Actors ready to strike as gaming negotiations rumble on

Colin Campbell, Tuesday, September 26th, 2023 9:15 am

Today, negotiations restart between union group SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and leading game companies, over wages, the future role of artificial intelligence, and safer workplace protocols. 

The union goes into the meetings with the overwhelming backing of its members who yesterday voted 98.32% in favor of a strike authorization. This does not mean that a strike is going to happen, but it does give the union leverage, especially at a time when other major media companies have been forced to make concessions on the back of strikes by workers.

In a union statement, chief contracts officer Ray Rodriguez said: “This strike authorization makes an emphatic statement that we must reach an agreement that will fairly compensate these talented performers, provide common-sense safety measures, and allow them to work with dignity. Our members’ livelihoods depend on it. Between the exploitative uses of AI and lagging wages, those who work in video games are facing many of the same issues as those who work in film and television.”

Casting ballots

On Sunday, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) reached a provisional deal with Hollywood studios over similar issues that could bring a five-month strike to an end, if members agree to the terms of the agreement. 

SAG-AFTRA announced its vote a few hours ago, saying that 34,687 members cast ballots, representing a voting percentage of 27.47% of eligible voters.

The union says it has been in negotiations with the likes of Activision, Disney Electronic Arts, Epic, Take 2 and Warner Bros for about a year. Its announcement stated: “Throughout the negotiations, the companies have refused to offer acceptable terms on some of the issues most critical to our members, including wages that keep up with inflation, protections around exploitative uses of artificial intelligence, and basic safety precautions.”

The new bargaining session is scheduled for the next three days, with SAG-AFTRA warning that “we hope the added leverage of a successful strike authorization vote will compel the companies to make significant movement on critical issues where we are still far apart”.

Cinematic moves

Gaming companies are increasingly keen to make use of actors in their most cinematic “triple A” productions, which often make use of extensive and advanced motion capture technology. Famous names attract publicity and social media interest, add to the quality and luster of a gaming story, and support the game industry’s ongoing colonization of linear media. 

Idris Elba, one of the most admired actors working today, stars as intelligence agent Solomon Reed in Cyberpunk 2077’s critically acclaimed new expansion Phantom Liberty, which launches today. 

He told the BBC that “games and actors have always worked together but we’re seeing more notable film actors being moved into gaming,” adding: “Every game now that has a big engine also has these big film-like cut scenes that are equally as entertaining.”

In years gone by, video game acting was viewed as low-level work, but in recent years, its value has grown, both culturally and financially. Actors of Elba’s generational outlook have no qualms about bringing their talents to interactive media. “Character work is character work, performance is performance,” he said. “You’re using the same muscles, whether it’s games, or commercials or whatever else you are doing.”

Even smaller productions are making use of big name stars. The murder-mystery puzzle game Twelve Minutes starred James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe – the latter also featured in Beyond: Two Souls alongside Elliot Page. Death Stranding from cinematic game director Hideo Kojima featured a host of acting talent including Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Tommie Earl Jenkins, Léa Seydoux and Margaret Qualley.

Contract agreement

SAG-AFTRA president President Fran Drescher commented: “It’s time for the video game companies to stop playing games and get serious about reaching an agreement on this contract. The result of this vote shows our membership understands the existential nature of these negotiations, and that the time is now for these companies – which are making billions of dollars and paying their CEOs lavishly – to give our performers an agreement that keeps performing in video games as a viable career.”

Chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland added: “After five rounds of bargaining, it has become abundantly clear that the video game companies aren’t willing to meaningfully engage on the critical issues: compensation undercut by inflation, unregulated use of AI and safety. I remain hopeful that we will be able to reach an agreement that meets members’ needs, but our members are done being exploited, and if these corporations aren’t willing to offer a fair deal, our next stop will be the picket lines.”

Actors and other creative workers are especially concerned that tech companies, movie studios, and game companies will seek to make use of AI in order to replace actors, or perhaps even to co-opt the actors’ faces and voices. The union represents actors, as well as public-facing personnel such as announcers, broadcast journalists, dancers, program hosts, recording artists, singers, stunt performers and voiceover artists, among others.

In an FAQ about the dispute, SAG-AFTRA posted: “The voice and performance capture artists who bring video game characters to life deserve a contract that protects their voices, likenesses and careers and reflects the value they bring to the multibillion dollar gaming industry. The critical issues at play are similar to those at stake in SAG-AFTRA’s TV/Theatrical/Streaming negotiation.”

The union is seeking protections around consent to use AI, control, transparency and compensation as well as inflation-linked wage increases and “safety for on-camera performers and vocal stress protections for voice artists,” who are often called upon to work long hours under deadline pressure.

Actor Sarah Elmaleh has worked on a string of gaming productions including Halo Infinite, Fortnite, Hi-Fi Rush, and Gear 5. Posting on Twitter last night, she wrote: “I look forward to seeing our bargaining partners in the morning for negotiations. I’m full of gratitude, pride and energy from our awesome membership, united in resolve that we WILL get humane, reasonable AI protections, we WILL get fair wages, we WILL protect performers.”

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.