It's not often that the spectre of union action comes to haunt the games industry; in fact, I think that in well over a decade of writing weekly columns for this site, this may be the first time that I've ever had to address such an issue. It's perhaps that very scarcity that makes the proposed strike by SAG-AFTRA, the union representing actors (both voice actors and performance capture actors), into such a controversial matter. We don't see this kind of thing very often; we're not sure how to react to it. It seems to make a lot of people angry, though many of those angered seem unable to articulate why this particular case upsets them so; social media around the potential strike has been largely full of regurgitated anti-union rhetoric which really doesn't apply in this instance, and broadly offensive swipes at the relative importance of actors to the process of game creation.
"Without some form of collective bargaining, workers find themselves unable to effectively exercise their rights and powers in a free market economy"
I'm not about to address the enormous philosophical and economic questions of the role of unions in the space of a short topical column. Suffice it to say my view is pretty uncontroversial in modern economics and political science - that the organisation of labour is not only legal, but necessary; that without some form of collective bargaining, workers find themselves unable to effectively exercise their rights and powers in a free market economy. Some people of course are vehemently opposed to the very notion of unions, but usually on a more visceral level (UK readers of a certain age, for example, may find themselves having a gut reaction based in the supposed union overreach of the 1970s or in dislike of public figures like Bob Crow) than on a logical, economic or philosophically grounded level; I'd encourage those people to read up on what SAG-AFTRA are actually asking before mentally lumping them in with the RMT or the Teamsters.
I say that because what SAG-AFTRA is asking for is, for the most part, pretty straightforward. Much has been made of their demand for residual payments for actors who work on games that exceed certain sales thresholds, but that's a single request - and we'll come back to it in a moment. The vast majority of the rest of the list is an entirely reasonable set of requests related to working environment, and largely designed to ensure that actors can choose their work freely and in an informed way, and to subsequently protect them from problems in the working environment which could result in damage to the very tools of their trade - their bodies and their voices.
Those things ought to be entirely uncontroversial. People whose work requires the use of their physical bodies face a constant risk that the very organs upon which they rely will be damaged by that work, leaving them unable to make a living. As any professional singer can tell you, damage to vocal cords caused by stress, exhaustion, or regular abuse can mount up and leave someone with irreparable damage; there are safe amounts of strenuous vocal work you can do in a day, and actors have an absolute right to request not being pushed past those safe limits. Similarly, all actors have a right to insist upon the presence of a trained professional stunt coordinator if they're going to be doing something physically demanding and strenuous enough to involve risk of injury. Denying those rights isn't the act of a responsible employer, it's the act of a penny-pinching sociopath.
"People are entitled to have preferences in their work; to pick and choose their projects based upon what they involve, who they'll be working with, how their work will be presented and so on"
Meanwhile, the right to know what you're auditioning for and to freely choose your auditions is also one that it's entirely unfair to deny to a class of employees. People are entitled to have preferences in their work; to pick and choose their projects based upon what they involve, who they'll be working with, how their work will be presented and so on. Concerned about loose lips? NDAs are damned good at buttoning them up, without trampling upon anyone's right to freely choose (or decline) their employment in an informed manner.
I'm not sure anyone has any serious arguments to make against those points; I've certainly yet to hear any, even from the strenuously anti-union side of things. "Don't make people work in ways that might injure them; let people freely choose what things they apply to work on"; if you've got a reasonable counter-argument to either of those positions, please, I'd love to hear it. Apparently quite a few companies in our industry think those are outrageous propositions, so presumably some of you reading this might be able to explain to the world what, exactly, is so insidious and terrible about being obliged not to physically harm people who are working for you, and not to obfuscate the nature of the work to be undertaken before someone signs a contract?
This leaves us with the really big point - the one everyone really wants to talk about - the money. SAG-AFTRA wants its actors to be paid a residual, essentially a bonus payout, if the games they work on exceed certain sales thresholds. They argue that, just as in many other creative industries, it's fair for the performers to enjoy some benefit if the game they've worked on becomes a serious hit.
This part of the union's demands (which, it should be noted, are basically an opening bargaining position; it accuses the industry of thus far failing miserably to actually negotiate, so what we're seeing here is presumably as much a wishlist as anything else) has set a large number of people absolutely climbing the walls. Actors! Being paid bonuses! For a game's success! Bloody actors, no less! Bonuses for bloody actors! Loads of people are throwing around the big G word, because apparently Greed is only okay when it's companies making huge profits, not creative staff requesting a share of those profits from projects they've worked on. Others are huffing and puffing and declaiming the entire residual model as a relic of an earlier era, outdated and useless - rendered obsolete, one assumes, by the neo-liberal utopia in which we now reside, and in which only capital - not talent, hard work or creativity - deserves a share of anything at all.
"The core creative staff on games don't get a share of the success, by and large, because they've never put themselves into a position to demand it"
Most commonly of all, though, there's the strand of thought that says - "Actors? Really, actors?"
Programmers, after all, don't get residuals. Designers and artists and animators and writers and all of the other creative, talented staff involved in making a videogame don't get a residual payment if it succeeds. Actors, whom it would appear from this week's discourse are held to be somewhat low down the creative pecking order (which is damned unfair given the life breathed into characters by some of the better voice acting in games of recent years), are stepping ahead of all of those groups, those essential creative labourers in the dark and satanic mills of game development, and demanding a share of the success that nobody else gets. It's a bloody liberty, grumble the coders, the artists, the designers; why should actors get something like that before all the other creatives, the much more directly involved creatives, get a share?
With all due respect to those making that argument; there isn't a damned queue, and let's be blunt here - the programmers, and the artists, and the designers, and so on, have thus far failed miserably to organise into anything that even remotely resembles a union, or a decent system for collective bargaining. The core creative staff on games don't get a share of the success, by and large, because they've never put themselves into a position to demand it. This is not least because a reasonably sizeable minority have swallowed the propaganda of their employers hook, line and sinker, and find themselves vocally opposed to any notion of collective bargaining; like turkeys obediently lining up to vote for Christmas, they shoot down any upstart notion that might actually give videogame creatives a chance of successfully demanding better conditions, better representation, and more respect.
"The games industry has all too often enjoyed a degree of loyalty and dedication from its staff which, frankly, it has not earned by its actions towards those staff"
Even if we accept the notion of a pecking order or a "queue," then, the reality is that the people notionally at the front of this queue - the coders, designers, artists and so on - have been stood there motionless for the best part of the last few decades with their thumbs stuck up their backsides. What small successes there have been in improving working conditions and recognition have largely come from public shaming of individual corporations, because actual organisation and campaigning among creative staff has been non-existent for the most part. Now, having stood there doing nothing at the "head of the queue," people want to complain about queue-jumping? Get real. Would it be weird if actors got residuals from games before coders and designers and artists? Yes, it would be a bit weird - but the reality is that they should all be getting some share in the success of the best-selling games on which they work, and by far the weirdest thing in the whole scenario is the status quo, in which the people whose creative energies and talents are poured into a game's development can enrich investors to a ludicrous degree without ever seeing so much as a pat on the back in return for themselves.
As you can probably gather from my tone; I really want the actors to get a good settlement from this mess, and I'm deeply frustrated that the industry has allowed it to come to the point where strike action is even being considered. I don't want the actors to succeed just because "Performance Matters," as their chosen hashtag states; I want them to succeed because Creativity Matters. Great code matters, great art matters, great design matters, great writing and animation and music and sound effects and a whole host of other creative factors that would be impossible without the input of supremely talented people; these matter too. The games industry has all too often enjoyed a degree of loyalty and dedication from its staff which, frankly, it has not earned by its actions towards those staff. Perhaps it's strange that the actors should be the first to break ranks, but if their success can push us even fractionally towards an industry where poor compensation and working conditions can no longer be excused by "but hey, you get to make games!", then every creative person working in games should be wishing them godspeed.