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Video game actors vote yes to strike, if needed

‘What every person in America should know is, watch this because you’re next’

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

It’s not hard for most people to crawl on all fours, Zeke Alton, known for voice acting and motion capture in games like Ratchet & Clank: A Rift Apart, Saints Row, and World of Warcraft, told Polygon. But what is hard — an Olympic-level feat, according to Alton — is doing that for four hours straight. The video game industry is behind when it comes to safety for performers in ways that are standard elsewhere in Hollywood.

“Unlike a TV stunt, there’s no change of wardrobe, change of lights, or setup,” Alton said. “It’s fall, dive through a table, and then do it over again for eight hours straight.”

Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) video game performers are coming into negotiations on Tuesday for a new contract that addresses wage increases, AI use, and ensures basic health and safety precautions like breaks and stunt coordinators on set, something that Alton said isn’t always the case for video game performers. The previous Interactive Media Agreement, which was preceded by a strike that lasted nearly a year, expired in 2020 and has been extended monthly during negotiations.

It’s why video game actors with SAG-AFTRA have signaled they will strike, if necessary. SAG-AFTRA union leadership asked its members for a strike authorization vote ahead of upcoming negotiations that resume Tuesday. The “yes” vote doesn’t mean a strike will happen, but it lets the 10 video game companies bargaining with the union know that they’re serious about a fair contract.

“One year into this three-year contract cycle and we feel the need to escalate and apply a bit of extra pressure so they’re motivated to engage in that process to get us to a fair deal,” voice actor and negotiating chair Sarah Elmaleh, known for her work in Gone Home, Hi-Fi Rush, and Gears 5, told Polygon.

Heading into negotiations with the strike authorization in hand, the union is looking to secure fair, minimum contracts for the 2,600 or so performers that work under the Interactive Media Agreement each year. The vote was open to all active SAG-AFTRA members, all of whom would be impacted should they choose to act for a video game. 14,681 active SAG-AFTRA members have worked under an Interactive Media contract during their careers, the union said. In total, 34,687 SAG-AFTRA members voted — that’s 27.47% of eligible members.

Ten video game companies, including Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and Epic Games, will kick up negotiations once again from Tuesday through Thursday. Audrey Cooling, representing the video game companies, said “tentative agreements” have already been reached for more than half of the Interactive Media Agreement contract proposals. But SAG-AFTRA says several more issues remain.

Video games use actors to give characters voice and life. The whole job is based around “expression of performance through our voices and our likenesses,” bargaining committee member Zeke Alton told Polygon. “More often than not, we license that voice and likeness as work for hire for a company to put into their product so it generates revenue.”

The problem of AI, he said, is that companies would be able to create new performances without the actor — something that removes consent, transparency, and is a potential threat to the profession itself. SAG-AFTRA video game performers are not asking for a wholesale restriction on the technology, but do want protections in place so that actors are involved in the process. The use of AI is something video game actors are already seeing companies try to get into contracts, something that’s been a sticking point for other striking Hollywood unions.

“We’re asking for three things,” Alton said. “Consent for use, transparency around how it’s used, and compensation for that use. We think those are completely reasonable. Not only do they protect us as performers, but writ large across the labor force in society, these things are needed for every worker to ensure they protect who they are as a person, and that we are not all just owned by corporations.”

SAG-AFTRA’s Interactive Media bargaining unit is also looking to secure health and safety measures that Alton and Elmaleh said are standard elsewhere in Hollywood — five-minute breaks per hour, for instance. Some of the problems arise because video games don’t always have a professional director taking on the role of managing actors; “Oftentimes you’re taking direction from an animator or a coder or a writer who doesn’t understand that a person can’t crouch and walk for 20 minutes straight,” Alton said. The proposed contract is designed to protect video game performers from harm.

“We’ve seen bloody fingers, repetitive stress injuries from lifting realistically weighted AK-47s or large guns to do turns and all these atomized pieces of these animations that string together,” Elmaleh said.

The next round of negotiations between SAG-AFTRA and the video game companies is scheduled through Thursday. What comes next is unclear; the union’s been negotiating for a year already, but the strike authorization is now in SAG-AFTRA’s back pocket should things stall. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean a strike will happen, but it’s on the table — a tool to show how serious members are about the contract.

“What every person should know is, watch this because you’re next,” Alton said. “We know, writ large, that corporations have been really good at vilifying unions in the last couple of decades. People have forgotten what unions are for, that without a union you wouldn’t have a weekend.”

Elmaleh added: “[Companies] will be watching this space to see what people are willing to pay for, what they’re interested in playing, and that their own workers are showing solidarity. If the leverage is everyone else around them, it makes a difference.”

Update: This story has been updated to make clear that video game performers include voice actors and motion capture performers, among other roles. We’ve also clarified that SAG-AFTRA’s Interactive Media Agreement expired in 2020 and has continuously been extended.