Friday, April 23, 2010

The Good and Evil of Internships

Internships are typically short-term jobs targeted at students. In theory, the company gets the benefit of a "try-before-you-buy" way to evaluate potential junior-level hires before they graduate: that is, hiring a new person is much less risky if you've already worked with them before (assuming you actually liked their work, of course). In exchange, the student gets that all-important industry experience that gives an edge when they seek full-time jobs after graduation. Oh, and the company gets cheap labor. And the student gets to work on an awesome project like a game they'd like to play, which is like the bestest summer job ever.

In theory.

In practice, there are pitfalls on both sides.

From a company's perspective, interns aren't as cheap as you'd think. What you aren't paying them in wages, you're paying for in time: your average intern needs a bit more hand-holding (or as we call it, "management") than your average full-time employee, which means they are sucking time away from your more productive full-timers. If a $7/hour intern takes up an hour a day of your $80/hour programmer's time... well, you can do the math, but it's a bit more than it looks like on paper. And what do you get in exchange? Game companies don't typically want cheap employees, they want productive employees, and someone who (by definition) has no practical experience is not necessarily going to be that productive. Yet.

From a student's perspective, it's not all sunshine and roses either. Yes, you're working "at a game company" but what are you actually doing there? You are probably not working on anything mission-critical. Maybe you're doing QA, where you at least can't do any real damage if you suck at your job, but if your end goal is to be (say) a level designer then you're not really learning much about how to, you know, design levels. Maybe you're given menial tasks like taking notes in meetings, making copies, and picking up food deliveries. Or maybe you're given a real, honest-to-goodness game development task in your preferred field, and at that point you should be wondering why the company is getting away with paying you so much less than the other people who are doing the same work in the cubicles next to you.

This subject has come up a bit lately because of the somewhat common game industry practice of unpaid internships. There are some problems here:
  • In some cases, they are actually illegal. The criteria vary from place to place, so companies doing this would do well to consult a lawyer.
  • Even if it is technically legal in one particular case, there is the potential for others to see the practice as exploitative.
Is it actually exploitative? In my experience, no. The studios I've seen that offer them tend to be very up front about the fact to any potential interns. For exceptional interns, the companies do usually pay them (as long as they don't go parading it about the other interns). Because they are getting free/cheap labor, they're willing to work around the intern's schedule -- it's not a 40-hour work week so much as "show up whenever you want, choose your own hours". It's hard for me to call this exploitative, certainly not on the order of third-world child labor sweatshops or anything.

This is particularly relevant for schools that have game dev programs, as most of them encourage their students to get internships, some schools actually require that students have a documented internship for graduation, and others offer course credit for internships (paid or not). In particular, this means schools need to:
  • Do some due diligence. Be aware of the labor laws in your area. I don't know if a school could get in legal trouble for deliberately steering its students towards illegal work, but I wouldn't want to chance it.
  • Keep up with local companies. Know which ones offer internships. If any of them offer internships that are technically illegal, it would be a great opportunity to gently notify them of this fact (for their benefit, so they can protect themselves -- it's probably just a matter of the studio not being aware).
  • Educate your Career Center, professors and students. For students especially, make sure they understand the issues at stake as they choose a place to work at.
Educators can certainly be part of the process of making sure this all happens.


Anonymous said...

The main issue with unpaid internships is it reduces the potential pool of applicants to those with families rich enough to pay their living expenses for the duration.

Ian Schreiber said...

True, but that depends on the situation. For example, assume a local company with a part-time on-your-schedule internship, as I mentioned. Maybe the student spends 5 hours a week doing that out of their leisure time, while spending the rest of their day going to school/work and supporting themselves. That is typical of the unpaid interns I've seen, and it's certainly not limited to the rich in that case.

advance web said...

i think being rich doesn't mean that you shouldn't be paid for your service. Interns should be paid accordingly.

Unknown said...

Know of any internships available around Columbus? I'm more than willing to be exploited if it may potentially lead to a job.

Also, Ian I was a student of yours at Columbus State. The office said you weren't with them any more. What happened? What are you doing now?

And this doesn't have to do with anything, but what do I have to do to play a board game made by Brenda Brathwaite?

Ian Schreiber said...


First, if you want a direct response, finding some way for me to contact you (so you don't have to check back on this thread) makes things easier. :)

Internships in Columbus: well, that would of course depend on whether there are any game companies in Columbus, of which there are not very many! Easiest way to find out is to attend a local IGDA meeting and ask there (or look up companies on and do some research on them to figure out who's hiring). I do know there is at least one game company here with an internship program, and a few other in related fields like advertising/media that might do something like that.

Columbus State: No idea what's happening there. Haven't heard from them in awhile, haven't been contacted to teach any courses lately so I haven't. That doesn't mean I won't teach there in the future, just that I don't have any active courses at this point in time.

Playing a game by Brenda: easiest way is to figure out where the games are and then go there. Last summer she took them on a tour all around the country. So it will probably involve some detective work on your part to figure out where they are at any given time, and some travel to actually get there. :)

3DElizabeth said...

I was very lucky to get my free internship when I was in school and it changed my life dramatically. Without that experience I would not have had any perspective at all when looking for a full time job, the experience taught me a lot of things that just cant be gained in a normal classroom setting.
Based on that experience I believe that if a company is using free interns but ultimately providing mentoring, networking, and a job reference it is very valuable to the student. The idea that these internships are only for the "rich" kids is also a little off balance. I knew a few students as well as myself that supported themselves, attended class, and worked 10+ hours a week. While this is by no means fun it does prepare you for the very intense and competitive job field. The free internships also allow students who would not normally be considered for paid jobs due to inexperience or not being top of the class a chance to get experience because they are low risk for companies to take on.

I think that there is a level of ethical responsibility needed on behalf of the companies when engaging in this but the model is a benefit to both parties in my opinion.