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Watch Out for Illegal Internships
by Reid Kimball on 03/30/10 10:00:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It’s a dream shared by many students, from elementary to graduate level. To work in the video games industry is a grueling goal many spend years pursuing. In their quest to land employment at a video game company, many college and recent college graduates are hoping internships offer a chance to put their foot in the door and to eventually bust it wide open for an invitation to be fully employed.

However, because of competition, the weak global economy and not knowing the law, employers may be illegally using internships to not pay for work that is benefiting the company. The New York Times(1) reported on April 2nd, 2010 that this trend has been accelerating in recent years and that there is a crackdown, particularly in California and Oregon to put a stop to this.

In November, 2009 The Employment Tribunals in the UK ruled that an intern, Nicola Vette was due back-pay for her work on a film with London Dreams Motion Pictures Ltd(2). The ruling sets a precedent that “workers engaged on an expenses-only basis are entitled to payment at least in line with the national minimum wage, in addition to payment for the holiday they accrue.”

Dana John, a senior at N.Y.U., had this to say about her unpaid internship, “If you want to be in the music industry that’s the way it works. If you want to get your foot in the door somehow, this is the easiest way to do it. You suck it up.”

That sounds exactly like the kind of thing people say about the video games industry. That you do whatever you can get in. I hear the phrase “suck it up” often during discussions about the games industry’s frequent exploitative unpaid overtime.

An important point from the New York Times article is that even if the company offers college credit, it doesn’t free companies from paying for the intern’s work, especially when it benefits the company.

Unfortunately, with how competitive the video games industry is, I believe this illegal practice of unpaid internships may be common, especially in the smaller, lesser known development studios. I’ve already contacted one developer in the US to let them know their unpaid internship may be illegal. A quick search of internships from Activision, EA and Ubisoft found that on some Activision internships, particularly at Raven were listed as being paid. Some others had no mention either way. At EA, it appears all internships are paid. Information on pay for Ubisoft internships could not be found.

Even though you may be willing sacrifice a lot in order to get a job in the games industry, you need to stick up for your rights and make it clear that if your work is going to benefit the company in anyway, you have a right to be paid fairly.


(3) (Page 8 is especially relevant)

Also posted at my personal blog, Reiding...

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Daniel Zeligman
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EA's are most certainly paid as I had an internship with them last summer. I would certainly pay attention to this advice when looking at smaller companies.

Glenn Storm
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This subject has been getting some attention lately (see this NPR story: []). Well said, Reid.

Timothy McColgan
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I feel like there are a lot of people out there that would gladly except an illegal internship to get the experience and networking, myself included. I feel like with the current economic condition, if people did stand up for themselves they would just be replaced by someone who's willing to do it.

Reid Kimball
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Why would you do that when you know it isn't legally right? If you take an illegal unpaid internship because of the current economic conditions, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The current recession is due to not enough people having enough money. Unpaid internships will only prolong the situation!

Besides, I believe (will need to check with a lawyer) if one were fired during their internship for requesting to be paid, that in itself is illegal because it would be an unfair firing.

I would hope that people realize that standing up for your rights also makes sure that OTHER people aren't taken advantage of in similar ways. It will make our industry stronger and more attractive to outsiders when we treat others with the respect they deserve.

Reid Kimball
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Another thing. Many people like Tim see internships as a way of getting experience and networking, but thanks to both indie game dev communities, blogs, sites like Gamasutra and the IGDA you can often do both, from the comfort of your own home. Gaining knowledge as payment is no longer as attractive with the internet providing much of it without having to work for it.

Timothy McColgan
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I agree with you on the business and legal side of things completely. I just look at it as the game-devs at places with reputations like Activision and Ubisoft are kind of the rock stars of the computer science world. To me any ways. So if i had the option of taking an internship that could possiby get me that kind of position, id be willing to do it.

Kevin Reilly
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There are some exemptions to the minimum wage laws for non-paid internships (e.g. charities) and for students who can earn credit for the intership. The states have an interest in putting a halt to this type of activity because it reduces the company's obligation to contribute the employer's share of payroll tax. How hard they crack down will be tough to say because more often internships are being offered by smaller devs without a sophisticated HR or corporate culture. The larger publishers are a bit more sophisticated and know the do's/don'ts of taking on interns.

Jonathan Howland
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It seems if someone were willing to work for free, towards the profit of a company, has little respect for the gaming industry. That is, they want to do it because it's "cool" and seem unwilling to understand what the industry is about.

Just because some companies/developers may have started from humble beginnings (i.e. garage studio), does not make it some status quo for people to "suck up". I can only see people as having very little respect for themselves and the industry given that there are other avenues available.

There is absolutely nothing ethical about it.

Joshua McDonald
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Before minimum wage and child labor laws, apprenticeship was a very common and effective way to learn a trade. A few years ago (had it been legal), I would have gladly accepted an unpaid or beneath minimum wage internship because it would be more effective way of learning what I needed to be a game developer than any other option.

If two people make an agreement and all parties affected come out better, I consider that ethical and positive. My brother learned more in his internship than he did in the same amount of time in school. Fortunately, he was paid, but even if he hadn't been, how is it ethical for school to charge thousands of dollars to provide a skill, yet unethical for a different business to do it for free?

People who complain about unpaid internships tend to assume that the companies will keep the same number of internships they had before but start paying them. More likely, they'll cut down on their numbers or even quit taking interns altogether, and that certainly doesn't help people trying to break in.

EDIT: Modified first sentence of second paragraph to increase clarity.

Christopher Enderle
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I wonder how much the use of art/design tests is also increasing/expanding in complexity. I'd imagine that would be a much more nebulous area than these unpaid internships.

Troy Simpson
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Being a student now, I'll look out for this down the road. However I see the logic on both sides. I have always planned on having an unpaid internship at some point because that has seemed to be an industry standard, but I also realize these companies could easily pay me minimum wage if I'm spending 8-10 hours a day running random errands.

I bet the larger companies are good at paying their interns just from a legal standpoint. The smaller ones might be trouble though.