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Video game strike in the making as actors’ union slams industry’s ‘greed’

Actor Ayisha Issa performs as video game character Félicité “Fliss” DuBois in The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan (Cubic Motion)
Actor Ayisha Issa performs as video game character Félicité “Fliss” DuBois in The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan (Cubic Motion)

Some of the biggest video game companies could be facing a strike similar to the one that has paralysed Hollywood and delayed several blockbusters.

Actors will vote to authorize a gaming strike ahead of key negotiations with ten of the top game publishers later this month, US labor union SAG-AFTRA said on Friday.

The looming industrial action would affect the makers of some of the biggest game franchises, including Call of Duty publisher Activision, Fortnite creator Epic Games, and FIFA producer Electronic Arts (EA).

Hollywood actors and writers, including SAG-AFTRA members, have ditched red carpets for picket lines as part of an ongoing strike that has seen major movies delayed. Their dispute with video game companies echoes their demands from film studios, including calls for fairer pay and regulated use of artificial intelligence.

SAG-AFTRA’s initial contract with the video game industry, known as the Interactive Media Agreement, was extended past its initial expiration last autumn. Receiving the thumbs up for a strike could bolster the union’s case when bargaining resumes on September 26.

“Once again we are facing employer greed and disrespect,” SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said in a statement.

Hollywood a-listers such as Keanu Reeves have become a more common sight in video games (CD Projekt Red)
Hollywood a-listers such as Keanu Reeves have become a more common sight in video games (CD Projekt Red)

“Once again artificial intelligence is putting our members in jeopardy of reducing their opportunity to work. And once again, SAG-AFTRA is standing up to tyranny on behalf of its members,” Drescher added.

The union is seeking an 11 per cent retroactive wage increase for video game performers to offset inflation. The request is identical to the one it made as part of its ongoing strike against Hollywood film and television companies.

Also central to the negotiations are protections for motion capture professionals, who provide the movement and facial expressions for animated video game characters. SAG-AFTRA is calling for on-set medics for risky stunts, and safeguards against the use of generative AI to replace working actors.

“The voice and performance capture artists who bring video game characters to life deserve a contract that reflects the value they bring to the multibillion-dollar gaming industry,”  SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said.

“Voice and performance capture AI are already among the most advanced uses of AI: the threat is here and it is real. Without contractual protections, the employers are asking performers to unknowingly participate in the extinction of their artistry and livelihoods.”

Along with Activision, Epic Games and EA, other companies involved in the talks include Disney and Warner Bros Games., plus several audio, casting and voice work providers.

“We all want a fair contract that reflects the important contributions of SAG-AFTRA-represented performers in an industry that delivers world-class entertainment to billions of players around the world,” Audrey Cooling, a spokesperson for the video game companies, told CNN in a statement. “We are negotiating in good faith and hope to reach a mutually beneficial deal as soon as possible.”

SAG-AFTRA launched the first-ever organised strike within the video game industry in 2016, after negotiations to replace the previous contract expired in late 2014. After almost a year, the union and the video game industry reached an agreement to end the strike action.

Under the new contract, companies agreed to provide pay increases and additional bonuses for a performer’s contribution to video games. They also agreed to increase transparency when booking voice actors and promised to work with the union in the area of safety, including vocal stress.

The three-year contract was extended for a further two years in 2020.