The Voices Behind the Biggest Games Are Speaking Out by Shutting Up
In the future, your favorite video game character may not have the same voice.
By Mari Landgrebe, Texas State University
There’s no denying how advanced these games have become. Their universes have evolved from 8Bit to hyper-realistic everything, including characters and landscapes. Instead of a somewhat clearly defined journey from point A to point B, players have a variety of side-missions that affect the main goal of the game, and the main goal can dovetail into many different directions and endings. Hell, video games are moving into the realms of augmented and virtual realities.
But one of the main aspects of video games may be in jeopardy.
That may not seem like a big deal; after all, voice-work is a very small part of the millions of hours of production that goes into the Triple-A blockbusters of the video game industry. And voice actors come in toward the end, when the designers, programmers, animators and the myriad of other titles and teams have put the bones and flesh of the game together.
But think about your favorite game character—mine is the female player-character Commander Shepard from the “Mass Effect” trilogy—and with some searching, you might find that the actor who gave voice to that character has been quite prolific in their work. Just like actors in movies and television, voice actors breathe life into the characters that players control and interact with.
Like their TV and movie counterparts, video game voice actors want to get paid more than just the up-front fees, particularly for games that do extremely well in the market.
How can this be?
Many video game voice actors are part of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). In 1994, AFTRA negotiated the Interactive Media Agreement with members and the major studios and publishers of the video game industry to cover their performances as voice actors. Unfortunately, the contract expired in 2014, and the union has been at the negotiation table with the original coalition of video game companies ever since. It’s a heady discussion, with voice actors requesting a variety of changes, from the pay structure to more transparency.
Of course, it’s not (just) about the money. Voice acting comes with its own set of stressors, such as vocal strain. As games become increasingly more intricate, motion-capture has been utilized by many games over the years. The voice actors give not only their voice, but their face and their movement to the characters they have been contracted to embody. Sometimes, video game studios forget how dangerous mocap sessions can be, and fail to provide licensed, professional stunt coordinators for these sessions.
The video game industry is also notoriously secretive, requiring non-disclosure agreements from their employees, contract or permanent. For voice actors, it’s even worse, as they’re required to audition and accept roles in games they don’t know the name of or the character they’ll be playing. There have been some instances that a voice actor doesn’t find out the game or character until after the game is released. This is unheard of in any other acting industry, from TV to movies.
What does this mean for your favorite game franchises?
Well, nothing really. Not yet, anyway. Even though the Interactive Media Agreement expired in 2014, SAG-AFTRA voice actors and the video game companies that hire them have continued to operate under the original agreement guidelines. Those contracts have a no-strike clause for games currently in production, and any games coming out soon won’t be affected because voice work will have likely been done by now. Video games take a long time to make, so contracts that have been signed this year may not end for another two.
It would seem likely that a resolution is reached long before the more famous voice actors of the union stop voicing video game characters. And it’s not clear yet whether these voice actors will continue to work in animated movies and shows while striking the video game companies.
This strike will, however, shake up the industry itself.
SAG-AFTRA voice actors aren’t the only ones around. In fact, AFTRA union performers account for only 25 percent of video game performances. While some voice actors have begun to gain a fan following, like Jennifer Hale (“Mass Effect”) and David Hayter (“Metal Gear Solid”), there are many voice actors not in the union who are willing to take a pay cut or relatively unsafe working conditions to break into the video game industry. The kind of fame that comes from voice acting takes a lot longer to develop than on-screen actors, so some of the union members may get left behind, even after the strike is over.
The video game industry doesn’t deal much with unions overall. Programmers, artists, designers—there are a lot of them, but they haven’t unionized [yet]. A few reasons include the high turnover and burnout rates, the exclusive club mentality and the secretive nature of the industry. It’s hard to break into video games, but it’s relatively easy to be replaced by anyone with the appropriate skillset willing to take long, punishing hours at lower wages because their dream job is making video games for a living.
The most interesting thing about this strike is the potential divide between the developers and the voice actors. The video game industry is well known for the unhealthy work conditions placed on their designers, programmers, etc., particularly during the months prior to release. Long hours, 7-day weeks and overnighters that many studios resort to during this time has been dubbed “Crunch” with a capital C. In comparison, it could seem like voice acting is a breeze.
Some industry veterans, and even some fans, have questioned why voice actors should get royalties when the developers, who commit to years of work on a single title, do not. It’s been argued in comment threads and social media conversations that some employees do get some residuals after their game becomes a strong seller, but there’s either limited proof of that (NDA’s coming into play) or it’s nowhere near the standard in the industry.
But this same argument can be placed on Hollywood productions and popular TV shows. The more famous the actor, the more they can demand from a studio in up-front payments and secondary payments once their movies stand the test of the box office. The difference is that most, if not all, aspects of film and television production are unionized, simply because that industry has been around a lot longer than video games, which is still squarely in its youth.
And yet, the well-known names still get a huge chunk of cash because their fame draws in viewers. In video games, it could be argued that voice actors, who now regularly lend their faces to the characters as well as their voices, will eventually do the same. It’s a fine line, and SAG-AFTRA’s demand for secondary compensation indicates the assumption that their voice actors hold strong enough star power to drive sales for a game title.
For those watching the video game industry, it’s clear that this strike could very well have a lasting impact on how the business of games is conducted.