Talks Of Voice Actor Strike Shine A Light On The Game Industry’s Ugly Labor Habits

editorials by Chris Berg

Early on Monday morning, the Screen Actors Guild-Association Federation of Television and Radio Artists announced a potential strike, if upcoming contract negotiations fail to produce a workable contract. The 11 companies that SAG-AFTRA threaten to strike include Activision, Electronic Arts, and Take 2 Interactive. The union has been negotiating this contract since early 2015, when the previous contract (established in 1994) expired. Last year, the union overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike – with 96% of members expressing support.

A strike would involve all SAG-AFTRA affiliated performers ceasing their services to the eleven companies (as long as the projects started later than February 15th, 2015). This means upcoming releases like Destiny 2, Amy Henning’s Star Wars game, and Rockstar’s sequel to Red Dead Redemption may not be able to hire the professional talent that gives life to their stories.

A Reasonable Demand

SAG-AFTRA is pursuing a variety of demands for their performers, including various adjustments to workplace safety and transparency. However, the most controversial proposal on the table is in regards to ‘secondary compensation’ for vocal performers.

Under the proposed contract, vocal performers in games would be entitled to a bonus for every two million copies of a game sold (or subscribers for online titles) – capped at eight million. According to SAG-AFTRA, this would represent a reasonable bonus for exemplary performance in the most successful of releases. Similar contracts in other industries contain the same clause, so it seems reasonable that this contract would as well.

However, the bonus structure has been met with a fair degree of bitterness from critics of SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations.




Who Deserves To Be Paid?

This common criticism – that voice actors are less deserving of residual payments, and thus are arrogant to ask for it – is backwards logic. The reason that voice actors are the only ones bringing this sort of payment structure to the conversation, is because they have unionized representation. Unions have become increasingly stigmatized, demonized, and stripped of power in the United States – resulting in inequality cases like this.

For those unfamiliar, labor unions are formal agreements between employees to negotiate as a collective. Rather than each employee having to make their case for fair pay, a union of employees can bring more leverage on behalf of workers. SAG-AFTRA is an aggressively powerful union, one that has a hand in most entertainment products. Comparatively, there’s no union for game developers. Or artists. Or coders. Unsurprisingly, that has resulted in many horror stories from behind the scenes of AAA game development.

Crunch, crunch, crunch

In an ideal world, the ordinary eight-hour workday is more than enough to do everything required of you. Overtime hours are reserved for emergency circumstances, and scheduling always takes the work-life balance of employees into account. But the world of game development is far from ideal. The notion of ‘crunch time’, where work hours can stretch long into the night – is increasingly common for big studios. A 2014 survey from the International Game Developers Association claimed that 81% of game developers had experienced crunch schedules in the past two years, with 50% of all responders claiming crunch was expected in their workplace.

This means longer hours, often unpaid – since employees are contracted on a predetermined salary. If developers take a stance against the practice? A whole busload of college graduates are waiting for a job in the gaming industry.

As a result, more publishers are getting accustomed to titles developed at crunch pace. Budgets are constructed with tight deadlines, customers accustomed to a certain pace between announcement and release. This creates a hostile work environment, driving countless young talents out of the industry.

Unionization isn’t the only way to solve this problem. Game consumers as an audience could become more perceptive to the labor practices behind the biggest releases. The regulatory hand of government is always a looming factor. But for the time being, collaboration amongst game creators themselves is the right path forward. Which means instead of crying foul that voice actors may be able to use their union leverage for higher payouts, the game development community should be cheering these accomplishments on.

Prove to the studios and publishers that these payouts aren’t a terminal, bankrupting force. Celebrate the victory of fellow workers, instead of fighting a proxy war on behalf of a corporation’s bottom line. As for gamers, awareness is part of the fight too. Keep your eyes on this potential strike, and think about what you value in a game release. Because regardless of if it’s vocal characterization, art design, or texture mapping…



Article Discussion

  • As a performer in many video games, and a player, myself, I want to thank you for your sharp and honest analysis of what we’re trying to achieve.

  • A developer will work on a game for 3-5 years, 8-12
    Hours a day, up 7 days a week to get a game done.
    VO’s work a fraction of that. Maybe 1/100th or less. The game industry is not the film industry, where the actors in a big budget project get all of the $$$ and the rest of the crew get scraps.

    If actors want more $$$, go to film or episodic. Don’t steal from developers.

    • Now, see, it’s pretty obvious when someone didn’t even bother reading what was said in the article, because that’s exactly the flawed argument that the article is responding directly to. Yes, you could say that voiceactors don’t do as much work as devs, but that just means that devs deserve better, not that voiceactors deserve less. Devs only hurt themselves by criticizing these kinds of labour movements out of spite and envy, instead of actually questioning their own working conditions and seeking to achieve the same sense of empowerment themselves. Arguments like yours are really so easy to make only because labour movements so marginalized and fragmented in the US. It’s as if asking corporations to maybe compromise at bit on their bottom line for the sake of better working conditions for their employees is a threat to the very existence of the companies and their products, which is just plan BS.

  • I’m just going to be candid here, being from the video game industry myself – you can do all of this without a union, there’s a ton of great templates, you can set expectations. What’s the challenge here, is that if unions make demands, they’ll find someone else. Voiceover talent is literally so common now, I had a whiteboard video and video sales letter, went on fiverr and paid 10 different people 5-15 dollars each to do the work. It’s really a competitive industry – while I totally agree with most of what was said and the effort to improve the conditions / reward for the voice-overs, you also have to weigh that there are so many people who are willing to do it, do more, and do it for less. That’s the pains and joys of the free market economy, and as much as we try to regulate it, or demand it be different, since the beginning of time, it boils down to two factors: supply & demand.

  • Say goodbye to games at the price they are. Everyone’s wanting more money. It can’t all be absorbed by the developer and/or publisher. Therefore, expect higher prices for games. Consumers can’t be expected to just sit back and accept these higher prices, so expect a VG slump, perhaps even as bad as the early ’80s.

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