Videogame acting sounds like the cushiest gig ever. Go into the studio for a few hours, recite a few lines of dialog, and cash the checks handed out by an industry that makes billions each year. But according to the union that represents them, the actors who bring you blockbuster games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto V are underpaid and work in risky conditions.
And so the 160,000 or members of the Screen Actor’s Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists went out on strike on Friday. The Guild has spent months negotiating a contract with 11 major publishers, and will not do any voice acting, motion-capture work, or anything else until their contract demands are met.
The Guild wants videogame actors treated like film actors. And, in fact, many of them are. Michael Madsen, Ray Liotta, and Samuel L. Jackson are among the actors who have had roles in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, for example, while Gary Oldman, Keifer Sutherland, and Michael Keaton have appeared in the Call of Duty franchise.
Among their biggest beefs is getting a cut of the residuals a game earns, on top of the average baseline salary of $825 for a four-hour session, according to The Wall Street Journal, which notes that roughly 5,000 Guild members specialize in videogame work. The Guild also wants additional pay for vocally stressful work—shouting, screaming, emitting gurgling death noises, that sort of thing—that can strain or even damage the vocal chords. Such sessions would be limited to two hours daily, with more conventional voice-work capped at eight.
Actors also want to know exactly what game they’re signing on for, and they want stunt coordinators in the studio to ensure their safety during motion-capture work.
The strike targets Activision, Electronic Arts, Take 2 Interactive Software, WB Games, and other publishers behind some of the biggest franchises in gaming. And the publishers think the Guild is being a mite unreasonable in calling a strike. Sam Singer, a spokesman for the publishers, said their last offer essentially addressed all of the Guilds concerns. It provides a 9 percent wage increase and additional compensation tied to the number of sessions an actor performs. It also provides additional precautions to protect an actor’s vocal chords. “We believe SAG-AFTRA should have put this package to a vote of their membership,” Singer says. “The leadership shouldn’t have rushed into a strike.”
“Rushed” may be an overstatement. The Guild says it has spent more than 18 months negotiating a contract. They argue the publishers approach—paying an hourly rate, as opposed to residuals—may work in the tech sector, but doesn’t cut it in Hollywood. “It’s a completely freelance business, and secondary payments based on the continued use of an actor’s performance is how they survive between jobs,” says Ray Rodriguez, the Guild’s chief contracts officer and the lead negotiator on the contract. “And developers and animators frequently get payed based on the success of their title. So their argument is undermined by their own behavior.”
The Guild also takes issue with the game industry’s refusal to tell actors exactly what title they’re working on—which it argues denies actors the ability to negotiate a higher salary for working on a guaranteed blockbuster like the Call of Duty franchise. “It would be inconceivable to ask a performer to go work on a movie and not tell them the title,” Rodriguez says. “It makes their jobs harder, and it creates a situation where their agents can’t bargain for better compensation.”
The Guild negotiated the first contract in the mid-1990s, long before games became the immersive, cinematic, and wildly popular medium they are now. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 earned $550 million in its first three days, while Star Wars Battlefront earned XXX. “Videogames now frequently make more money than a blockbuster picture, even the big summer tentpoles,” Rodriguez says. “So there’s no excuse any longer for these companies not to participate. From our perspective, the strike is a tool of last resort.”
So what does this mean for gamers? Not much, for now. The work stoppage applies to any game that started production after February 17th, 2015, when the contract expired. But it could create a fundamental change in the industry, which may decide to tell the Guild to take a hike. “I just hope this doesn’t end up with most videogames going non-union like commercials have,” voice actor Joe Filippone said. “But this strike is important because if we can’t work for these major video game companies, how can we support ourselves and families?” Suddenly, his gig doesn’t sound quite so cushy.
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