*This blog post was submitted anonymously to Gameperformancematters.com by a concerned video game performer.*
Making a video game is a monumental effort shared by a diverse group of passionate, talented people. From the animators creating new worlds from ideas, to the programmers crunching millions of lines of code, to the actors trying to personify creatures that literally do not exist, the development of a game involves hundreds of thousands of man hours, countless setbacks, and a whole lot of improvisation. But, through it all, we create stories that change and enhance the lives of millions of people all around the world. We are all incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work in a medium that is now more popular, and more impactful, than Hollywood movies.
But that doesn’t mean things don’t need to change.
The actors of SAG-AFTRA want the developer community to know and understand that we are in this together, despite propaganda and misinformation that may indicate the contrary. The production companies, against which we are currently striking, have a long and documented history of exploitation, abuse, and mistreatment of those very workers that provide them with their comfortably profitable existence. We know it’s not just actors. In fact, we know we don’t get the worst of it.
It’s about: 60 to 80 hour workweeks during crunch time with no overtime pay. It’s about: purging entire development teams post-production to ensure more of the profit goes to the folks at the top.
It’s about: abusing interns - or treating long time, faithful, and skilled employees as though they are interns.
It’s about a systemic culture of exploitation and disposability that pervades the biggest names in the industry, and it’s about making them stop - now.
In an effort to keep the community divided, several myths have been circulating about voice actors and their contributions to the medium. This open letter is about addressing some of those myths and reaffirming the truth: that we are one community, and that this is only the beginning of the fight for positive change in the video game industry for all its participants.
Myth 1: Actors are just being greedy.
In truth, based on my experience and that of my friends and colleagues in the industry. the average annual income for voice actors is between $10,000 and $40,000, and even that number is probably overinflated. Why? Because actors don’t work every day. An actor might land one of those $800 sessions every six weeks if they are lucky. In truth, actors spend the vast majority of their time working for no pay - our job is to audition, with a “good” booking rate of 1-3%.
Liken this to having to interview for your job every single day, with no guarantee of income and while also having to bus tables at Denny’s so that your lights stay on. On top of that, without union contracts, actors have additional taxes taken out of that session fee, and have no retirement or health benefits associated with that fee. Actors are freelancers in an intensely competitive market. Good union contracts are absolutely critical to protect actors.
The last time that union contract was updated? 1994. We believe that the gaming landscape has changed since then, and we know the development community would agree.
The backend bonus structure SAG-AFTRA is proposing is not about royalties or residuals. Those are inaccurate, misleadingterms. We’re asking for bonuses when games reach 2, 4, 6, and 8 million sales, resulting in a single-session actor potentially earning the “greedy” sum of about $3,000 for a game that made tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.
If actors don’t matter, or there isn’t enough room in the budget to pay developers more for successful games, someone needs to explain to us - and you - why there are six-figure budgets for celebrities in the same game.
Myth 2: Actors are just talking.
This is like saying “programmers are just typing.” It’s a gross, insulting diminution of our work and not conducive to good-faith negotiations. Worse, it hides the limits of the voice that are repeatedly abused by production companies. As actors, we spend our entire lives developing and perfecting our craft, and even then, we typically can’t use it for 8 hours a day without damaging our voice.
On top of that, actors are asked to scream at loud volumes for brutal periods of time. Most people’s voices are hoarse after screaming for a few minutes at a baseball game; actors are asked to do it for 4 hours.
As a result, actors have: -bled from the throat -passed out -thrown up in the booth -developed “vocal nodules” that require surgery and up to six months of recovery before the actor can work again.
Stretching that $800 from the $15 billion franchise Call of Duty over half a year is going to mean a lot of ramen noodles.
Think of this as your boss telling you that she wants you to type code all day, but they’ll be super-heating the keyboard so that you burn yourself every time you touch a key. Oh, and if you had more work tomorrow, you’re going to lose that money while you’re soaking your fingertips in ice water.
Myth 3: Actors don’t care about developers.
As a community, SAG-AFTRA actors understand the perspective of developers with respect to both the attitudes of the actors and the industry itself.
“If we don’t get a bonus, why should they?”
“I have to work 60 hours a week, and they worked for 4. They shouldn’t complain.”
This, and other similar statements, are being shouted by the production companies in an effort to drive a wedge between the actors and the developers. It may look like we are in this for ourselves, but the strike is about so much more than the four major negotiating points on the table. This is about the industry as a whole. As an actor’s union, we cannot represent developers. Many of us would if we could. What we can do as a unionized body is draw attention to the abuse that is happening across all facets of the video game production scene. It is our sincere hope that this strike is just the first step in a long series of events that promotes equality, security, and safety for all those involved in the development process.
Think about how much the strike has already brought developer’s issues to the forefront. People who had never heard about “crunch” now have it in their vernacular. The tides are shifting, and production companies are spending large amounts of time and money trying to breed enmity between the actors and the developers. Maybe we should be wondering why.
SAG-AFTRA needs our help and the support of the development community to make this strike a success. When you see or hear rhetoric, please speak out. When you read articles online that are utterly lacking in research, speak out. When you see us picketing, give us a high five and a hug. Solidarity and support will help bring this strike to a swift and successful conclusion.
This is the beginning of monumental change in our industry. When it is your turn to stand up to production companies, and we sincerely hope you will seize that opportunity, we as SAG-AFTRA actors, will be right beside you.