How The SAG-AFTRA Strikes Can Change Video Gaming Forever

Major companies will have to agree to new terms in order to keep making games.

Story Highlights

  • VAs and motion-cap actors have decided to take part in the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strikes against the videogame industry.
  • If negotiations break down, then a potential strike could mean that companies will no longer be able to make games until a new deal is reached.
  • Audrey Cooling, spokesperson for video game producers who are part of the Interactive Media Agreement, claims that companies “all want a fair contract.”

SAG-AFTRA members have overwhelmingly supported a strike authorization for the Interactive Media Agreement covering video game work, with a resounding 98.32% in favor, from 34,687 members, representing 27.47% of eligible voters. This strike authorization doesn’t immediately trigger a strike, as negotiations with major video game companies like Activision Productions Inc. and Disney Character Voices Inc. began back in October 2022 but have still failed to address critical member concerns, including fair wages, AI regulation, and safety measures. The negotiation sessions were set for September 26-28.

The strong support in this vote is expected to urge the companies to bridge the significant gaps on these crucial issues. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher stressed the urgency of reaching an agreement, emphasizing the need for these billion-dollar companies, with handsomely compensated CEOs, to provide fair terms to sustain video game careers.

National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland noted that despite five rounds of bargaining, the companies have failed to address vital concerns, which has led members to no longer be willing to be exploited and are ready to take a stand on the front lines alongside the Hollywood actor’s guild if it comes down to it.

From exploitative AI use to stagnant wages, those in the video game industry face challenges similar to those in film and television. This strike authorization sends a clear message that we must secure an agreement that fairly compensates our talented performers, ensures sensible safety measures, and upholds their dignity. Our members’ livelihoods are on the line.” – Chief Contracts Officer, Ray Rodriguez.

Doomed To Repeat History

This isn’t the first time the VAG has been part of a strike either. SAG-AFTRA staged a strike from October 2016 to November 2017 against 11 major American video game companies, including Activision, Disney Character Voices, and Electronic Arts. The dispute revolved around the Interactive Media Agreements, a topic under discussion since February 2015.

The union aimed to secure better compensation for actors and motion capture artists by introducing residuals tied to game sales alongside their standard fees. The industry countered that this would diminish the contributions of programmers and artists who drove game development. They proposed a fixed pay raise and a sliding-scale upfront bonus for multiple recording sessions, which the union rejected.

The strike also raised concerns about role clarity, working conditions, safety precautions against vocal strain, and on-set safety for actors. Union actors employed both physical and virtual picketing, receiving support from actor unions in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and other entertainment sectors. This strike marked a first in the video game industry and was expected to have a lasting impact due to the prolonged development cycle of video games.

Ultimately, on September 23, 2017, an agreement was reached, ending the 340-day strike, making it the longest in Screen Actors Guild history. SAG-AFTRA’s board of directors approved the agreement, which was then ratified by a majority vote in November 2017, resulting in a new three-year contract.

SAG-AFTRA Rally 2016
SAG-AFTRA Rally 2016

What Are The Terms Of The Deal?

Union leaders have identified 3 key issues in negotiations, including concerns about the unregulated and ongoing use of AI to replace lobor, something that the screenwriter’s guild and the actor’s guild have also brought up in their strikes, wage increases to match the raising market costs, and most importantly, worker safety.

According to a statement made by SAG, AI is a significant threat to performers in the video game industry, particularly those involved in voice-over work. The technology can easily create convincing digital replicas of performers’ voices, which could replace traditional recording methods. Without safeguards, voice recordings could even be used to train AI systems, like what happened to Victoria Atkin, known for voicing Evie Frye from Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, 

AI could also potentially replicate performance capture, where professionals like stunt performers provide digitally captured performances for video game characters. While AI’s advancement can’t be halted, video game voice actors believe they can secure contracts that require their consent for voice or likeness reproduction and ensure compensation when it occurs.

Some companies have already addressed these concerns, such as Valve, which has banned games containing AI from the Steam Marketplace. Even Phil Spencer, the CEO of Microsoft Gaming, has talked about his dislike of AI being used to develop games. While it’s a good sign that such major voices in the industry are taking this seriously, these are just 2 examples against the hundreds of cases to the contrary.

Phil Spencer
Phil Spencer

On the other hand, workers are also seeking wage increases similar to those in film and TV contracts, with the negotiating committee requesting an 11% retroactive increase from the last contract’s expiration and 4% raises in the second and third contract years. Considering the fact that signatory game companies earned over $19 billion in global revenue last year, Union leaders believe these numbers to be more than fair.

Lastly, SAG also stated that worker protections were a priority, including a five-minute rest period for each hour of work for on-camera performers as well as the presence of a set medic for actors performing stunts and hazardous work, and a rule preventing employers from requesting stunts in self-taped auditions.

SAG-AFTRA Seeks Approval for Second Strike Against Video Game Companies
byu/AnalysisEquivalent92 invfx

Non-SAG Member Are Also Attempting To Unionize

In recent years, more and more people in the gaming industry have been coming together to form unions. A lot of them are quality assurance workers who have spoken out against the tough “crunch” periods, where employees are forced to work around the clock and sometimes even have to make their workplace a temporary home in the weeks before a game is released.

Game industry employees have also expressed concerns about issues such as discrimination and are pushing for fair and transparent pay policies. These unionization efforts have affected studios owned by gaming giant Activision Blizzard and those under Microsoft, which is currently trying to acquire the Santa Monica-based company.

According to a State of the Game Industry survey from January, the majority of game developers, about 53%, support the idea of forming unions. Additionally, roughly one-fifth of respondents said they or their colleagues have been actively discussing the possibility of unionizing. The survey was published by the Game Developers Conference and Game Developer, a trade publication.

GDC 2023 Survey
GDC 2023 Survey

Is The Strike Going To Happen?

A strike isn’t set in stone. The best outcome would be for SAG-AFTRA and the video game companies to reach a fair agreement, avoiding the need for a strike. To even consider a strike, certain conditions must be met. First, the union leaders must kick things off with a strike authorization vote. SAG-AFTRA has already taken this step, with the leadership unanimously deciding to ask members to participate in this vote.

Next, SAG-AFTRA leadership sent voting info to eligible members on September 5, and the voting window stretched until September 25. During this time, members casted their votes to indicate whether they’d be willing to strike if it becomes necessary. If the majority of members vote in favor, that would authorize a strike. However, it still doesn’t guarantee that a strike will happen. The “yes” votes basically signal to the union leaders that members are open to striking, which can then be used as leverage during negotiations. 

SAG-AFTRA and the video game employers have finished their negotiations for the Interactive Media Agreement. Unfortunately, they couldn’t reach an agreement, so the current deal stays in place while they keep trying to work something out.”

Negotiations were on schedule for last week, and there’s a chance that SAG-AFTRA might consider initiating a strike since, on the 29th of September, SAG-AFTRA announced that their talks with the video game industry, which started on Tuesday, wrapped up without a deal being agreed on. As previously stated, with negotiations falling apart, the guild will have no choice but to either call for further negotiations, or go on a strike.

How Will A Strike Effect The Industry?

The previous video game performer strike lasted almost a year as SAG-AFTRA and 11 companies wrestled with contract negotiations. Going on strike is a big deal for workers, collectively deciding not to work is a powerful statement about how serious they are about getting a fair deal, and when you take a look at some of the examples of companies abusing their power over their employees, you’ll understand why these negotiations are so necessary.

Take controversial companies such as Activision Blizzard, who have a track record of abuse and unfair treatment of their employees including cases such as withholding pay raises from unionized workers, multiple sexual misconduct charges, and even driving an employee to suicide, it’s these types of companies that are the main targets for SAGs negotiations and are likely to be the ones that are affected the most, and for good reason.

A recent example is from Hoyoverse, which you may know from games such as Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail. Back in July, voice actors claimed that they hadn’t been paid for months of work despite Formosa, the American dubbing studio, receiving money from Hoyoverse. With a looming strike, it’s possible Hoyoverse will sever ties with Formosa and negotiate terms with Studio Rocket Sound, especially since they already collaborate with them for Honkai Star Rail. 

The maddening thing about the Formosa VA controversy is there’s a good chance they face any little to no real long-term consequences
byu/displacedindavis inGenshin_Impact

If SAG-AFTRA’s video game performers decide to strike, it will have a different impact compared to strikes by TV and movie actors and writers since video game development is a lengthy process, often much longer than the production of a typical TV show or movie. A potential strike would certainly disrupt some aspects of video game production, but it’s uncertain whether this would lead to significant delays in video game release schedules.

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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.

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