There's a chance that the heroes and villains in the games of Fall 2016 are going to sound a lot less familiar.
SAG-AFTRA, the nation's largest acting and performance union, announced tonight that the union's members have authorized the guild's National Board to declare a strike on behalf of performers in interactive media. The support for the referendum was overwhelming, with 96.52% of members voting in favor. This vote comes in response to two failed bargaining sessions earlier this year, and almost a year after the previous Interactive Media Agreement expired last December.
The union is quick to point out that this does not mean that there is currently a voice actors strike. Instead, this vote has authorized the National Board to declare a strike, which gives the guild's Negotiating Committee an additional tool to bring out while bargaining for what SAG-AFTRA calls "a fair resolution on behalf of performers working in video games."
There has been a lot of debate over what, exactly, a "fair resolution" is. An info page provided by SAG-AFTRA lays out their demands. In brief, the union is asking for:
- More transparency about the roles and games for which actors will be recording lines.
- Stunt pay for especially stressful or demanding recording session
- Stunt coordination on motion capture shoots
- Most contentiously, royalties from games that move over 2 million units. Per the current agreement, this would be a payment of $825.50 at every 2M unit mark, with a total cap at $3,300.
Many voice actors have come out to support these demands, with some of them writing impassioned pleas and expansive arguments for why they support this measure (Wil Wheaton's is definitely worth reading if you have the time).
Others, however, have pushed back against these demands. A blog post by Fryda Wolff (the voice of Civilization: Beyond Earth's narrator) makes the case that residual payments are an unrealistic goal, and that the real problem is a too-low base salary that reflects the age of the current Interactive Media Agreement, which was put into place in 1995. Her post also includes a number of anonymous quotes from developers who critique SAG-AFTRA's demands. One common refrain is that SAG-AFTRA doesn't have the expertise of the games industry necessary to understand what demands they should be making. Another common claim among SAG-AFTRA detractors is that voice actors don't have it any worse than any other worker in the industry.
If you're curious about the position of myself and some of the other editors on the site, check out these recent episodes of the Giant Beastcast and the Giant Bombcast, where members of the east and west coasts (respectively) talk about the complexity of this situation... and maybe do a little "stunt" voice acting ourselves.
Speaking only for myself: I believe that the labor conditions in the video game industry are a long way from fair, and I hope that this can be a catalyst for addressing the larger concerns. The artists, programmers, producers, designers, and everyone else in the game dev trenches definitely do have it as hard as the voice actors, but stating that fact does little to convince me that SAG-AFTRA shouldn't negotiate for a more lucrative deal. If anything, it's a reminder that we should be critical of labor conditions throughout the industry.
I don't know that every demand that SAG-AFTRA is making is the best move for the industry (or even for performers). I don't suspect they'll win each demand (or even that they expect to). But I do believe that talking openly about issues of pay, expectations, work environment, and fairness is good, and that workers organizing to make demands is a way to address those concerns. There is (as always) room for nuance: Yes, small studios are different than AAA publishers, and the needs and capabilities of both need to be addressed with precision and care. Yes, there are issues of practicality to be discussed when it comes to residual payments and the currently ascendant studio system. But we cannot forget that "impractical" is not the same as "impossible," and now and then it's worth it to pursue something that will take a lot of effort and time.
I've seen "practicality" used again as a defense against undertaking difficult change for years, and it is a shield that is starting to wear thin. I've heard us say that video games are a boundless medium that can tackle just about anything, and they can. I've heard us say that the the folks in this industry are incredible, passionate, hard-working people, and they are. We say that games and the people who make them, they can do anything... except address the long running, systemic issues of game development. That wouldn't be practical.
I reject this wholesale. When practicality is raised as an issue in a discussion about improving the games industry, that shouldn't be the end of the conversation. It should be an invitation to talk through the conditions that have made the improvement desired impractical. It is complicated, and there are old, structural problems that are hard to pin down. But however deep-rooted the causes of the game industry's ills, they are not natural, they're man-made. To paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin's fantastic 2014 National Book Award speech: The current state of labor in the games industry seems inescapable, well, so did the divine right of kings.