After a year of striking, countless career sacrifices and some thorny negotiating, the video game voice actors of the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) finally came to a tentative agreement with the 11 struck game game companies last night. Without some big demands met, it’s easy to consider the tentative agreement a disappointment. Looking at the specifics, though, it’s clear that SAG-AFTRA’s small victories indicate steps forward in an industry that certainly isn’t known for its progressive labor practices.
Last October, SAG-AFTRA announced a strike against game companies like Electronic Arts, Disney, Insomniac Games and Take Two. In the meantime, union voice actors like Ashly Burch (Life Is Strange), Robin Atkin Downes (No More Heroes) and Alyson Court (Resident Evil) were forced to give up beloved roles and stand in solidarity with their colleagues in the field.
Unlike other actors, video game voice actors often do not receive residual payments, or a fixed royalty rate after the game sells a certain amount of copies. SAG-AFTRA argued that if a game sells millions of copies, voice actors ought to share in its success—specifically, for every two million copies sold, voice actors should receive an extra $825, with a cap of eight million copies. In other words, the most that a game company would have to pay out would be $3,300 per voice actor, for the most lucrative games. The argument went that, when games like Grand Theft Auto IV amass $600 million in their first three weeks, perhaps starring actors like Michael Hollick should make a bit more than $100,000 over 15 months, especially when publishers dole out tens of millions in bonuses to their executives.
SAG did not get that extra $825 per two million copies sold—their leading ask in negotiations. Instead of residuals, yesterday’s tentative agreement has SAG-AFTRA video game voice actors receiving a 3% increase in base wages, plus some decent bonuses: “$75 on the first session up to a total of $2,100 if you work 10 or more sessions,” a letter from a SAG-AFTRA member reads.
Sure, the bonuses seem to cap out at a significant $1,200 less than what SAG-AFTRA proposed—a quantifiable loss after a year of striking, especially since the actors were not asking for much at all. But it’s not entirely bad, because this bonus structure isn’t dependent on games selling millions of copies. A SAG-AFTRA representative pointed out that the tentative agreement will benefit voices in independent games. “The advantage to what we agreed to is that every member on every game will receive this,” he wrote in an e-mail to Kotaku, adding, “While we did not establish the principle of performers participating in the success of blockbuster games, we did establish a payment beyond your session fee that resembles the buyout of a residual.”
Better financial compensation isn’t where the asks ended, but it was the least modest request. While recording, voice actors will scream, cry, yell, and make insane noises that reflect and express the insane things we do in games. They wanted better protections for vocal stress, like two-hour limits on sessions that require making “I’m dying!” noises, a request that did not congeal into contract language. Even after the bulk of negotiations, future protections for vocal stress are unclear, aside from “an employer commitment to continue working with SAG-AFTRA on the issue,” according to yesterday’s press release. Vocal protections appeared to be the least controversial request of all, and yet, SAG and the game companies don’t appear to have reached any concrete solutions for them.
Complicating the ability for actors to forge careers in the games industry is the intense opacity around games in development, which SAG-AFTRA’s recent negotiations have made some progress on. Often, these actors have no idea where their voice will end up after months in the studio. That makes it difficult to negotiate a fair contract.
When asked what the biggest gain was in the tentative agreement, voice actress Ashly Burch said it was increased transparency. Now, voice actors will know whether projects include profanity, racial slurs, sexuality or violent content, which, Burch said, will “enable my agent to negotiate a fairer rate that is more representative of my contribution to the game.” Games’ genres, code names, and intellectual property history can also give agents a leg up when it comes to determining fair rates. The new SAG deal also forces companies to divulge whether voice actors will be reprising roles they’ve played in the past, which is almost remarkable. How did game companies get away with hiding that fact for so long?
But SAG did not convince game companies to give voice actors the full titles of games they will be working on, which was an expected loss in gaming, but would be insane in just about any other industry. Could you imagine Scarlett Johanson finding out the name of her next movie when she arrives on set?
It may just be that, despite the game industry’s inundation with bright, progressive and hopeful personalities, industry standards and capitalism-sanctioned practices are preventing great leaps forward in terms of ideas about labor. With that said, going head-to-head against some of the biggest names in video games was bold and brave for these voice actors, and better yet, now industry standards have been raised, marginally so—and that’s something these actors’ ancestors (and hopefully, developers) can point to when demanding better working environments.