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Video Game Voice Actors Fight For Better Pay And Working Conditions

Video games are becoming more like movies all the time. The animation and graphics are getting better with each generation of games, and the voice acting makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a Hollywood blockbuster.

There are stars behind those voices. Names like David Hayter, Jennifer Hale, and Steve Blum among others. You might not know the names or even recognize the faces but, if you’re a video game player, you’ll recognize the voices when you hear them.

David Hayter, who voiced Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid.
David Hayter, who voiced Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid.
Jennifer Hale, who voiced the female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect.
Jennifer Hale, who voiced the female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect.

SAG-AFTRA is the union representing voice actors in video games and they are trying to negotiate some better compensation and working conditions for these voice actors. Yeah, yeah, I can hear the clunking and whirring of your gears from here. “How hard can they be working? You just show up and say stuff!”

You have to be prepared to do take after take

I’m no voice actor but I do a lot of scripted voiceover work, and I can tell you that it’s NOT just showing up and saying stuff. You have to learn your lines almost to the point of memorizing them, so when you read them from the script later you won’t stumble over your words. You have to be prepared to do take after take, sometimes because it’s just not quite right and sometimes because they want to have it read with a dozen different inflections for future edits.

Video games are even worse. Growling tough guy and girl lines, battle cries, shouts of all kinds are normal fare. That’s the kind of stuff that strains your vocal cords. No, I’m not kidding. Do a little googling and you’ll learn that vocal cords are just muscles that control the air coming out of your lungs to fashion the sound you want. And just like rock singers, voice actors can have some real damage if they’re not careful.

That’s not a lot when a game has generated tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

So what’s SAG-AFTRA asking for? In terms of compensation, they’re asking for bonus payments on four milestones, when a game sells 2 million copies, 4 million, 6 million, and 8 million. The standard scale payment would be around $3300. That’s not a lot when a game has generated tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. With regard to working conditions, they want periods of “stressful dialog” limited to two hours at a time.

There’s also an issue with the stunt performers who are being used for motion capture sequences. You didn’t think all those characters animate themselves, did you? Or that animators draw all that? They get real live people to wear funny looking suits and make them run, jump, and fall. SAG-AFTRA is asking that when motion capture is done, a qualified stunt coordinator is on set working with the game producers to make certain the stunts performed are safe for the performers.

It really doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? Yet the industry is pushing back. They claim that only 20 percent of the voice actors used in games are union talent. That’s true. Most of the indie games that are done on the cheap use whatever voice acting talent you can find in the break room, and it shows. The AAA titles that sell mega-millions worth have nearly 100 percent SAG-AFTRA union actors involved.

Quality voice acting makes for better games. No one’s getting rich off video game voice acting, except for the companies selling the successful games, and maybe it’s up to us gamers to let the companies know that we appreciate quality voice acting and we don’t think a couple extra checks will hurt you when the game hits the big time. After all, they’ll pay more to cater an office party.

That’s Into Gaming, I’m Mark Lautenschlager.

For more information on this, visit the SAG-AFTRA page: http://www.sagaftra.org/interactive/what-we-stand-for

Written by Mark Lautenschlager

Mark Lautenschlager

Mark hosts the weekly "Into Gaming" Feature on the "Into Tomorrow with Dave Graveline" broadcasts and is an avid PC gamer, IT Director, and webmaster. He is married for three decades to the most patient woman on Earth, while paying for the college educations of his children. His hobbies include MMORPGs and eating sushi.

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