite where the protagonist, Jackie, is tasked with fighting enemies across multiple failed start-ups.
“It kinda 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 around internships and contract-based work is the constant worry of losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove oneself. In some cases, crunch and overwork isn’t mandated by a company, but instead originates 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’s current level design intern, Shepherd Cameron, found himself working overtime during his first few months on the job due to his work mentality during college.
“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 labor laws, some studios have been known to hire interns for as long as possible before it’s mandatory to start paying them. In France, for example, interns must be granted a paid position if the internship lasts more than two months; correspondingly, one game development intern interviewed said their stay at a French company was slated to last only two months.
Despite low or no pay, the responsibilities of an intern often mirror the expectations made of full-time staff. The same former intern from France described working at a different studio, in a longer-term role, receiving the minimum intern’s wage, ranging from €550-650 “depending on the month.” There was a bad crunch culture present from the start of his tenure; devs worked late from Monday to Sunday. Holidays could be negotiated — as long as he caught up the hours. If he wanted a half-day, for example, he would work through lunch time for a couple days to compensate for it. “I had the responsibility of a dev without the status or pay,” he told The Post.
While few, some of those interviewed described positive and healthy practices at past workplaces. Integrating interns into development meetings and letting them see or even take part in different tasks, for example, can be rewarding. Micah Lapping-Carr, an intern at EA in Los Angeles back in 2008, recalls being present during project management meetings three times a week. “I learned 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 currently no industry-wide union, though 54 percent of the nearly 4,000 game developers surveyed in the “2020 State of the Game Industry Report” said game industry workers should unionize. Only 23 percent believed workers in the industry would ultimately organize, however.
Individual workplaces and networks like the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA) have been trying to tip the scales in favor of unionization 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 remains a tricky calculus for interns trying to earn a living, however.
“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 U.K. 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.
“I do honestly believe [the] company offered me what they did in good faith, but they also did benefit from that,” he concluded. “It honestly was very hard as time went on. I began very enthusiastically, as a young hungry designer does, but that did wane as time went on. We need to be really careful with how we treat juniors in this industry. My experience wasn’t brilliant, and that’s with a level of sincerity. I can’t imagine what it might be like for those who don’t at least have that.”
Diego Nicolás Argüello is a freelance reporter from Argentina. His work has been featured at Polygon, IGN, Eurogamer, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @diegoarguello66.