Voice Actors Strike Against Video Game Companies

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Electronic Arts is one of the video game makers facing a strike from voice actors.
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If you're a video game aficionado of sorts, or even if you simply missed the memo entirely, it's no secret that actress Jennifer Hale has an extensive resume within the gaming industry.

She's played the roles of Sarah Palmer in Halo 5: Guardians, Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3, and a quantum physicist in BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea. But more imperatively, Hale is a member of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA. (SAG-AFTRA is also the union that represents many of NPR's editorial staff.)

And currently, video game actors under SAG-AFTRA, including Hale, have chosen to stop working with a number of prominent game companies.

Effective Friday, SAG-AFTRA has declared a strike against 11 video game publishers over games that went into production after Feb. 17, 2015. The companies in question include some of the biggest heavyweights of the industry, such as Electronic Arts Productions, or EA, Insomniac Games, Activision and Disney.

The strike comes in light of an unsuccessful 19 months of negotiations after the existing labor contract known as the Interactive Media Agreement expired in late 2014. Overall, the strike is an effort to provide more secondary compensation along with other concerns, such as transparency upon hiring talent and on-set safety precautions.

"Let me hear the sound you'd make if you were slashed in half by a sword?" Hale asked NPR's Scott Simon. "How about you're struck in the heart by a bullet? How does your throat feel? ... I have friends who have had to have surgery because of the vocal stress they incurred in the session and they've been out of work for months."

Compensation and secrecy

The video gaming industry has ballooned in recent years. The Los Angeles Times reports that the industry is in the midst of an intense increase in cash flow. In 2015, gaming produced $23.5 billion in domestic revenue. Games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 even have the potential to outgross gargantuan Hollywood cinema releases.

But SAG-AFTRA says voice actors don't receive residuals for their gaming work. Instead, they receive a fixed rate, which is typically about $825 for a standard four-hour vocal session. So the voice actors are pushing for the idea of secondary compensation — a performance bonus every time a game sells 2 million copies or downloads, or reaches 2 million unique subscribers, with a cap at 8 million.

"It's a very small number of games that would trigger this secondary compensation issue," said voice actor Crispin Freeman, who's a member of the union's negotiating committee. "This is an important aspect of what it means to be a freelance performer, who has to go from job-to-job – who isn't regularly employed every single day working on projects."

Another major complaint from the actors is the secrecy of the industry. "I can't imagine if there's any other acting job in the world, where you don't know what show you're in, when you're hired," says voice actor Keythe Farley, who chairs the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee.

"And yet that happens every day in the video game world," Farley told reporters during a press conference Friday. "I was a main character in Fallout 4, a character by the name of Kellogg, and I never knew, that I was working on Fallout 4 throughout the year and a half that I did vocal recording for that game. You show up, there's a stack of scripts on a music stand with your lines only."

'A vastly different system'

Scott Witlin, the lawyer representing the video game companies, says voice actors "represent less than one tenth of 1 percent of the work that goes into making a video game." So "even though they are the top craftsmen in their field," Witlin says, "if we pay them under a vastly different system than the people who do the 99.9 percent of the work, that is going to create far more problems for the video game companies."

The industry's final offer to the union included a 9 percent wage increase and additional payments tied to the number of recording sessions. Ultimately, Witlin says the strike is hurting the very people who are going out and "evangelizing" for the voice actors – the video game publishers.

"It's not about a lack of respect for these people. My committee loves these people and appreciates the work that they do. They're incredibly talented," Witlin says. "The problem we have is that their position doesn't fit in with this industry. It may fit in with other industries but it doesn't work for the video game industry because of the nature of the production and the way these companies are organized."

But Hale tells NPR's Scott Simon, the matters are personal for voice actors — and she's not concerned about non-union workers taking advantage of the strike.

"I have personally hosted three meetings in my home, with the non-union community and there's a lot of solidarity there," Hale says. "Because they recognize, that what's at stake is their own ability to buy a home in the future, put their kids through school. This is a war on the middle class."

Voice actors are planning to picket the Electronic Arts studios in Los Angeles on Monday.

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