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…