Video Game Voice Actors Hit Pause, Go On Strike

Actors want to level up from current Interactive Media Agreement

After 19 months of negotiations with video game producers, a union representing the actors who voice video games says it will go silent beginning today. SAG-AFTRA said in a release that its members “are not confident management is willing to make the changes necessary to bring this contract up to the standards of our other agreements.”

For the producers, the likely response will be to go non-union. The industry released a statement via Scott J. Witlin of law firm Barnes & Thornburg LLP:

“We consider the Union’s threatened labor action to call a strike precipitous, unnecessary and an action that will only harm their membership. SAG-AFTRA represents performers in less than 25 percent of the video games on the market. Any strike would not only deny SAG-AFTRA’s membership work, but this would also give their competitors, who do not engage union talent, a leg up while any strike would be in place.”

In the short-term, this will affect those actors closely connected to video game voicing and the fans who’ve come to know and expect those voices. In the long-term, the strike and its outcome affect who will have a stake in future media like virtual reality.

The contract in question is called the Interactive Media Agreement, which expired in late 2014, and it’s something of an anomaly. Created in a simpler gaming time, the contract doesn’t offer residual payments (royalties) to actors like contracts for TV, film, and commercials do. Voice actors get a base rate of $825 per four-hour session. The demands that SAG-AFTRA took to the negotiating table included a fee paid to actors after a game achieves certain sales thresholds.

The actors also want safety measures to protect voices from scream-related injury, and to protect actors’ bodies from performance-capture-related injury. The union also seeks greater transparency. Because of the secrecy of the industry, actors often have no idea what roles they’re auditioning for.

The producers proposed a 9 percent wage increase and a pay boost of $950 per game, but that wasn’t satisfactory to the union, and so the strike this morning just after at midnight.

What Does It Mean?
The strike affects games that went into production after Feb. 17, 2015, and focuses, for now, on some of the big names in gaming, including Activision, Disney, Electronic Arts, WB Games, and others. It’s unlikely it’ll have much effect on the Christmas season, and the strike may not slow production at all as it shifts to non-union talent.

For some of the more popular voice actors in the union, like Yuri Lowenthal, the strike may be a financial blow. Lowenthal says gaming income makes up 35-40 percent of his income. Beyond that, he told me in an email, “If past strikes are any indication, smaller studios go out of business. Everybody loses.”

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I asked him why he thinks the producers didn’t come around. He said, “I suspect it’s because if they meet our demands, other people in the game industry (animators, editors, audio, pretty much everyone else) could come forward and demand the same thing. It could set a precedent.”

As I wrote in May, the direction of future media is tied up in video games. As technology evolves, games are expanding into new arenas, like virtual reality, but they’re also absorbing old media and adopting cinematic storytelling techniques. This makes actors more central to the games then they were in the eight-bit days.

Take a look at the variety of work the strike pre-empts: “voice acting; motion or performance capture work; background work; principal on camera work (including singing, dancing and performing stunts); authorizing the use of your voice or of a sound-a-like voice in a videogame; consenting to the reuse of prior work into a struck game; performing on a trailer for a struck game and performing on ‘downloadable content (DLC)’ or other ancillary content connected to a struck game.”

For an industry that’s estimated to bring in $100 billion worldwide this year alone (compared to 2016’s global box office of $38 billion), questions of compensation are bound to be contentious. And they’ll likely only become more so.