The Ongoing Voice Actor's Strike Is More Than Just a Little Drama

Reporter Ian Williams digs into the intricacies of the 2016 SAG-AFTRA strike, and offers a look ahead at what's to come.

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Dec 29 2016, 5:00pm

Header Illustration by Sophia Foster-Diminio.

Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars, and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!

The strike that was supposed to raise the consciousness of working people in the games industry has been strangely quiet since it was announced. The SAG-AFTRA voice actors strike began in late October of 2016, a full two months ago now. There's been scant footage of picket lines, no canceled or delayed games. For all the world, it looks like it's barely happened at all. But behind the scenes, there's a palpable anger.

"They led off undervaluing what we provide to the video game industry," says JB Blanc, a voice actor and observer on the preliminary negotiations. "I was at the second negotiation which occurred. Scott Witlin (the lawyer representing the studios) sat down and said—and I will quote him almost verbatim—'it's so great to see so many of you coming here to support your contract, we're very proud to see you all here. Really no one cares about voiceover in video games, and we could get anyone to do what you do for 50 bucks an hour. So we're showing extraordinary good faith by even turning up.' I think he still believes that, and he's patently wrong." Scott Witlin did not respond to our request for comment.

It was this notion that voice actors are so easily replaceable that got their backs up, in Blanc's words. It's also an idea that seems resoundingly disrespectful, not only to the voice actors, but also to people who play video games. It casts them as ignorant consumers, unable to discern good performances from bad. Sean Vanaman, co-owner of Campo Santo and co-director of the studio's debut game Firewatch, finds the quote shocking.

"Yeah, maybe it doesn't matter so much for the next AAA shooter. Fine. Continue to make that game," he says in irritation. "But when that game is no longer viable, you're not going to have many places to turn. That person should be fired. That's malpractice. He's saying that industry tastes aren't going to change, that market trends will not fluctuate, and that something popular in 2016 will be popular in 2019. I would be very, very afraid as a shareholder if that's the attitude."

That anger is diverted, however, hidden away from the public behind a wall market speak, negotiations, contracts, and claims by both sides of bad faith. The actual gears haven't turned yet for a reason.

"Right now, it's kind of at a stalemate," explains voice actor Cissy Jones, who performed in Firewatch. "Not every game has struck. We're only striking against 11 companies, and within those companies, any game which was registered before February 2015 is not struck. That said, a lot of games registered after that date are not ready to record voices. I think we'll see rubber meet the road when they're ready to record and they want their celebrities."

In other words, the strike's effects are about to kick in on AAA titles, big time. Included in the list 11 companies that the union is striking against are EA, Activision, and Take 2--all massive players in the industry. What was quiet suddenly won't be, though it's anyone's guess as to whether the studios will try to hold out or yield to union demands.

"I've been called into video game sessions, and it's four straight hours of screaming bloody murder." -Cissy Jones 

Those demands center on four issues. The first is vocal stress. From the outside looking in, it's easy to question just how tough voice acting is. You say your lines, maybe shout a bit, then go home. We've all done school plays or little theatre as kids. We know.

According to Jones, it's extremely demanding, particularly given the difference in pay between a voice acting session and better paying work like commercials and cartoons.

"I've been called into video game sessions, and it's four straight hours of screaming bloody murder," she notes. "By the time I leave, my throat is bleeding, I can't speak, and I have to cancel commercial sessions, which are my bread and butter."

The second main issue is stunt coordination when there's a motion capture scene. This is industry standard practice in Hollywood, across media formats, and is "just commonsense" according to Blanc. The demand is exactly what it sounds like: Have a trained person on set to make certain that dangerous or physically taxing stuff is done correctly, with minimal risk of harm.

The studios seem fairly amenable to meeting the actors on those issues. Sam Singer, a spokesperson hired to speak to the media on behalf of some of the big studios like EA, wasn't available for interview, but offered a link to their rebuttal to SAG-AFTRA's demands. Where things seemed to break down the most, comparing the two, is on the issues of transparency and bonus pay.

Blanc provides a lesson in transparency issues when he recalls playing the part of Bane in Batman: Arkham Origins.

"I walked into the session, I didn't know what the game was, I didn't know what the character was, and I was expected to pull a 3D character out of my butt in the first session, in a game I was going to work on for a year," he recalls. "That's insane! It benefits no one, least of all the company and game."

"Voice acting doesn't just slot in like a stick of RAM." -JB Blanc

Jones is equally withering in her appraisal of the games industry's obsession with secrecy.

"I think there's a fear of corporate espionage. It seems like a lot of companies worry that if Call of Duty 19 gets out, that Gears of War 24 will beat them to the punch," she says. "So that's some of it, but beyond that I honestly don't understand the veil of secrecy around it. It's incredibly frustrating."

If the need for so much secrecy sounds confusing, in a games industry which already insists on draconian NDAs for everyone who darkens its doors, it probably should. The games industry imported its focus on confidentiality from the broader tech sector long ago, which seems like an appropriate fit when applied to the more industrial aspects of game development, like engine creation. But the way this pervasive insistence on mystery rankles for voice actors points to a much larger tension.

"Culturally, I think it's difficult for these companies to think of themselves as entertainment companies and they very clearly are," Blanc explains. "They're competing in the same market as film and television and theatre. They consider themselves to be tech companies. They keep saying to us that Silicon Valley doesn't work this way. Well, I do all my work in Los Angeles, and all your companies have come here because the talent is here. And look, I get it: From their end, it's an engine and a set of algorithms that perform certain functions. The trouble is that voice acting doesn't just slot in like a stick of RAM."

But perhaps no point has been as contentious as that of bonuses, and the framing of the issue is a key messaging battle. The studios claim that the union wants residuals, a word which has made its way into independent publications. Residuals are lifetime payments on work an actor has appeared in—Keythe Farley, national chair of the Interactive Negotiating Committee, laughingly explained that he still gets a small check every so often for an episode of Full House he did in the 90s.

"I know who wins the battle between game developers and voice actors. It's the game corporations." -Keythe Farley

SAG-AFTRA insists that they're negotiating for bonuses, not residuals. Jones bristles at the suggestion that they're asking for the latter.

"There's a lot of talk about residuals. We are not asking for residuals. We're asking for bonus payments. It's a different scope. For every two million units sold, up to eight million… so if Call of Duty goes on to sell 30 million units, which it has, we only ask for bonus payments on eight million of those sold. That's really not a bad thing. But that's where the developers, who are putting in crunch time, could see a change for themselves as well."

The fight over language isn't accidental. A debate centered around bonuses would be happening on familiar ground for devs. But a fight for residuals places the voice actors apart from the developers, since they may appear well beyond what game developers could ever hope for, given the culture differences. By insisting the fight is over residuals, whatever the truth, a wedge is created between voice actors and developers who might look to SAG-AFTRA as inspiration.

"It's very useful to them to have actors and devs fighting each other," says Farley. "It's a divide and conquer strategy."

Farley's quote, of course, implies a possible unity between developers and strikers. This is despite some of the grumbling on social media from devs looking at this action and wondering why they can't do the same. Indeed, the actors spoken to for this article were universally passionate about finding a way to help developers who want to organize for their own bonuses.

"The video game corporations [the term used to identify the specific studios that SAG-AFTRA is striking against] have done a good job of making some of the developers feel like video game performers should not get anything because the developers don't," chief SAG-AFTRA negotiator Ray Rodriguez maintains. "The real question should be, why don't the video game corporations want the developers to have better working conditions? To work less hours? To have work-life balance? To have better pay? To have job stability? We hope that developers recognize that and come together to protect their careers. And when they do, we will stand with them and help them in any way we can."



Related, From Waypoint: Check out Senior Editor Mike Diver's top ten games of the year.


Farley concurs, saying that he doesn't know a single actor who doesn't want to help out the developers they know.

"I know who wins the battle between game developers and voice actors," says Farley. "It's the game corporations."

This enthusiasm for helping, even if SAG-AFTRA can't directly unionize development studios, is something labor reporters and organizers outside the games industry have been hoping for.

Sarah Jaffe, a labor reporter for In These Times, says, "You would think this is a very useful opportunity for SAG-AFTRA if they're trying to reach across to non-unionized parts of the sector. It always seemed to me like the Writers Guild or SAG-AFTRA could use portions of the studios they match with as a bridge into the rest of the industry. That's the real question for me: A lot of these industries exist as things which unions just don't even bother to think about."

Bryan Conlon, a union organizer on the East Coast, is more forceful in his belief that existing unions can help out.

"I'd like to see broad union support (for games workers)," he explains. "Back a long time ago, when the teamsters would strike against UPS and they'd hire scabs, when shipments would hit the ports, the longshoremen would tell them no. And a lot of teamsters have something called a hot cargo clause, meaning if someone is striking they don't touch your shit."

In other words, the voice actors are working in a non-unionized sector which, in some substantial but unquantifiable measure, wants to organize. SAG-AFTRA could, theoretically, refuse to come back if organizing developers are ignored.

This requires the developers to organize, however. To really organize, to threaten to strike, to make collective demands, not just have meetings about how to make things better at IGDA panels. And that requires real risk.

But the risk has reward, as well. What sort of rewards? Again, look to the quiet, seemingly barely there voice actors strike.

"Other employers who we are not striking have already begun signing our new promulgated contract that has essentially the same terms and conditions that we are asking for in negotiations," says Rodriguez, with confidence. "If other companies don't have a problem signing our agreements, we feel pretty confident that eventually the video game corporations [we are striking against] will warm up to the idea."

Insomniac did not respond to an interview request.