By Wes Smith
After parties for video game creators and voice actors failed to agree to negotiations, the powerful actor’s union authorized a strike vote this week.
SAG/AFTRA, the primary actor’s union for film, television, animation, and other industries, authorized its Interactive Media Agreement Strike Authorization Referendum with a vote of 96.52% in favor, according to its website.
At issue is the restructuring of an agreement between voice actors and video games. The last Interactive Media Agreement expired on December 31, 2014. Preliminary bargaining sessions took place in February and June with little result.
Voice actors are pushing for new regulations targeted specifically at the expanding video game voice over industry. Among their primary issues are new safety standards and pay for motion capture work, limited hours on so-called “stressful” voice over sessions (time in the booth that is spent largely on yelling and other high-volume work), and a new system of residual-based pay.
The residual payment structure appears to be a large sticking point for video game publishers. Under SAG/AFTRA’s agreement, voice actors will receive compensation for every 2 million sales of a game title with a cap of 8 million, a move aimed largely at AAA “blockbuster” games from the largest publishers.
The publishing industry counters that their programmers and developers do not receive similar bonuses for a title’s performance. Some gaming fans also question whether voice over work is important enough to the gaming industry to warrant such bonuses.
SAG/AFTRA remains undeterred, stating that such residual bonuses would put the video game industry on par with the other industries their actors work under. They also cite gaming executive pay as a benchmark for the global financial success of the gaming industry.
“Last year, Activision’s COO took home a bonus of $3,970,862. EA paid their executive chairman a bonus of $1.5 million. We applaud their success, and we believe our talent and contributions are worth a bonus payment, too,” states an FAQ on the SAG/AFTRA website.
This week’s vote does not mean that SAG/AFTRA is officially on strike yet. Rather, it means that members of the union have authorized an executive council of leadership to offer a strike should they feel game publishers are not willing to negotiate.
Should the union strike, game publishers will be unable to hire SAG/AFTRA talent for voice over work, including such talent as Jennifer Hale, Tara Strong, and Wil Wheaton.
Supporters of the game industry state that the publishers can simply find non-union talent to work with. Whether this would prove effective has not yet been tested, as many actors eventually wish to join SAG/AFTRA and the timetable on many gaming projects mean it could be months before any such AAA titles with non-union talent would be released.
A major concern for actors also stems from the companies involved. Though Activision and EA have track records of financial success, also involved are companies like Warner Bros. and Disney. Should an Interactive Media Agreement fail to meet union standards, some worry that these major motion picture companies will use the negotiations as a wedge in future agreements for their television and film branches.
In the short terms, gamers would unlikely hear the results should a strike be voted for by the SAG/AFTRA execs. Some of the largest titles spend years in development, with voice over work sometimes taking up a small portion of that time. Many of the titles immediately effected would be open-world style games with large amounts of situational dialogue, such as the Grand Theft Auto franchise.
If the gaming industry chooses not to negotiate and instead hire non-union talent, gamers will find themselves listening to new voices in their popular titles. However, with many actors choosing to eventually join the actor’s union, it would be unclear how stable such a rotating selection of voices would work in the long-term.