UPDATE: Resurgence of the Silent Protagonist?

Gamers may want to prepare for the resurgence of the old silent protagonist, along with reading written dialogue.  Over the past few weeks, eyes have been on the industry as voiceactors vote on whether to go on strike.  Members of the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild & American Federation of Television & Radio Artists) have begun voting on whether they want the union to issue a strike against game developers & publishers, meaning their members would be — if not prohibited, at least strongly discouraged — to work.

This action is the result of failed negotiations in a new contract with the union, as the previous voice-over contract ended in 2014.  According to the SAG-AFTRA, the industry giants have rejected every proposal the union has placed on the table & have even tried to add conditions that, even to someone outside the industry, sound absurd &, according to the union, may not even be legally enforceable.  Since the failed negotiations, the SAG-AFTRA has asked their members to vote on whether they approve to give the union strike authorization.  This does not necessarily mean they will strike, should a compromise not be met, but rather that their members vote to allow them to strike, should it be necessary.  According to a post by both actor & voiceactor Wil Wheaton, the email he received from the union addressing the topic stated:

Voting YES for a strike authorization does NOT mean we are on strike, it does NOT mean that we have to strike or that we will strike.  It simply means that you authorize your Negotiating Committee and elected representatives to call for a strike against video game companies as a last resort, in order to make sure that your safety and well-being are protected, and that your future is free from any unnecessary fines and penalties.  A strike authorization gives your Negotiating Committee real power at the bargaining table.

The hope is that having this authorization will give the negotiating committee extra weight to throw around during negotiations, & is not an uncommon tactic among unions.  The major beef they seem to have is that the industry representatives won’t even consider their terms.  There are no negotiations.

With a media blackout imposed, the exact nature of the disputed proposals isn’t known.  However, the SAG-AFTRA has given their side of the dispute, speaking about the terms they want added & the industry’s “crazy” terms.

  • Royalties.  Currently, voiceactors don’t receive any additional pay for working on successful games.  The union has proposed that actors receive a bonus if a game sales over 2 million.
  • Limiting strenuous voice sessions to 2 hours.  Between takes, retakes, & the increasing demand for quality voice work, many actors will spend an entire workday straining their voices, which in the long run can cause permanent damage & thus ending their careers.
  • New provisions for motion capture actors.  The union states that, just as movies & TV shows have stunt coordinators & supervisors, mocap actors deserve the same protection, especially in more intense scenes.  Currently, there is a lack of protection for all actors in games, be it voiceacting or mocap.
  • Developers imposing fines on both actors & the agency.  According to the union, industry representatives want to give developers the ability to fine actors $2500 if they’re not “attentive to the services for which [you] have been engaged” & fining the agency itself up to $50,000 for not sending actors to auditions.

There has been a great deal of debate on both sides of the issue from both in & outside of the industry.  Many voiceactors have come out in support of the strike under #Performancematters.  But others have stated that the demands of the SAG-AFTRA are too large, & that this strike is mostly a scare tactic to make more money (because it’s always about the money).  It’s also difficult to give the industry’s perspective due to the media blackout.  I tend to find that the truth is somewhere in between two people’s perspective, but so far I’ve only been able to find the one perspective.

But what about the gamer’s perspective?  Can someone from a more objective standpoint (with no vested interest in either side of the argument) shed some light on the matter?

If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be bothering with this post.

Firstly, I don’t think the request for royalties is misplaced.  With the increase in spoken dialogue in games, voiceactors have become celebrities in their own right, yet I’m fairly certain they make far less than an actor in a blockbuster movie.  Not only that, but most actors receive “residuals” or extra backpay if their product is successful.  Is it fair to say that if a game you had a major acting role in is successful that you don’t receive a little extra benefit?  For the most part, voiceactors live role-to-role, & receive no income from their work once it’s finished.  SAG-AFTRA even cites the bonuses executives receive from their company’s successes:

The truth is, back end bonuses are not uncommon in the video game 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.

Arguably, don’t voiceactors have more to do with the game than a chairman?  Don’t we all like to get a little bonus for hard work on occasion?

Some have argued that by asking for bonuses, voiceactors are placing themselves as the most important people in a game’s development, as there are others on the team who work just as much & even more, yet receive no residuals.  Personally, I’m of the mindset that every position in the development process is equally important.  One weak link can utterly destroy a gaming experience.  Hence why my reviews always have a breakdown of aspects.  Poor programming, broken gameplay, bad writing, poor graphics or acting… all can be detrimental.  Everything is equally important, & I do believe that those positions deserve recognition.  However, as the SAG-AFTRA has pointed out, they have no control over the contracts of those positions.  Perhaps if the SAG-AFTRA succeeds in securing bonuses for actors, other positions will have more clout to push for better pay.

But won’t that inflate the cost of producing games, you ask?  It shouldn’t (although AAA publishers will use any excuse to mark up prices).  The bonuses only come from the game’s earnings.  I did the math, & by starting the bonus level at 2 million copies sold, that means the game will have brought in $120 million already.  Taking Destiny as an example, which Activision claimed was the most successful new franchise launch, as of last month it had 20 million registered players.  Assuming every player bought a copy at $60 a piece, that means that one game alone has brought in $1,200,000,000!  And the game only cost $140 million to make, leaving them with $1 billion in profits.

I also don’t think the union is wrong in asking for better working conditions & safety.  I’m not an actor in any regards (I recommend checking out Wil Wheaton’s post for insight on the strain of the voice-over process), but my current & previous jobs are ones that require me to talk for a living.  I’ve developed upper respiratory infections & lost my voice several times, & that was just from 8-hour shifts of normal speaking.  I can’t imagine hours of yelling, grunting & retakes that go with the process of voiceacting.  So I can empathize.

I’m not going to say I agree with everything the SAG-AFTRA has said.  For example, one of the provision they mentioned the industry wanted was the ability to hire actors from within their company, & I think that’s fine.  While I support unions, I don’t think they have a right to force people to join them & force out those who aren’t members.  They aren’t perfect, but unions can do good work (both my parents used to have unionized jobs, & at one point my mom was even a union steward) & can help protect employees from companies that only care about making a profit.  But I think people should have a choice not to join if they want.  It’s a trade-off; join the union for protection & accept some of the negatives (strikes, protecting poor employees, fees, etc.), or not join so you can make your own decision but face any problems on your own.

The voting closes today, so we may know as early as tomorrow if the committee has the authorization to strike.  Hopefully they won’t need it.  Hopefully the two sides can reach a compromise.  I understand that striking may be necessary, but they can do more harm than good.  I like voiceacting.  I like quality voiceacting.  I understand the need to run a business.  I understand the need to make a living.  Both sides need each other.  But pride & greed have always been the two more dangerous sins.

UPDATE (10/9/15): Yesterday the SAG-AFTRA reported that they had received strike authorization with an overwhelming majority (96.52%).  As I stated before, this doesn’t mean that the union will strike, as negotiations are still underway.  It simply means they have the authority to do so if they feel it’s in their clients’ best interest.  Only time will tell if this power will make publishers more open to compromise.

– GamerDame

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