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The Video Game Industry Is Afraid of Unions

Voice actors on strike and the future of the gaming industry.

A version of this article appeared in the February issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe. 

On November 17 of last year, 450 members of the SAG-AFTRA union picketed developer Insomniac Games in Burbank, California.

Some of the faces marching up and down the street with signs in hand were familiar, like Clancy Brown, who played Sgt. Zim in the movie Starship Troopers, but who, on that day, stood up for his rights as a voice actor in popular video games like Call of Duty, God of War, and many others.

After nearly two years of negotiations, SAG-AFTRA's Interactive Negotiating Committee and video game companies failed to agree on a new contract. They're split on many issues, but the negotiations eventually boiled down to one clause on which both sides refuse to budge: secondary payments.

It's a price that the multibillion-dollar video game industry can afford to pay, so why is it refusing with what Phil LaMarr, a voice actor and a member of SAG-AFTRA's negotiation committee, described as "fundamentalist resistance"?

According to the game developers, voice actors, and labor scholars who study the game industry, it's not the 450 people picketing outside Insomniac that game companies are worried about. It's the developers inside the building, and the lessons they might be learning from the organized workers outside.

Every contract SAG-AFTRA currently has with TV and film production companies gives actors some kind of residual payment. As long as production companies keep using and profiting from actors' performances, they keep getting paid in some fashion.

SAG-AFTRA wanted a similar agreement with video game companies, so it asked for a "reasonable performance bonus" for every 2 million copies of a game sold, with a cap at 8 million units. That amounts to potentially four session payments per principal performer. For context, the standard rate for video game voice actors today is $825.50 per four-hour recording session. That means video game companies would have to pay up to another $3,300 to each principal performer on the most successful games.

No matter how you slice it, what SAG-AFTRA is asking for will not significantly impact video game companies' bottom line. In 2015, for example, Activision-Blizzard, one of companies that SAG-AFTRA is currently striking, generated $892 million in net income. These companies keep sales numbers close to the vest, but even with what little information is available, it's clear that only a small fraction of games would trigger secondary compensation.

"What if actors get royalties and the programmers don't? You can imagine what that could trigger. The reality is that it should."

Still, gaming companies rejected this offer, and counter-offered SAG-AFTRA upfront bonus payments ranging from $50 if performers worked on two recording sessions for a game, up to $250 for performers who worked on eight. SAG-AFTRA responded by giving video game companies an option: Each company signed to the contract could choose to pay a voice actor either the upfront $50-$250 bonus that management suggested on every game, or pay according to the union's secondary payment structure only if the game was successful, as per the offer described above.

Again, they rejected this offer, and the negotiations hit a wall, triggering the start of the strike on October 21.

"Honestly, we thought we found a way to make it palatable," LaMarr said. "They said things like, 'We don't have the staff to keep track of things', but it's Warner Bros. and Disney that are sitting at the table, and I'm pretty sure they have the staff. The arguments don't really make sense. They've refused to even consider [secondary payments] as an option they don't have to use. They won't even let the words in the contract."

That's likely because the issue is more complicated politically than it is on paper and could have a lasting impact on the entire industry.

"Without a doubt, many game developers are paying attention to the SAG-AFTRA strike," Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), told me. "And the action did cause a resurgence in discussions around unionization beyond voice actors and the potential implications."

Tommy Tallarico, a prolific video game composer and founder of the Game Audio Network Guild, told me it's about the principle.

"The programmers working on these games, they're giving their blood, sweat, and tears, and they're getting paid good money, but they're working every day, 15-hour days, and then a voice actor comes in and does a four-hour recording session and demands royalties on that game," Tallarico said. "What if actors get royalties and the programmers don't? You can imagine what that could trigger. The reality is that it should."

Tallarico isn't exaggerating about those 15-hour workdays. "Crunch," the periods of time during which developers work extra-long hours to meet a deadline, seems to be the most common labor issue that affects the majority of game developers. The IGDA's 2015 developer-satisfaction survey found that "crunch is still a problem," with 62 percent of game developers indicating that their jobs involved crunch time.

A developer at The Coalition working on Gears of War 4. Image: Jackie Dives/Motherboard

When I embedded with a Gears of War 4 developer at the Coalition in Vancouver during crunch, most of the game developers I talked to there said they'd been working 12-hour days, six days week, for months on end. They worked in a nice office with all the amenities you'd expect from a modern tech company: Nobody prevented employees from leaving—it wasn't a sweatshop—but despite the generally positive attitude and the willingness to do the work, there was no denying the pressure. There's no rule that prevents developers from leaving work at 5 PM, but from the head of the studio down to entry-level quality-assurance testers, everyone stayed late.

That's not to say that voice actors have an easy job. LaMarr told me how, earlier in his career, he was hired to voice a cop in a Terminator game.

"I spent half an hour screaming because a Terminator can kill you in a whole lot of ways," he said, and described how he was asked to scream as if he were falling to death, falling to death while on fire, electrocuted to death, and so on. "After half an hour, I didn't have a voice, and all I ever got from it is pay for that day's work. If it was a movie and I had to get thrown against the wall five times, I might hurt my shoulder, but I know I would make residuals."

Video game companies argue that despite these sacrifices, voice actors don't deserve secondary payments because they don't contribute that much to a video game.

"We have calculated that video game performers are less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all the people who work on video games," Sam Singer, a spokesperson for the law firm that's representing video game companies in the negotiations, told me. "We can't reward one set of people and not take into account 99 percent of other people who don't have that kind of compensation. It's not fair to the vast majority."

Singer denied being worried that video game developers are being inspired to unionize by SAG-AFTRA, but his comment reveals the inherent problem: It's not fair. When employees want to address unfair working conditions, a union is a natural solution.

"That's the argument that employers have made since the beginning of time. 'Oh no, this is the only way that we can get this done!' and that's just false."

The trouble is that, despite most game developers being open to unionization, games and the tech industry as a whole don't have a tradition of organized labor. Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at University of Western Ontario, ran a survey for the IGDA in 2014 with Marie-Josée Legault of Téluq university that found more than 55 percent of game developers would vote "yes" for a union. But both she and Edwards agreed that one hasn't formed in the tech industry yet in part because its history is rooted in the meritocracy myth and a desire for constant innovation, not organized labor.

"The game industry emerged from the general IT sector where unions and collective action aren't prevalent, so unions aren't necessarily perceived as an obvious solution," Edwards said. "I also believe that the very rapidly changing, dynamic nature of our technology-driven field has also made unionization challenging to apply, as job roles and types are ever changing in response to both technology and the evolution of games as a medium."

Another reason that it's hard for game developers to unionize applies to many white-collar office jobs, where the line between employers and employees isn't drawn as clearly as it was during the Industrial Revolution. It's not as if game developers are toiling away on the factory floor covered in grease while their employers check their pocket watches.

"There's often a large sense of alignment between the worker and the boss in jobs that everyone kind of likes," Weststar said. "People who make games want to make awesome games. You work alongside your team lead, and you have shared purpose. It's not an us-versus-them, working-class consciousness."

Another reason that game developers have had a hard time organizing and fighting for better working conditions is that many of the natural gathering places where such action could take hold have blurred the lines between employees and management.

For example, the IGDA's code of ethics demands "workplace safety, including physical and mental safety and comfort, is a basic right for every developer." But its board of directors tasked with enforcing the rules is composed primarily of video game company executives, who are responsible for the working conditions that game developers complain about.

Weststar said that it's not a nefarious conspiracy to undermine organized labor, but that depending on who's on the board at any given time, the IGDA has sometimes weaker and other times stronger mandates to follow up on these issues, and that in the past members have left the board because it wasn't "willing to stick out its neck."

Voice actor and SAG-AFTRA's Interactive Committee chair Keythe Farley. Image: Coley Brown

"Where's the line?" Weststar asked. "[IGDA] wants to be part of the Game Developers Conference, to get sponsorships from big companies, so it can support young game developers—all these good tasks—but in this space, the board can compromise the vision sometimes depending on what the mission is."

Finally, there are business reasons for why game companies worry about unions. Despite being a multibillion-dollar industry, the profit margins for big-budget video games, where crunch is prevalent, have been shrinking.

"Everybody thinks that video game companies make billions and billions of dollars," Tallarico said. "Well, I got news for you. They're making billions, but it's getting cut into by piracy and mobile phones. They're killing the game industry."

Game industry research firm Digi-Capital estimates that mobile game revenue exploded from less than $2 billion in 2010 to $35 billion in 2016, "cannibalizing" big-budget games.

Patrick Walker, VP of insight and analytics at the video game industry research firm EEDAR, estimates that a big-budget game in 2016 costs anywhere between $50 and $200 million. He said the biggest hits in this space can make up to a billion dollars per game, but that overall big-budget-game revenues haven't kept pace with the cost of development.

"At a certain point, the risk is too much," Walker said. He added, "The revenue made by the top five game publishers on console has stayed the same, from 2008 to 2016."

SAG-AFTRA's demand for secondary payments won't impact game companies' bottom line, but if game developers follow—and even if they don't want residuals and just ask for conditions that will alleviate crunch—that could squeeze those profit margins even tighter.

There are compelling arguments for why video game companies shouldn't form a union: The technology develops too fast to set standards. Employees don't want contentious relationships with employers. The business just wouldn't survive the costs. But of course, that's what video game companies would have us believe.

"That's the argument that employers have made since the beginning of time. 'Oh no, this is the only way that we can get this done!' and that's just false," Weststar said. "That's just the way you're accustomed to getting things done. Every employer that has ever faced any discussion of unionization will say that and they will change, and it will for the most part be OK."

Video game companies say they can't make big-budget video games without crunch, but it's possible they just haven't found a way because game developers haven't had a seat at the table. As Weststar said, no union wants to regulate its industry out of business, nor does SAG-AFTRA want to risk the livelihood of game developers, despite video game companies' attempts to paint that picture.

"A lot of people are working under the assumption that because actors are asking for something that developers don't get that we think we're better than them," LaMarr said. "That's not the case. When my kid asks for a dessert, he's not asking that his sister doesn't get dessert. He's just the first one to ask."