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In case this is the first time you’ve ever read one of my articles or listened to That Girl with the Curls podcast, let me tell you that I have a tremendous love of cartoons and animation in general. I was on a steady diet of them as a child and I indulge myself in them regularly as an adult. Part of the fun of cartoons is picking out the voice actors involved because, if we’re being honest, its those voices, those performances we remember most. The last five years have seen a rise invoice actor visibility thanks to social media and comic book conventions branching out into all aspects of geek/nerd culture, giving all of us the opportunity to exclaim to many of these actors that they were the voices of our childhood. I can say that I’ve personally made that statement to many of the voice actors I’ve had the opportunity to meet. I smile, they smile, there’s so much smiling!
The point, though, is that we’re invested in voice actors because they’ve managed to, on the one hand, reinvigorate our nostalgia or, on the other hand, excite us based on a recent performance. And because they’ve worked that magic on us, we turn that emotional investment into actual money, paying to meet them at conventions, take a photo, or just buying something they happen to be involved in because we want to support their work.
So it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to extend that same love and devotion to voice actors involved with video games, mostly because the overlap is pretty substantial. Odds are, you’ve finished a video game that may have had some iffy game play, but still managed to win you over with its characters. Or, miracle of miracles, you’ve sat through 60 hours of phenomenal game mechanics, stunning visuals, on top of falling in love with the characters involved in the story. It’s true that the writing contributes a lot, but it’s the voice actors that seal the deal and make those characters memorable.
I say all of this because, as of Friday, October 21st, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have been on strike against 11 video game companies. As sited on the SAG-AFTRA release statement, the actors are on strike, after 19 months of negotiations, to rectify their treatment under an outdated contract that keeps the actors from earning secondary compensation as well as demanding more transparency from producers in interactive media regarding the information provided to voice actors prior to acceptance of the job. Voice actors are frequently kept in the dark about the project, role, and the nature of the performance required by the studio, which prevents them from making an informed and meaningful decision about the roles they take. If on-camera actors can curate their careers based on jobs taken, why not voice actors?
As for the secondary compensation, there’s a great breakdown of what SAG-AFTRA is asking for and the impact it would actually have on the game industry. To put it bluntly, what the voice actors are asking for – additional bonuses for every two million copies, or downloads sold, or unique subscribers to on-line games only, with a cap at 8 million units/subscribers – would barely make a dent in the overall profits seen by the companies. Considering a game like Grand Theft Auto V made $2.4 billion, on unit sales alone, the bonuses based on the cast size of 840 with the eight million cap only adds up to roughly $3.5 million in secondary compensation. That’s not even factoring in additional profits made off of downloadable content (DLC) or special collector’s edition. So, yeah, not exactly breaking the bank.
The backlash against the strike, however, has been focused on framing the voice actors as greedy and ungrateful, which seems to be the standard operation for most companies when money is on the line. Believe me, my family has gone through its share of Boeing strikes, so I know how this can go down. What’s more disheartening are the gamers/consumers who appear to agree with the producers, calling out voice actors for making a big deal out of nothing because their job is the “easiest” part of game development. There’s also a “meh” mentality to the issue and how it’s being reported on, as if the problem will blow over eventually, and speculation on whether or not consumers would even notice if voice actors were taken out of the equation.
As a blanket objection to consumers and journalists, Jennifer Hale aptly states:
Let me hear the sound you’d make if you were slashed in half by a sword? How about you’re struck in the heart by a bullet? How does your throat feel? … I have friends who have had to have surgery because of the vocal stress they incurred in the session and they’ve been out of work for months. [Source: NPR]
In one go, Hale has pointed out that not only is voice acting a skill, it’s also an intensive and strenuous job. If you’re putting your all into the performance, your voice could, and probably will, suffer, which could prevent you from getting work down the line if medical attention is needed. And if the game you sacrificed your voice for sells, shouldn’t you be entitled to some money since it was your voice that contributed to the overall package that is the game? Again, on-camera actors negotiate back-end deals all the time – getting a piece of the merchandising or a straight up bonus from the studio if the movie performs well. That’s on top of pretty high salaries depending on what type of movie they’re working on, so why aren’t voice actors given the same consideration? A lackluster performance in a movie can kill the box office numbers just as easily as a lackluster performance can kill a video game’s enjoyability. Both can live or die by word of mouth, so the better the performance the better the sales.
And if you’d like a visceral example of how deeply a voice actor can affect you, go watch Critical Role on Geek & Sundry. I’m not kidding. The entire cast of players is made up of voice actors and they manage to, without visual prompting, animatics, or blocking, deliver nuanced and tremendously affective performances. If that doesn’t make you realize how valuable voice actors are to storytelling, I don’t know what will.
If you have the opportunity, please go on Twitter to show your support with #PerformanceMatters. Even if it’s just sharing an article or showing solidarity, I know the actors will appreciate it. And if you have the time, go check out I Know That Voice, or listen to me interview some voice actors on That Girl with the Curls Podcast!