SAG-AFTRA’s AI Deal Is Not A Win For Video Game VAs

Keeping them in the dark isn’t even the worst part about the deal.

Story Highlights

  • The SAG-AFTRA AI deal with Replica Studios signifies a significant milestone in integrating AI into video games.
  • The deal emphasizes informed consent, despite the fact that voice actors weren’t informed about it.
  • It has created a disconnect between the union and its members, with prominent voice actors dissatisfied.

The entertainment industry is no stranger to rapid technological advancements, and the recent SAG-AFTRA AI deal with Replica Studios marks a significant collaborative milestone in the integration of artificial intelligence within the realm of video games, a hot topic in recent months.

However, despite promising “fully informed consent and fair compensation” for voice actors, the response from those artists suggests that they were kept in the dark about the negotiations. This reveals deep-seated concerns and raises questions about the true impact on their profession.

Navigating The Technological Landscape

The terms laid out in the agreement between SAG-AFTRA and Replica Studios provide a framework for the ethical use of AI in creating digital voice replicas. Crucially, the SAG_AFTRA AI deal emphasizes informed consent, a nod to the increasing role of AI in replicating actors’ voices.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s executive director, highlighted the importance of these terms, framing them as a progressive step forward. The agreement not only addresses consent but also outlines stringent requirements for the secure storage of digital assets, a facet often overlooked in previous negotiations.

This is an evolutionary step forward. AI technology is not something we can block. It’s not something we can stop. That’s not a tactic or a strategy that’s ever worked for labor in the past.” – Crabtree-Ireland.

By establishing guidelines that both protect performers’ rights and facilitate content creation, the union aims to position itself as a forward-thinking collaborator in the evolving landscape of entertainment technology. How they’re doing that while also sidelining voice actors is anyone’s guess.

On top of all of that, Crabtree-Ireland’s assertion that these terms are agreeable to artists without hindering their creative process emphasizes a symbiotic relationship between AI and the creative industry. Besides, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened either.

SAG-AFTRA's Campaign Against The Abuse Of AI By Studios Isn't A New Topic
SAG-AFTRA’s Campaign Against The Abuse Of AI By Studios Isn’t A New Topic

Learning From History

The backdrop of the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike serves as a poignant reminder of the industry’s struggle to adapt to the rise of AI. The previous strike led to a consensus between the union and major studios, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

It helped establish consent and compensation requirements for AI’s use in replicating actors’ likenesses. Notably, this deal did not impose restrictions on studios training AI systems to create entirely synthetic actors. If you think that sounds like the plot to a Black Mirror episode, then you’re right, because it literally is.

Black Mirror Season 6's First Episode Explored The Misuse Of AI To Generate Content
Black Mirror Season 6’s First Episode Explored The Misuse Of AI To Generate Content

The current negotiation with a coalition of major video game studios reflects the union’s continued effort to navigate the complexities of AI integration. The obtained strike authorization vote underscores the stakes involved, emphasizing the importance of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.

Crabtree-Ireland’s optimism that the Replica Studios deal could catalyze discussions with video game companies suggests a collaborative approach, seeking inspiration rather than confrontation in shaping the industry’s future. But role does Replica play in all of this anyway?

I hope the video game companies will take this as an inspiration to help us move forward in that negotiation.” – Crabtree-Ireland.

The Role Of Replica Studios

Replica, the AI voiceover studio at the center of this collaboration, has been at the forefront of AI technology since its platform launch in 2019. The company’s CEO, Shreyas Nivas, highlighted their commitment to standardizing contract language for AI voice licenses, indicating a proactive stance toward addressing ethical concerns.

The introduction of “Smart NPCs” that utilize OpenAI and other language models demonstrates a commitment to innovation in enhancing user experiences. Nivas’s emphasis on years of work in standardizing contract language underlines a dedication to establishing fair practices in an evolving landscape.

For SAG and Replica, the potential for voiceover performers to explore new employment opportunities through licensing their AI voices for video games signals a paradigm shift, where AI becomes a tool for empowerment rather than a threat to traditional roles. But it looks like the voice actors themselves have a different opinion.

Replica Studios Have Already Developed An AI Voice Acting Software In The Past
Replica Studios Have Already Developed AI Voice Acting Software In The Past

Discontent And Disapproval

While SAG-AFTRA defends the agreement as a means to adapt to the changing landscape of AI technology, practically all voice actors vehemently oppose it. The fundamental clash between the union’s vision of progress and the fears of voice actors reflects a broader tension within the industry.

Many prominent artists have expressed their dissatisfaction through social media. Fallout and Mortal Kombat voice actor Sunil Malhotra, who actively participated in a strike in 2023 to safeguard the rights of voice actors, expressed his frustration, stating that he did not sacrifice time striking to have his AI replica “shopped around.”

Steve Blum, recognized for his prolific contributions to video games, voiced his concerns, claiming that nobody in his circle had approved the SAG_AFTRA AI deal. The lack of consensus among voice actors who were affected by the agreement raises questions about the transparency of the negotiation process.

Andrew Russell, known for his work in World of Warcraft, minced no words, labeling the deal as “garbage.” This sentiment was echoed by Shelby Young, the voice of Yuko in the upcoming Persona 3: Reload, who expressed being “really disappointed” in the union for their decision.

The Discontent Goes Beyond Just Gaming

While SAG’s current deal only affects video game voice actors, artists from other entertainment realms have also criticized the agreement. Joshua Seth, famed for voicing Tai in Digimon, condemned it as a “big mistake,” and audiobook narrator Paige Reisenfeld expressed shame that her union payments contributed to the deal.

Veronica Taylor, the iconic voice of Ash in Pokémon, questioned the legitimacy of the deal, asking how it was made without being put to a vote. The unity of disapproval from both gaming and non-gaming voice actors underscores the widespread concern over the potential ramifications of AI integration into the industry.

The Union Vs Its Members

The main point of the issue lies in the perceived disconnect between the union leadership and its members. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher sees the deal as “a great example of AI being done right,” and highlighted the potential benefits for both AAA studios and Replica.

However, the opposition from within the union’s own ranks indicates a significant breakdown in communication. Voice actor Greg Baldwin, known for his role as Uncle Iroh in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” accused the union of betrayal, promising to refuse signing his own personal “pink slip.”

Samantha A. Morrison, a voice acting casting director, accused the union of spreading lies, stating that no voice actor would willingly approve the use of AI in voiceover, deeming AI’s place in the arts as questionable. The situation draws parallels with the union’s previous struggles in negotiating with major video game companies since 2022.

The authorization of a strike in September 2023 was a testament to the challenges faced by SAG-AFTRA in securing favorable terms for voice actors in the digital age. However, the current disagreement within the union itself over the SAG-AFTRA AI deal indicates a deeper divide that threatens the solidarity needed to protect the rights of its members.

Unveiling The Agreement

After all the backlash, SAG attempted to mitigate the damage by releasing the full agreement. The released agreement reveals two pivotal components: a development contract overseeing the creation of an AI voice, termed a “digital replica,” and a licensing contract dictating the usage of these replicas in game development.

Compensation lies at the heart of the agreement. Voice actors will receive a standard union fee for the initial recording session to craft a digital replica. Additional compensation becomes negotiable if actors allow Replica Studios to utilize the replica beyond a specified timeframe.

There’s also room for negotiation if developers seek to create replicas from previously recorded material, extending the reach to deceased performers with the approval of their estates. Protections are firmly embedded, and actors have the right to know the specific games where their AI voice will be used before granting approval.

While the agreement charts new territories, it comes with clear limitations. Primarily designed for video game use, it excludes applications in animated films or television. The SAG-AFTRA AI deal marks this collaboration with Replica Studios as “experimental,” emphasizing its one-year term as a testing ground for AI’s integration into gaming.

Navigating The Future Of Voice Acting In Gaming

As the dust settles on the controversy surrounding the SAG-AFTRA AI deal, the gaming industry finds itself at a crossroads. While AI presents exciting opportunities for efficiency and innovation, it shouldn’t come at the cost of sidelining the very artists who bring characters to life.

To move forward, the union must reassess how it negotiates, actively considering and hearing the voices of its members. Transparency, open dialogue, and a genuine understanding of the fears surrounding AI integration into the industry must become paramount.

The union’s responsibility is not only to navigate the present challenges but also to safeguard the future of voice acting. Striking the right balance between embracing technological progress and respecting the concerns of voice actors will ultimately determine whether the SAG-AFTRA AI deal becomes a stepping stone or a stumbling block in the evolution of gaming voices.

Did you find this article helpful?

Thanks! Do share your feedback with us. ⚡

How can we make this post better? Your help would be appreciated. ✍

Get up-to-speed gaming updates delivered right to your inbox.

We don’t spam! Read more in our privacy policy.

Najam Ul Hassan is a News Reporter on eXputer who enjoys investing hours in his favorite video game titles. When he’s not playing games, he’s practicing Journalism. He began his career on eXputer after combining his limitless love of video games and all things geek with his considerable writing experience. He has been cited numerous times by several noteworthy publications and sites such as Game Rant, Yahoo, PlayStation LifeStyle, VGC, VG247, TheGamer, among others. Experience: 2+ Years || Education: Masters in Mass Media Communication || Written 300+ News Stories.

Related Articles