Video game voice actors go on strike to end "freeloader model of compensation"

Voice actors such as Crispin Freeman (Mafia III, Overwatch), Phil LaMarr (Mortal Kombat X, Injustice: Gods Among Us), and Keythe Farley (Fallout 4, Mass Effect 3), together with other members of SAG-AFTRA, declared a work strike against a number of gaming companies until they're able to renegotiate new contract terms.

SAG-AFTRA announced the strike on the morning of Friday, October 21 and have plans to picket the offices of Electronic Arts in Playa Vista, CA on Monday, October 24 for an undisclosed amount of time. EA is one of the companies affected by the strike along with Activision Publishing Inc., Take 2 Interactive Software, WB Games Inc., to name a few.

There are a few issues with the current contract that SAG-AFTRA actors want to renegotiate via collective bargaining. First, they are seeking secondary compensation in the form of residuals for actors who work in popular games. The current contract, which SAG-AFTRA have tried to renegotiate since February of 2015, does not include residual payments as is normally found in other SAG-AFTRA contracts.

"This contract is unique in that the actors who work under this contract don't share in any profit of the success of the project at all," says Freeman. "In all of the SAG-AFTRA contracts, there is some sort of formula to help actors who may be in and out of work in order to support themselves while they're not working.

"This contract originated back in the 90s when video games were a very small industry and actors' contributions to them were small in the same way. Video games now make more money than Hollywood. They can gross a billion dollars when they're released and still there is no structure in place to compensate actors when their likenesses and their performances have helped the success of a video game or a huge blockbuster level."

Another of the actors' concerns regards the strenuous work and sometimes even physical demand for video game voice actors. Many actors spend hours in a control booth pushing their vocal chords to the limit by screaming in faux agony, mimicking animals or monsters, yelling military orders and command, and more.

"On May 25th 2016, we sent a letter to Cal/OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health) for an investigation into unsafe vocal recording sessions conducted by video game employers," explains SAG-AFTRA Chief Contracts Officer Ray Rodriguez of the need to protect voice actors' most valuable asset.

"The type of voice work that is done under this collective bargaining agreement can be very stressful and injurious to voice actors," he continues. "We have had reports of voice actors permanently damaging their voices or damaging their voices for extended periods where they were unable to work under this contract or under other contracts."

To make matters worse, there were times when actors were forced to work without the assistance of a stunt coordinator when on set for motion-capture work. SAG-AFTRA want a new contract that would require stunt coordinators to be on set at all times when the physical work demands it in order to avoid injury.

"I don't think people understand how stressful it is, how much of a chance of damage that you could do to your voice when you are screaming 'grenade' for four hours," adds Freeman. "It's just so different from any other kind of voice work that we do."

Last but not least, the voice actors would like to know exactly what game they're working on when offered the part, which is not a wild demand to make from any point of view. Farley spent nearly two years working on Fallout 4 bringing Conrad Kellogg, X9-27, and Y9-15 without once ever knowing he was working on Fallout 4 despite the fact that he signed a non-disclosure agreement before recording a single line of dialogue.

"I can't imagine that there's any other acting job in the world where you don't know what show you're in when you're hired," he explains. "Yet that happens every day in the video game world. Producers hide the actual titles of their project.

"This benefits management in that our agents are not able to negotiate on our behalf because we are frequently not told that we'll be working on Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4. If we knew that ahead of time, our agents might try to negotiate a little higher rate for such a high profile title versus a young, independent developer who's just starting out with a new project that you might have a choice to work for a minimum scale."

Hiding the project's title also forces actors into situations they may want to avoid. Farley cites Grand Theft Auto as an example. The producers may hide the fact that they hired someone to voice a character in GTA, which is well-known for being packed with incredibly mature content. An actor may object to some lines or acts but, unfortunately, will be forced to go through with them as they have already signed a legal and binding contract.

SAG-AFTRA found itself rebuffed at every turn and with every suggestion it made since early last year. They negotiated a proposal were actors would receive a secondary compensation for every two millions units/downloads sold with a cap at eight million. They also negotiated for a larger upfront payment for blockbuster titles. Game companies refused both.

SAG-AFTRA then negotiated an either-or contract option with game companies offering them either an upfront payment or the secondary compensation. Again, they refused, so the union put the motion to strike up for a vote. Ninety-seven percent of actors voted in support of a targeted strike.

"There's an effort to characterize this as fundamentally as an issue about money and about upfront compensation," says Rodriguez referring to the first batch of stories in news media about the strike. "It's not. It's a negotiation about fair treatment and respect of performers and about the structures of payment that performers need to survive as professional performers and that acknowledge their contributions to the productions that they're working on."