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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Game On: SAG-AFTRA seeks approval to strike against video game publishers

SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents actors, has been on strike against film studios and streaming services since this summer. Members are now voting on whether to authorize a strike against videogame companies, which employ voice actors. The union is headed by actor Fran Drescher.  (New York Times)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

News broke on Labor Day weekend that SAG-AFTRA’s National Board is unanimously seeking permission from union members to strike against several AAA video game publishers before negotiations are set to resume later this month. The authorization would not launch a strike right away, but give the union permission to declare one if negotiations break down.

This would act as another bargaining chip for SAG-AFTRA, which is clearly putting everything on the table. It wasn’t long ago that the only acting that went into a video game was voiceover. In recent years, many big-budget studios have begun to implement motion capture, choreography and more – and ironically, only big-budget publishers would feel the pain of a strike if it were to occur.

Currently, the game companies negotiating with SAG-AFTRA actors include Activision, Electronic Arts, Disney, Take-Two Interactive, WB Games and Insomniac. Motion capture and voiceover tend to be recorded fairly early into the development of a game, but if things get ugly, the resulting strikes could affect the release of titles like Civilization VII, Grand Theft Auto 6 and the upcoming Mass Effect and BioShock games.

Eligible SAG-AFTRA members are able to vote on authorizing a strike until Sept. 25, the day before negotiations resume. Identical to the request made to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers earlier this year, the union is seeking a retroactive 11% wage increase for video game performers and a 4% increase in the contract’s second and third years to offset inflation.

But perhaps even more pressing than wage increases is the looming threat of artificial intelligence. AI has been implemented in various forms in video games for nearly as long as games have been around – thousands of titles have implemented AI to control adversaries and hundreds have implemented “procedural generation” for level design.

No one is against such features, as they typically improve a game’s quality without putting anyone out of work – but more recent advancements in AI could have far more dire consequences. Even hobbyists at home have been able to train AI programs to near-perfectly mimic the work of numerous voice actors, many of whom have already voiced their displeasure over these “deepfakes.”

The union fears it isn’t long before game publishers attempt to do the same in order to cut costs and production time. SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said in a statement, “Voice and performance capture AI are already among the most advanced uses of AI: the threat is here and it is real. Without contractual protections, the employers are asking performers to unknowingly participate in the extinction of their artistry and livelihoods.”

It’s too soon to say which way the pendulum will swing, but SAG-AFTRA would likely see a noticeable uptick in voice actor membership if their negotiations succeed, especially on the AI front. While many screen actors are unionized, the opposite is true for voice actors – especially those who primarily lend their talents to video games.

As a relatively young industry, only the largest companies – such as the aforementioned Activision and Take-Two – typically adhere to union standards. The vast majority of indie developers and even most mid-sized companies don’t typically hire unionized actors.

Due to the loss of potential clients, oftentimes only the biggest names in voice acting can afford to be unionized – names like Grey DeLisle, Jim Cummings or Jason Griffith. And while those actors’ contributions to video gaming make for a long and impressive list, all of them have also enjoyed a variety of gigs in film and TV, where union compliance is the norm.

While unionization remains a polarizing topic in the United States, AI’s potential to harm the integrity and originality of arts and entertainment – especially voice work – is undeniable. However SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations turn out, hopefully their outspoken stance on the AI issue makes a long-term impact.