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How to support performance actors during game development

A panel of actors discuss the importance of feeling included in every step of game development, and how they'd like to see the industry improve

At the recent BAFTA Games Mental Health Summit, a panel of actors discussed what they'd like to see improve in the industry to benefit their mental wellbeing as performers.

Hosted by performance capture and voice director Kate Saxon, the panel featured actors Doug Cockle (The Witcher), Alix Wilton Regan (Assassin's Creed Origins), Jessica Hayles (Dead Island 2), and Robert Gilbert (Ghost Recon Breakpoint).

The discussion focused on what needs to be done to foster a safe working environment, how to support individual acting processes, and how to make performers feel included in every step of development – from auditions to the game's release.

Creating a safe work environment

Fostering a safe and comfortable work environment should always be top priority, from the voice booth to the performance capture stage.

"On the basic level, and in terms of inclusivity, nobody should have to ask for something that is their basic right," Hayles noted, citing toilet and prayer breaks, and a private space away from people as examples.

In terms of who's in attendance during a recording session, Gilbert said it's important to make sure actors are aware of why certain people are there to ease anxiety.

"If somebody from the company is going to be in the room, obviously introduce yourself, explain to me what your role is, and why you are in the session," he explained, with Cockle adding that not knowing why someone is there, like a CEO, can throw them off.

"Only have the people who absolutely need to be in the session, in the session," Cockle noted.

"I've been in a few sessions where there's three writers, two artistic directors, a producer, and the CEO of the company," he continued. "They're all either on a call or in the room, and then they all argue with the director, and they all have their own ideas about what should be done and what shouldn't be done. As the actor, all this does is make you not feel very playful, like you can't be vulnerable, [and] you can't give your best work."

How to deal with sensitive subject matters

Saxon suggested that a briefing document compiled by developers for actors and directors would be useful during the casting stage.

It should detail content they're expecting in the game "so that the creatives coming on board have agency about whether they are happy to play a character that may have some tricky or challenging things to play."

Hayles added: "I think that's the way to get the best work out of people," as in being prepared and knowing if sensitive material is involved. "It can take a little while to figure out how you feel about something, and if that's going on in your head while you're still recording, then they're clashing."

Using her time directing Mafia 3 as an example, Saxon explained how strategies were put in place to keep the actors safe during moments that featured racism.

"[It's important for] creatives coming on board to have agency about playing a character that may have some challenging things to play"

Kate Saxon

"We always had at least one rehearsal for every day of performance capture, table reads, made sure there was a very small team from the developers, and that they had briefed the representatives from the developers that were going to be at that rehearsal," she explained.

"And when we were dealing with scenes that tackled racism or expressed racist thoughts, [we made sure] there was no improvising by any actors, that we would have a briefs before after a scene, and that everybody could stop if they felt unsafe in any way, shape or form."

She added: "Those systems are so important to make actors feel safe."

Both Hayles and Gilbert said it's important that a developer has researchers to do the work, rather than putting it on an actor who has experienced racism.

"I certainly need a specificity and researchers to really, really do their work," Hayles said. "Because when things are thrown on me at the time that should be more specific in areas of diversity, that's when anxiety or stress rises.

"That's something that should be put in practice beforehand, and that means that I can walk out of the studio a little bit and be like, 'Oh, they had my back with that. I'm not carrying more than just my character'."

Gilbert also highlighted the use of "analogous, mixed race, alien species" in games to address real world issues.

"If you're tackling a topic where you're asking somebody who has experienced that in the real world to jump into this analogous situation, understand that it's still the same thing," he explained.

"Just an awareness of the fact that if you had to employ them to do that, they might know more about it than you or just a care in the way in which those types of scenes and those types of things are discussed."

In regards to intimate scenes, Regan said actors should be informed if a sex scene is coming up. She noted that she often finds herself performing in front of a group of men, and her process is asking them to turn around, apart from the feedback engineer, and to turn the lights off in the studio.

She also recommended the use of intimacy coordinators, especially when performing with another actor on the performance capture stage.

"If we were shooting Assassin's Creed Origins today, which had quite a lot of sexual content, there would definitely be an intimacy coordinator."

Left to right; Rob Gilbert, Jessica Hayles, Alix Wilton Regan, Kate Saxon | Credit: BAFTA/Quetzal Maucci

Maintain clear communication

Making sure actors stay in the loop from auditions to casting is essential.

Cockle said actors aren't usually told whether they haven't got the job, they "just don't hear anything back" which can take a toll on their mental health.

He used his experience during the early days of The Witcher as an example. Between The Witcher 1 and 2, CD Projekt Red decided to go a different direction with Geralt, and instead of calling Cockle back, he said they began casting again which he heard through a friend rather than the developer.

"My immediate reaction was I wasn't good enough," Cockle recalled. "And then got myself together and went, 'Well no, I don't know why they're doing this'."

He reached out, auditioned again, and was cast in the role.

"The point is, sometimes the 'no' can feel really big," he said. "It's not just the first time you auditioned, for me that was having to gather myself again and go, 'Am I good enough? Do I believe I should be able to do this?'

"Just believe in yourself. If you think you're good enough, put yourself forward again. There's no harm in throwing your hat back in the ring, all they can do is say no."

Essentially, everyone needs to be kept in the loop, from developer to agent to actor, and be aware of why these decisions are being made. The same goes for a role being recast with an actor's knowledge.

"It's about your expectations, so you don't have that crash," Cockle said.

How to make actors feel more involved during development

Signing an NDA is expected in the industry, but the panel discussed how this can have a negative effect during the performance stage – especially when trying to connect with their character or knowing what they can and can't say during development.

"My honest view is I really would like developers to trust us with telling us this is the new Assassin's Creed or the new Mass Effect, because that's a whole tone and vibe," Regan said.

She went on to add that the game she's currently working on is so heavily redacted and codenamed that it's difficult to understand what it's about or who the characters are.

"Developers have to be able to really trust that we don't want to break our NDA – there's no vested interest in us for leaking anything," she continued. "The more you can bring us into the fold, to trust and empower us, the better a job we can do for you."

Gilbert agreed: "I understand if you can't give information about the game, but as much analogous reference material as you can deliver is so helpful.

"When it comes to the character, that is when it's really important. Make it as specific as you can make it. Not just the vocal tone, not necessarily what they look like, but what cog am I in the story? What is my goal? What's my story goal to achieve here?"

For Cockle, the frustration is not knowing what to say when.

"We're often so in the dark and we can help you hype up your game if you just make us part of that team"

Doug Cockle

He used his recent experience with Remedy on Alan Wake 2 as a positive example of feeling like he was involved in the entire process, despite having to sign a NDA.

"The marketing team kept us informed all the way through, right through to development to say, 'Don't say anything until this point'," he explained. "At this point, you can then say you're in the game. Then at this point, you can start to talk about the behind the scenes. They gave us talking points on paper that we could follow, and then we could be actively part of the publicity and marketing team."

He added: "We're often so in the dark and we can help you, the developer, to hype up your game if you just make us part of that team."

Reagan also recalled her experience on The Elder Scrolls Online: Gold Road, where she and the cast were given material the developers wanted them to post at the same time so they were all "on brand."

"It's about including us, empowering us, and making us part of the family and feel like we're part of the team," she said.

Sophie McEvoy avatar
Sophie McEvoy: Sophie McEvoy is a Staff Writer at She is based in Hampshire and has been a gaming & entertainment journalist since 2018.
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