On October 21st, hundreds of video game voice actors went on strike.
The voice actors are members of the SAG-AFTRA union. At the time of this writing, negotiations are still underway.
Although the union has gone on strike before, most recently in 2007 when the Writers Guild of America ceased work for 14 weeks, this represents the first time voice actors specifically have taken this action.
The strike affects a number of major publishers, as detailed in an official release by SAG-AFTRA.
- Corps of Discovery Films
- Electronic Arts
- Formosa Interactive
- Insomiac Games
- Interactive Associates
- Take 2 Interactive
- VoiceWorks Products
- WB Games
Between them, nearly all developers of big-budget, “triple A” games are affected.
Sam Singer, a representative of the video games publishers affected by the strike, released the following statement to Destructoid.
The Companies are impressed and appreciative of the research and investigation the union did on vocal stress and had agreed to work together on addressing the issues before union leadership rashly decided to strike, rather than allowing their members to vote on the package. SAG-AFTRA never made a specific demand to stunt coordinators, so that claim by the union is incorrect.
In a subsequent message to Playstation Lifestyle, Singer expanded.
As we’ve stated in the past, we put forward a clarification regarding stunt coordinators in order to highlight the many reports we have received where a stunt coordinator was not present as required, including multiple reports of injury. In the end we agreed to refer the issue to the cooperative committee because it ultimately relates to the need for improved attention to existing language.
What is SAG-AFTRA
SAG-AFTRA, or the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is the largest union of media and entertainment industry professionals. It boasts about 160,000 active members. Eligible members include not just voiceover artists, but also screen actors, broadcast journalists, dancers, news writers, musicians, and more.
According to SAG-AFTRA’s official history, the union first began to take shape in 1864, when a stage comedian named William Davidge called on the “long-existing necessity for an equitable status”, primarily a standardized minimum wage or salary.
SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, was officially founded in 1933. AFTRA, then a separate entity, was formed in 1952 when the American Federation of Radio Artists merged with the Television Authority. SAG and AFTRA themselves merged in the late 90s, forming SAG-AFTRA as we now know it.
The union engages in negotiations on behalf of its members, seeking certain base-level compensations and benefits.
Why Voice Actors Strike Now
According to SAG-AFTRA, the main issues at stake are compensation (pay), and safety. Essentially, the current contract between SAG-AFTRA and major video game publishers was written in 1994, when the video games industry was a much different place. Games were smaller, required less voices, and there were less games in general.
For reference, the video games industry as a whole was valued at $20.8 billion in 1994. In 2015, just 11 years later, the industry had a valuation of over $101.6 billion. (Sources: Wikipedia and Statista)
In essence, the union is arguing that video game voice actors should get a bigger piece of the pie, now that the pie is so much bigger. SAG-AFTRA is arguing for a bonus paid to the voiceover artists for every 2 million copies of a game sold.
The argument makes sense. Times have changed. The largest-selling game of 1994, Donkey Kong Country for the SNES, sold just 1 million copies in its original release window.
Exact sales figures for Call of Duty: Black Ops III, 2015’s best-selling game, aren’t available. However, the title outsold other games that year “by a wide margin”, according to NPD, and the series as a whole has sold more than 250 million copies.
Meanwhile, video game voice actors, even big names like Jennifer Hale (the female Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect), see very little of that. They are typically paid an hourly rate, something along the lines of $200 an hour at the top end.
The market has grown drastically, but the financial compensation given to the people who make a game a success hasn’t kept up. That includes voice actors.
The exception to the rule is celebrity “stunt casting”, such as Kevin Spacey’s performance as the villain in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. These parts typically earn sums close to the actors’ Hollywood rates, which far exceed the money earned by professional voice actors who are often far more experienced in the recording booth.
The other big issue put forth by SAG-AFTRA is safety concerns from the long hours asked of voice actors. Anyone who has tried screaming, shouting, pretending to die, or putting on a cartoon voice for any length of time knows that it’s hard on the throat. Although there are certainly plenty of herbal remedies for this, the best advice is frequent, reasonable breaks.
That’s also where the concern for stunt professionals comes from. Stuntmen and stuntwomen are also SAG-AFTRA members, and this strike is also intended to create better safety regulations for them.
To date, the video games industry has dismissed all claims against them. SAG-AFTRA points out that in negotiations, the industry offered to “put out more water and tea” for the voice actors in response to safety concerns.
What Does This Mean for Gamers?
The safety concerns shouldn’t be discounted. In an interview with NPR, Jennifer Hale told stories of friends who had suffered serious injuries in the recording booth.
“Let me hear the sound you’d make if you were slashed in half by a sword?” Hale asked NPR’s Scott Simon. “How about you’re struck in the heart by a bullet? How does your throat feel? … I have friends who have had to have surgery because of the vocal stress they incurred in the session and they’ve been out of work for months.”
At this time, all affected SAG-AFTRA members have ceased work on video game voice acting projects. Games that went into production after February 17th, 2015 will find it impossible to hire union voice actors.
For gamers, there are essentially three possible outcomes if this continues for long.
- The strike is resolved quickly. Both sides reach an agreement, and the voice actors return to work. The games themselves are unaffected.
- The strike continues, and game developers are forced to stop production on games until they are able to hire union voice actors.
- More likely, the strike continues, and game developers begin to hire non-union actors. This already goes on quite a bit. Although many non-union voice actors are skilled and qualified, union membership is often considered a badge of professionalism. Most of the best voice actors are SAG-AFTRA members, including most fan favorites like Nolan North, Troy Baker, and of course Jennifer Hale.
It’s our hope that this does resolve quickly, and in favor of the voice actors. Check out the union’s handout “Why We Strike” (PDF) at their website.