Video Game Voice Actors Go on Strike

In the latest intellectual property and entertainment news, voice actors for video games have officially gone on strike.  Video game voices actors of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (“SAG-AFTRA”) officially stopped working on October 20, 2016 and picketed the Los Angeles office of Electronic Arts on October 24, 2016.

The voice actors of SAG-AFTRA had been in negotiations with major video game publishing companies for nearly two years now; seeking higher pay, secondary compensation (i.e., bonuses), and overall better transparency in their contracting and work agreements.

As an example of lack of transparency and agency, voice actors point to the industry practice of video game companies to refuse to allow voice actors to know what video games they are supplying their voices for.  Thus, voice actors allege that they are unable to properly negotiate terms for compensation or decline the engagement based on the nature of the video game project (e.g., some voice artists have stated that they would not have signed on to work for games like Grand Theft Auto due to its violent nature).

Video game publishers, however, counter that the secrecy around their projects stem from a desire to avoid content leaks online or other similar spoilers.  They deny that their intent is to deprive voice actors of any sort of transparency in employment agreements.

Now, despite holding the record for longest negotiations ever conducted by SAG-AFTRA, the arbitration between the two parties has fallen apart.  Without resolution, voice actors of SAG-AFTRA as well as major video game publishing companies such as Insomniac Games, Electronic Arts, Activision, and Disney are all affected.

While sources say that the two parties were not extremely far apart in their offers, many industry experts believe that the video game publishing companies’ reluctance to come-to-terms mainly stems from fear that acquiescing to the voice actors’ demands will encourage other parties to unionize in the video game industry.  For example, in 2014, more than half of the video game developers stated that, if given the choice, they would unionize.  This is hardly news to most insiders as video game developers have long complained about having to work long hours and consecutive weekends to meet unrealistic game-release deadlines.

The strike comes at a time when the video game industry has become extremely visible, recently generating billions of dollars in revenue from licensing, merchandising, and even box-office returns.  Last year, Activision’s Chief Operating Officer received a bonus of nearly $4 million, while Electronic Arts’ executive chairman was paid a bonus of approximately $1.5 million.

Voice actors, however, generally account for less than one-tenth of the labor that goes into a triple-A video game product.  As a result, both parties have pointed to the statistic to bolster their own arguments.  For example, voice actors note that, as such a small percentage of the labor, an increase in their pay would not adversely impact video game publishers.  Publishers, on the other hand, argue that, as such a small portion of the final product, voice actors cannot truthfully argue that their contribution warrants such an increase in pay.

Intellectual property and litigation attorneys have long been involved in the dispute, and as of now, whether the voice actors’ strike will be successful is uncertain.  Either way, however, the video game industry is currently undergoing significant changes in terms of law, employment, and transparency.

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