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Here’s Why Your Favorite Video Game Actors Are On Strike

Among the issues at stake: Money, hours, and the right to know exactly which video game they’re making.

“Fallout 4”

Today marked the beginning of a SAG-AFTRA strike against 11 video game companies. For the first time in the history of the video game actors’ union, which now numbers 165,000, its members have been instructed to withhold their services, effective immediately.

The issues have been simmering since February 2015, when the existing labor agreement between SAG-AFTRA members and the video game companies expired. Four more meetings over 19 months failed to find a compromise, and SAG-AFTRA announced the strike effective just after midnight October 21.

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IndieWire attended a roundtable at SAG-AFTRA headquarters Friday afternoon, where members of the Interactive Contract Negotiating Committee elaborated on their decision to strike. Here’s the primary issues, in a convenient FAQ format.

What’s the main sticking point?

That depends on which side you’re listening to. Video game companies maintain it’s a financial issue. In a statement released today by the video games companies’ chief negotiator Scott J. Witlin said, “The Video Game Companies did everything in their power to reach agreement with union leaders, offering a money package almost identical to SAG-AFTRA’s last demand.” (According to Gamespot, “The final offer from the video game industry was an immediate 9 percent wage hike and “additional compensation” of up to $950 per game depending on the number of sessions a performer worked on a game.”)

However, the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee insists an equally important point of contention is transparency in hiring practices. Keythe Farley, a veteran of voice acting, casting, and directing for video games, argued that in too many cases, performers are not informed on what project they’re working. “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,” said Farley, who spent 18 months working on “Fallout 4” without being informed of the full nature of the final product. (Within 24 hours of its launch, the game made $750 million.)

Negotiating Committee Members America Young, Crispin Freeman, Ray Rodriguez and Keythe Farley

SAG-AFTRA Interactive Contract Negotiating Committee members America Young, Crispin Freeman, Ray Rodriguez and Keythe Farley

SAG-AFTRA

What’s up with the secrecy? 

Video game producers say they need to keep their projects under close wraps to protect their IP. However, this arguably puts the performers (and their agents) in an awkward position; agents like to know what they’re negotiating for. (What Ryan Gosling was paid for “La La Land” is presumably very different than what he’ll be paid for “Blade Runner 2049.”) Furthermore, SAG-AFTRA argues that knowing projects would let talent opt out of participating in a game they might find objectionable. (Farley cited “Grand Theft Auto” as a possible example.)

Are there additional financial considerations presented from the SAG-AFTRA side?

A primary element SAG-AFTRA proposal is the allowance for “secondary compensation” to be available to video game performers. This potential additional bonus pay is intended for games selling more than 2 million units, with proposed payments at 4 million, 6 million and 8 million in sales.

Crispin Freeman, a member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee, called the measure “very conservative” and that the provision would be designed to allow actors to share in the profits of “wildly successful” projects, similar to other SAG-AFTRA branches. “This contract first originated in the early ’90s, when video games were a very small industry and actors’ contributions to them were commensurately small. Video games now make more money than Hollywood,” Freeman said.

Is this just about voice actors?

With motion-capture games on the rise, the accompanying workload has meant increasingly strenuous (and in some cases, dangerous) stunts. This strike is intended to secure safe working conditions for performers, whether or not their voices are eventually used in the production.

How is this different for video game voice actors vs. animation?

Freeman stressed that the specific kind of vocalization sessions required for some video games represent significant health risks to performers. “This is so different from any kind of voice work we do. If I’m working on a major military game, I am screaming my lungs out for four hours. There aren’t many people who can do that without causing permanent damage,” Freeman said. (Wil Wheaton has a compelling explanation here.)

Ray Rodriguez, SAG-AFTRA’s Chief Contracts Officer, acknowledged that this isn’t exclusively an issue inside these negotiations and the industry is looking to amend workplace practices, regardless of this outcome.

Are all video game productions affected?

The strike is being taken against specific companies. “We want to keep our members working as much as possible,” Rodriguez said. As a result, the list of struck companies is limited to those that are taking part in the negotiations. This includes Activision, EA, Formosa, and WB Games, but does not feature others, like Ubisoft.

How can you follow the reaction?

In addition to anecdotal evidence of the perceived value of voice actors (many of which have popped up on Twitter via the #performancematters hashtag), SAG-AFTRA has scheduled a picket for Monday morning.

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