Wil Wheaton
Sep 24, 2015 · 10 min read

This is why I support a SAG-AFTRA strike authorization for video games — and it isn’t about money.

I’m getting yelled at by people on Twitter because I support my union (SAG-AFTRA)’s efforts to negotiate a better contract for voice performers like myself who perform in video games.

The most frequent complaint goes something like this: “actors work for maybe a few days at most on a game, and they want residual payments?! Programmers and others who work on those same games spend literally years of their lives on them, and they don’t get residuals! Actors are greedy jerks!”

I can’t speak to the fairness or unfairness of residuals or lack of residuals for programmers, artists, composers, and others who game developers and publishers, because that’s not my job, and I don’t know what, precisely, their contracts are. I certainly don’t believe that there is some sort of feud or lack of shared interest between us (the actors) and them, and I fully support all the people who work on games — especially the huge blockbuster games that pull in profits that are in line with the biggest blockbuster movies — getting the very best contract, with the best compensation and best working conditions that they possibly can.

But I did not give my union authorization to call a strike on my behalf because of this issue. I voted to authorize a strike because our employers in the games industry refuse to negotiate with us at all about some very, very important issues surrounding our working conditions.

Let me share some excerpts from an email I got from SAG-AFTRA recently (emphasis mine):

You may have heard that billion-dollar companies like Activision, Warner Bros., Disney and Rockstar Games are against sharing any of their record-setting profits with the performers who help make their games awesome. But…

DID YOU KNOW… Our employers have rejected every proposal that we’ve put on the table? That includes the community’s proposals to reduce vocally stressful sessions to two hours, […]

This, right here, is reason enough to strike, as far as I am concerned. I fully realize that for anyone who doesn’t work as a voice actor it sounds insane to care about vocally stressful sessions. I realize that when you hear that actors want to reduce those sessions to two hours or less, it can easily create an impression that actors are lazy and entitled, and don’t want to work as hard as other people do.

Listen, if you truly feel that way, I hope you’ll do something to give you some perspective on what this actually means. I really want to help everyone understand what we do when we use our voices to bring video game characters to life, and why the expectations (I believe they are demands) from our employers are unreasonable.

Okay? Let’s get started. Since you probably don’t have a video game script at hand, we’re going to simulate it. I want you to grab your favorite book, and I want you to read, out loud, twenty pages from it. Really put your heart and soul into the dialog, and bring it to life. I need to feel emotion, and I need to be invested in the characters. Now, go do it again, but just slightly different this time, because we’re going to need options. Okay, you’re doing great. You’ve been at it for about two hours now (if you average around six minutes a page, like I do), so take a ten minute break. Drink some hot tea with lemon and honey in it, and then go read it one last time.

So you’re about three hours into it — that’s it! Just three hours! Five hours less than an average (union-negotiated) workday! Your sinuses are feeling a little raw, because you’ve pushed a lot of sound and moisture out of your body. You probably feel some emotional fatigue, because you’ve been putting a lot of emotion into your work. But you’re a professional, so you don’t complain. In fact, you’re grateful for the job, because if you’re lucky you’ll get to do this maybe twice a month. And, honestly, this is still better than coal mining, right? Right.

Okay. Still with me? Good. You can eat lunch now, if you want. You probably go for something with a lot of salt in it, because it soothes your vocal chords. I’m a big fan of the chicken soup, though sometimes I’ll have a burrito, because #burritowatch.

Lunch is over. You’ve been at work for about 4 and a half or five hours at this point. You’re going to go read another ten pages from your book, but I’m only going to ask you to do it once, because you’re probably in the zone by now and you are nailing most things on the first take.

It’s time for the call outs, and then you’re done for the day. Maybe you’re done for the whole job! Awesome. Here’s what you’re going to do: you’re going to make a spreadsheet, with 40 rows on it. In each row, you’re going to put a line of dialog that you’re going to do three times in a row before you move on to the next line. This spreadsheet will have a few columns, with the dialog in the first column, and some direction in the second column. There’s a third column, usually, but that’s got information in it that’s not relevant to our job as actors, so ignore it.

I’ve made you a sample of a few lines from a military game I made up, to help you get started:

You’re going to do each of those three times, sometimes four times. You’re also going to do this for three more hours. Don’t worry, you can take a couple of short breaks — and you’ll need them — to drink some more of that tea you’re getting sick of.

If you’ve done this as I asked, it’s now six or seven hours after you started. Don’t talk at all for the rest of the day, and don’t make any plans to go audition for any other voice work for the rest of the week, because your voice is wrecked. Don’t go to any kind of day job that requires you to talk with anyone, either, because you’re not going to be able to do that. Oh, and over years and years of this, it’s going to build up into serious and permanent damage … and then you’re not going to be able to work with your voice anymore.

The fact that our employers won’t even talk with us about this growing problem, that affects the ability of all voice performers to take care of themselves, is reason enough to go on strike until they will.

But there’s more. Our employers also refuse:

[…] to hire stunt safety coordinators to protect actors’ well-being in the PCap volume, to share with us and/or our representatives the actual name of the games we work on, and to outline the nature of the work we’ll be doing?

Working in PCap (Performance Capture, or Motion Capture) is amazing, and that technology has allowed some of the most incredible works of video game art in history to be created. The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V, Heavy Rain, Uncharted 4, are just a few of the titles that have been brought to life by talented performers using their voices and their movements to create a realism that was unheard of fifteen years ago. It can be dangerous work, especially when there are fights involved, so when we work in live action film or television, there is always a trained, qualified, professional stunt coordinator on set to ensure that nothing goes wrong and nobody gets hurt. The performers who work in those scenes should be afforded the same protection we get when we’re on a traditional film or television set.

And I totally get the desire for studios to protect their upcoming releases by using codenames for various projects when we audition, but asking — in this case expecting — us to go into something with absolutely zero knowledge about the project, or what we’ll be expected to do if we are cast, is completely unreasonable. Maybe someone has a moral objection to the content of a game, and they’d like to know what it is before they commit to it. Maybe they get to see three pages of the script (usually just single lines with no context) and they wouldn’t take the job if they found out the part was just one scene, followed by sixty pages of call outs, being delivered by several different characters. Or maybe they just aren’t into the project when they find out what it is. The point is, expecting actors — or anyone — to commit to a job without knowing exactly what it entails just defies common sense. We have got to be able to figure out a compromise that fairly and equitably addresses everyone’s concerns. You know, a negotiation.

But it gets worse, because these people, who have refused to address a single proposal from SAG-AFTRA, have some ideas of their own that they apparently expect us to just accept without question:

Our employers want to be able to fine you $2,500 if you show up late or are not “attentive to the services for which [you] have been engaged.” This means you could be fined for almost anything: checking an incoming text, posting to your Twitter feed, even zoning out for a second. If a producer feels you are being “inattentive,” they want the option to fine you $2,500.

Our employers want to be able to fine the union $50,000-$100,000 if your franchised agent doesn’t send you out on certain auditions (like Atmospheric Voices or One Hour One Voice sessions)?

I’m sorry. What? The studios want to fine us if we’re “inattentive”? What does that even mean? And they want to fine SAG-AFTRA up to $100,000 if our agents don’t send us out on an audition? Because these same people who refuse to discuss any of our proposals for this upcoming contract believe … what, exactly? That they own us all and they can force our agents to do whatever they want them to do? This makes literally no sense at all.

If your agent chooses not to submit you for certain auditions, our employers want to put into our contract language forcing SAG-AFTRA to revoke your agent’s union franchise. This would mean that your agency would not be able to send you out on any union jobs, including those in animation, TV/film, commercials, etc.

So this is ludicrous. I can not think of a single instance in the history of the entertainment industry where a studio of any sort has asked for and gotten something like this. If my agent doesn’t submit me for something, for whatever reason, that’s between my agent and me. Maybe I don’t want to work for a certain studio, so my agent doesn’t submit me for their projects. Maybe I don’t want to work with a certain director, or another performer or whatever I feel like because I’m a sentient human being who makes his own decisions. These employers (at video game companies and video game studios) want to have the option of preventing our agents from submitting us for any work at all, and that’s outrageous. Our relationship with our agents is, frankly, none of any studio’s business.

IT’S NOT JUST SECONDARY PAYMENTS WE’RE FIGHTING FOR. IT’S THE FUTURE OF THE WORK WE DO.

We are at a crossroads, and we have a choice to make.

This is the crux of it, really. It really, really, really and honestly and truly isn’t about money. Sure, payment and compensation is certainly part of it, but it’s not all of it, and it isn’t even the biggest part of it. We really are fighting for the future of our ability to work in this business.

If we stand united, we have a chance to make real gains in this contract and to avoid these onerous rules and fines. SAG-AFTRA is one union now. We have power we’ve never had before, and it needs to be deployed now.

If we don’t stand together, we won’t even be able to maintain the status quo.

That’s why your Negotiating Committee, Executive Committee and National Board have all voted unanimously to support this action. Now, it’s in your hands. We hope you’ll join us and vote YES for a strike authorization.

Voting YES for a strike authorization does NOT mean we are on strike, it does NOT mean that we have to strike or that we will strike. It simply means that you authorize your Negotiating Committee and elected representatives to call for a strike against video game companies as a last resort, in order to make sure that your safety and well-being are protected, and that your future is free from any unnecessary fines and penalties. A strike authorization gives your Negotiating Committee real power at the bargaining table.

I love the work that I do. I’m grateful for the work that I have, and I’ve been lucky to work with some incredibly talented people on both sides of the recording studio glass. This isn’t about making enemies of the other creative people in the business, be they directors, studio engineers, artists, programmers, sound designers, writers, etc. This is about a handful of extremely wealthy, extremely powerful people trying to take away our ability to make a living, to take care of our voices, and to be safe on the set.

We in the voice acting community — along with the programmers and engineers, of course — have helped video games grow into a multi-billion dollar industry. Video games rival movies not because we push buttons and get loot, but because video games tell amazing stories that touch our lives in ways that movies can not.

I sincerely hope that a strike won’t be necessary. I sincerely hope that our employers will come to the negotiating table and talk with us in good faith, to reach an agreement that’s fair.

But if they won’t, I’ll go on strike unless and until they will, because I believe that #PerformanceMatters.

Wil Wheaton

Written by

Wizard. Time Lord. Fake geek girl. On a good day I am charming as fuck.

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