11 months later, the video game voice actors strike ends

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The video game voice actors strike is over, and — as is often the case with compromises — it seems like neither party really got what it wanted in the end.

The 340-day work stoppage came to an end on Saturday with a “tentative” agreement between the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and 11 video game companies. It was Hollywood union’s longest strike to date.

The industry interests on the other side of the dispute — termed “management” in the union’s announcement of the deal — includes some of the biggest players in games. Activision, Electronic Arts, Insomniac Games, Take-Two Interactive, and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment are among the most notable.

Although the strike didn’t start until 2016, the issues at the heart of it extend back to 2015. That’s when the union sought to renegotiate a collective bargaining agreement that had been in place since the 1990s, and which SAG-AFTRA felt no longer appropriately addressed the modern-day realities and stresses of video game voice acting.

One of the central points under discussion was a desire on the union’s part to secure for its members “secondary payments,” in the form of royalties and residuals. The union sought a scaling bonus structure for actors based on the number of copies sold post-release. It should be noted: This kind of “points” system is unusual in the industry across all disciplines, not just voice acting.

The new, tentative agreement establishes a different kind of bonus structure. It still provides a form of “secondary payments” to performers, but it’s connected to the amount of work provided pre-release rather than a game’s sales performance post-release. 

Here’s how SAG-AFTRA’s announcement describes it:

The bonus payment, which is due no later than the release date of the game, is based on the number of sessions worked on each game, beginning with a $75 payment on the first session and totaling $2,100 after 10 sessions worked.   

Safety was another major issue at the heart of the discussions. That’s actually how I first caught wind of this dispute, via a lengthy 2015 blog post penned by Star Trek: The Next Generation alum, geek hero, and working video game voice actor Wil Wheaton. In it, he runs down his reasoning for voting in favor of a strike.

I highly recommend reading the entire thing. There’s no one passage from Wheaton’s post that captures its essence; he discusses each of the main negotiation points in detail, with examples. If nothing else, it’s an illuminating glimpse into an under-discussed facet of video game development.

Notably, however, Wheaton frames actor safety as a central issue, calling for — among other things — a two-hour cap on “vocally stressful” sessions. Workplace safety was the key reason he cast a “yes” vote in favor of the strike. 

Puzzlingly, the newly announced tentative agreement devotes just one, relatively vague sentence to the issue.

The deal also contains an employer commitment to continue working with SAG-AFTRA on the issue of vocal stress during the term of the agreement. 

Reached for further comment, a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson offered some clarification on what this actually means in practical terms:

We have a commitment from management to continue to work on this issue, and we invested a great deal of time and energy into educating management on this issue. For example, we held a panel on vocal stress that included some of the top doctors in LA who treat vocal injury and invited management to attend. 

They were very impressed and we are seeing greater awareness and concern about vocal stress reflected in the attitudes of voice directors across the industry, including directors working for the companies that we bargained this deal with. Two-hour sessions for vocally stressful work is becoming the norm anyway, and that was our proposal. 

It’s also worth noting that some newly established transparency rules that were hammered out in the agreement should help actors know in advance what they’re signing up for before they accept a gig.

Video game companies will now be required to disclose a number of details up front about projects, as SAG-AFTRA’s Ray Rodriguez — the union’s Chief Contract Officer, and lead negotiator on the new contract — explained.

Industry interests must now “disclose the code name of [a] project, its genre, whether the game is based on previously published intellectual property and whether the performer is reprising a prior role,” he said in a statement included with the announcement. 

“Members are also protected by the disclosure of whether they will be required to use unusual terminology, profanity or racial slurs, whether there will be content of a sexual or violent nature and whether stunts will be required.”

SAG-AFTRA’s announcement also notes that a number of deal points that had been requested by management — “including a provision that would have fined performers for being late or distracted at session, another that would have required agents to submit performers for low-paying ‘atmospheric voice’ sessions or face fines, and a possible revocation of their union franchise, and another that would have allowed employers to use their permanent staff to do covered work outside of the collective bargaining agreement” — were not included in the agreement. Wheaton discussed all of those in his 2015 blog post.

The social media response to the agreement has been notably muted. A brief browse through both the #PerformanceMatters hashtag and to various individual voice actor Twitter feeds shows only a handful of supportive words and linkshares, but little in the way of discussion.

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