Off the Mat and Out of the Booth

On the Voice Actor’s Union’s Ongoing Strike against Big-Name Gaming

After almost two years of unsuccessful negotiations with video game companies, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), incited a strike, which is still ongoing, at EA in Playa Vista.

Since February 2015, SAG-AFTRA has been in talks with major video game companies including Activision, Electronic Arts and Take 2 Interactive to secure better pay and working conditions for actors and actresses performing voice-over or motion-capture work. They are focused on four things: additional payments triggered when games sell more than 2, 4, 6 and 8 million copies; limited length for voice acting sessions to reduce vocal stress; stunt coordinators for safety in motion capture; and transparency about projects worked on. Actors like Wil Wheaton support the strike, pointing out long-lasting health effects that the current system can cause as well as the sales value of big-name voice actors. Strike opponents shoot back, citing poor working conditions those working directly on the games often have to endure for months or years, without residual payments.

Art by Emily Hill

Art by Emily Hill

“Negotiating working conditions is huge,” said Alan Ackerman, artist for “Diablo II” and “Lord of Destruction” and nearly 30-year industry veteran. “Game companies will squeeze workers for everything they can.” He agreed with the union’s platform. “[Companies] have been fighting against that for artists, programmers, and product developers for decades,” he said. “If they caved to [the unions], the flood gates would be open.” Graphic artists and programmers brought class action lawsuits against Electronic Arts for unpaid, forced overtime, and settled for $15.6 million and $14.9 million. Activision fired the heads of Infinity Ward rather than paying bonuses due for “Call of Duty.” Ackerman explained the relationship between developers and actors: “I have always felt that the games industry’s love of Hollywood has been detrimental to the actual developers. The first game awards had categories like best actor in a game.”

Ackerman discussed the lack of transparency, because companies, “always try to keep those things under control. No company wants leaked information getting out.” He pointed out some downsides of leaks, including killing the buzz a company might try to generate about the game, giving away plot twists, and causing community outrage. He concluded that a possible work-around for the transparency issue would be to use codenames for the information.

“Sure, payment and compensation is certainly part of it, but it’s not all of it, and it isn’t even the biggest part of it,” said LaMont Ridgell, a performer with game acting experience and a Minneapolis local. “We really are fighting for the future of our ability to work in this business.” Ridgell’s resume includes voice acting for “Gran Turismo 4,” “Diablo II,” and “ChronoBlade,” as well as motion-capture work with Industrial Light and Magic.

He believes resolving safety and health issues eclipses residual payments. He discussed the hazards of motion capture: “There are absolutely no safety guidelines when you’re doing all the running, jumping, hopping, flipping and falling. I did it for an unreleased [“Star Wars”] video game. Even though we fell on mats, we had to make believe we were being shot. So fabulous falls, flips, over and over and over and over again. You pull a muscle … sprain something, you’re screwed.” As for secondary compensation, he cited precedents in film and television, and specifically the case of the unexpected success of “Aladdin”: “Robin Williams’ argument toward Disney was of lying to him and breaching an agreement not to use his voice to merchandise products inspired by the hit animated film “Aladdin.”” The sequel came out using [Dan Castellaneta] and the movie didn’t make as much money. Disney eventually apologized to Robin and he came back to do another sequel but by that time, it was too late.”

Finally, he suggested that for in-development projects companies should take a page from film and television, giving only such information as what they are expected to do and whom they would be working with.

SAG-AFTRA’ wants the games industry’s system to more closely resemble Hollywood’s, but the integral role artists, designers and programmers in a hit game should also be respected. While it is important to ensure that actors do not suffer injuries, developers should also be treated better, and giving residuals to actors seems a bit backwards. The workers that are most essential to making a game what it is, the designers, artists and programmers, should be the first to reap the rewards of a game’s success. Games differ from films; the actors do not make or break the content.


SAG-AFTRA’s negotiation Information page


Alan Ackerman:


LaMont Ridgell