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The SAG Strikes Back: Voice Actors Rebel Against Their Oppressors

The dark clouds of an industry-wide strike are being summoned by the rain dances of angry video game voice actors. Since December of 2014, video game publishers Activision, EA, Disney, Warner Brothers, and others have made little headway in their negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) regarding their treatment of voice actors and residual bonuses.

SAG-AFTRA (short for the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, thank God) has issued a number of complaints against major publishers, including the concealment of  information from voice actors during the audition process (e.g. the game’s premise, its content and any offensive material, if they will be expected to voice every individual like Dunmer in Skyrim, etc.) and not providing stunt pay for undergoing “vocally stressful recording sessions.” While the SAG-AFTRA statement does not delve into what constitutes a “vocally stressful recording session”, I assume it would cover sessions in which the voice actor is contractually obligated to talk about an explosive car chase for extended intervals of time.

Tragically, three voice actors died in the making of this dangerous scene from GTA IV. None of them received posthumous stunt pay.

In response to the SAG-AFTRA’s pleas, producers have attempted to quell employee discontent by ignoring their requests completely. When that didn’t solve the problem, they extended their own harsh demands and made an already bad situation worse. In their counter-proposal written earlier this February,  the producers demanded a $2,500 fine issued to voice actors who are not “attentive to the surfaces for which [voice actors] have been engaged.” This would apparently include arriving late to work, responding to a text while on the clock, zoning out, and taking extended midday naps during recording sessions. Additionally, publishers have rallied to fine agents $50,000-$100,000 for not sending an actor on certain auditions.  They have also advocated the utilization of non-SAG affiliated employees  of the publishers (e.g. Joe from Level Design or Betty from Textures) to fulfill motion capture roles. The SAG-AFTRA would have none of it, for only true thespians can effectively put sensors on their joints and move around.

In this brutal game of legal ping pong, SAG-AFTRA played hardball by laughing off the publishers’ proposals and requesting back-end bonuses–also known as residuals, pay bumps, royalties, and extra money–on any game that sells more than 2 million copies or downloads. This singular proposal has paved the way towards a strike.

The industry is rather divided on this particularly enticing proposal. Alex Hutchinson, director of Far Cry 4, tweeted in response to Wil Wheaton’s Tweet regarding back-end bonuses:

Wil Wheaton (left), representative of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Famed for his portrayal of Wesley Crusher (right), Ensign of the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

To which Hutchinson responded:

Owch, Wesley. Take that burn victim to Sick Bay! (That’s the last Star Trek reference, I promise.)

Though everyone may not share Hutchinson’s sad, royalty-less plight, the vast majority of developers do not receive back-end bonuses. Many argue that this is reason enough for publishers to deny voice actors residuals but the SAG-AFTRA, in an interview with Variety, retorted, “You get secondary payments when you perform in feature films, animation, episodic TV, commercials and the like. But that wasn’t always the case. Performers who came before you had the courage to fight for the residual payments you enjoy today, and, because they stood together, they won them.”

This is all very fuzzy and inspiring. I sincerely wish the voice actors luck in their endeavors, because everyone knows that the MVP of any video game production team is the voice actor. True, programmers craft the game’s skeletal foundations, graphic artists utilize their creative talents to make the game look great, and writers give the player a reason to care about what they’re playing, but none of these professions can claim that they do voice stunts. None but, you guessed it, voice actors.

To forward their noble cause, the union will officially go on strike if 75% of its members agree to be indefinitely unemployed for the greater good. If this occurs, publishers may be making some abnormally quiet video games until they meet some of SAG-AFTRA’s demands. However, when dealing with industry behemoths like Activision, Disney, and Warner Bros., it is exceedingly difficult to imagine that SAG’s strike aspirations are anything but paltry threats to these massively wealthy companies. So if SAG-AFTRA voice actors do go on strike, the publishing CEO’s, playing snow-leopard-skin-volleybal in their swimming pools of gold coins, will probably be too rich to notice.

“We’ll get right on those residual payments, Mr. Wheaton.”

So what do you think about this epic struggle? Will you stand for the working-class Wesley Crushers out there, barely scraping by with sore throats and weary hearts? Or will you stand with the bourgeoisie publishing tyrants, obsessed with nothing but gorging their capitalist bellies with undeserved profit and the suffering of their fellow man? Let us know in the comment section below! And don’t forget to stop by Top Shelf Gaming for brand new articles every week!

Written by Jesse Cupp

Jesse Cupp is a sophomore at Chapman University, double-majoring in Screenwriting and English. Outside of writing scripts and papers, he spends a great deal of time playing his PS3 and GameCube. He has a long and complicated relationship with Nintendo.

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