Video game voice actors who are members of acting union SAG-AFTRA have been on strike since October 2016. In January, it became the second-longest strike in SAG-AFTRA history, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Many people are wondering why this #PerformanceMatters strike is still ongoing. Can’t the game companies budge a little? Can’t the actors relent, just a tiny bit?
The answer: It’s complicated.
In an article on VICE Motherboard, Emanuel Maiberg lays out the myriad reasons why this thing just won’t end.
“The Video Game Industry is Afraid of Unions” is half think piece, half interview with Phil LaMarr. Phil has done all kinds of voice acting for video games and cartoons. He was Green Lantern on Justice League! He’s also a member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiation committee that is working with the targeted game companies to resolve the strike.
Basically, as with most conflicts, there are two sides to the story.
Voice Actors Put in the Work
SAG-AFTRA contends that video game voice acting is a tough job that leads to real injury and physical damage. Phil recounts working on a Terminator game years ago (it’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, in which he’s credited as “additional voices”).
Playing a police officer, Phil was asked to scream various takes on pain, fear, and anger for about a half hour. As Phil says, “A Terminator can kill you in a whole lot of ways.” So, he had to scream as if he was on fire, as if he had been shot, as if he was falling to his death, and anything else that might conceivably happen to a “generic cop” in a Terminator project.
Screaming that hard for that long is genuinely damaging to the voice, and of course Phil’s voice is his livelihood. And yet, he says, his contract included no royalties or residuals. He was paid for the day’s work and went home to recover, and was probably unable to work for several days.
If he had played a similar role in a movie, he might have hurt himself during a stunt, but he would have an ongoing source of income from that work.
But So Do Others
So, give the voice actors royalties, right? Here’s the roadblock that Maiberg uncovered.
Basically, video games are really hard to make. They’re the cumulative effort of dozens or even hundreds of developers, artists, bug testers, and more.
Ubisoft, famous for its large teams, typically has about 500 people working on the next Assassin’s Creed title. And many of those people work far longer hours than a voice actor, albeit without the immediate physical damage.
So, should lead programmers receive royalties? What about the person who does the concept art? What about the people lower on the totem pole?
The answer is: Probably. And the answer is also: Game companies can’t afford that.
Tommy Tallarico comments in the article and puts it best. He’s a music composer who worked on dozens of games from Earthworm Jim to MDK, and he’s clearly put a lot of thought into this.
“The programmers working on these games, they’re giving their blood, sweat, and tears, and they’re getting paid good money, but they’re working every day, 15-hour days, and then a voice actor comes in and does a four-hour recording session and demands royalties on that game. What if actors get royalties and the programmers don’t? You can imagine what that could trigger. The reality is that it should.”
What’s Next for the Video Game Voice Actors Strike
The article also goes into detail about the culture of most game companies. Games, like most tech fields, are historically anti-union, and that comes from both the employers and the employees.
In the past, unions just weren’t a factor. The companies didn’t encourage them, and the employees didn’t want them. And that’s how we ended up with situations like the one exposed by EA Spouse.
This is the first strike targeted at the video games industry, and that’s one reason it’s likely to last for a while. The issues being negotiated just haven’t been examined closely in the past.
People like to say that games are a young industry, but it’s growing up fast. The companies that started in garages now occupy 700,000 square foot campuses. It’s tough to use the “lean, hungry start-up” excuse these days.
Paying voice actors and other game industry what they’re worth isn’t easy, but it’s time to figure out how to do it.