Dallas video game voice actors wanting higher wages, AI protections
Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series for Arts Access examining the health and well-being of our North Texas arts economy.
It’s the iconic, ear-curdling ultrasonic scream of Sindel from the Mortal Kombat series. The sound alone can destroy her enemies in the game – and that scream was voiced by an actor who spent hours in a studio.
Many video game voice actors must scream or yell for projects to make characters come to life.
Tim Friedlander, president and founder of the National Association of Voice Actors, said that sometimes leads to the issue of “churn and burn” in the industry where companies will push actors’ voices to the limit and drop them.
A fellow voice actor was pushed to scream and yell in a session until he coughed up blood and lost his voice for six months, Friedlander said.
“It's very easy for a voice actor, especially a new voice actor, who doesn't understand the strain that will be on their voice or how much is going to be asked of them to go into a session and to blow out their voice to basically harm themselves,” he said.
Safety and health concerns about vocal stress are part of the reason why the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has voted to authorize a strike with video game companies.
SAG-AFTRA has been on strike since July in an effort to secure a TV, streaming and theatrical content deal. Video game content is being negotiated in a separate contract, which includes voice actors on video games. Currently, video game voice actors aren’t on strike, but the authorization means they can if negotiations don’t work out.
Activision Productions Inc. and Insomniac Games Inc. are two of the video game companies currently negotiating with SAG-AFTRA. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
The last video game strike lasted nearly a year, back in 2016-17, when SAG-AFTRA went on strike against 11 video game companies, including Activision and Disney. The contract that resulted from the strike was set to expire in 2020, but was extended in 2022 and 2023.
North Texas is a major hub for voice acting. It’s home to Crunchyroll, Gearbox Software and other major video game companies.
Thomas Schwarz, executive director of SAG-AFTRA Dallas-Fort Worth local, said the union believes video game voice and performance actors deserve a contract that reflects the value they bring to an estimated $347 billion industry.
“It’s important to remember in all of this, that the gaming industry is a multibillion-dollar industry. There’s no room for these employers to cry poverty,” he said.
Concerns about AI
Julie Shields is known for her voicing work in video games like World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, Borderlands 3, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location.
For voice actors like Shields, the rise of generative AI is top of mind with the prevalence of voice cloning, which is the use of AI to replicate a person’s voice.
“A lot of our recordings that go out there, you don't know how they're going to be used unless there's some type of contract in place to keep that usage kind of intact and protect the actors. It's kind of scary what could happen,” she said.
Friedlander, with the National Association of Voice Actors, said negotiations about generative AI come down to consent, control and compensation. Currently, there are no protections surrounding use of existing audio for voice actors.
“Generative AI and the use of voice actors’ voices in these models and foundational models, and to create synthetic voices is a huge concern for NAVA as well as one of the core tenets of what SAG-AFTRA is on strike for to ensure that there's protections in place,” he said.
Friedlander said he wants to see greater transparency about what voices are being used to train emerging AI models. He also thinks it’s important that voice actors are able to choose if and how their voices are used.
That’s huge for Shields.
“I would hope that it wouldn't be possible for people to actually utilize audio that we've provided unless we authorize that usage and only specifically for that usage,” she said.
The voice actress sees more companies leaning towards using generative AI for voicing because it’s often cheaper and more convenient.
Shields worked with a company that asked to use audio from her last project to make an AI version of an audiobook.
“But what happens when someone doesn't ask and they just do it? Then your voice is there and it's being used and you don't even know it,” she said. “That work is now taken away from you and the more that happens, the more we kind of lose our place in the industry and our actual voice in the industry.”
The Residuals Issue
Bruce Carey of Dallas has worked as a voice actor for over 25 years. He runs the online voice academy Voices Carey, which trains voice actors and helps them create demo reels.
He wants to see more conversations about residuals, which he said are often overlooked by younger voice actors. Take for example a jewelry commercial he did. The session fee was about $1,100 but he received roughly $29,000 a year in residuals for the five years the ad ran on cable.
“When you have residuals in play, the session fee becomes incidental because the real money is on the back end, and that allows you to make a decent living and to have a retirement,” he said.
While on-camera actors are often eligible for residuals, video game actors are not. Video game companies can make millions off of video games while actors earn a base rate of $200 to 350 per hour for a two- or four-hour session, according to an industry standard called the Global Voice Acting Academy rate guide.
In the video game voice actors strike of 2016, SAG-AFTRA pushed for residuals but ultimately settled for a bonus system that seemed to favor major video game companies.
Schwarz, with SAG-AFTRA, said at the end of the day, the union is committed to securing a contract that helps voice actors do what they love: bring video games to life.
“We are still negotiating in good faith and believe we’ll be able to reach an agreement worthy of our members' hard work, but the interactive media companies seem determined to underpay performers and turn a blind eye to seriously addressing workplace protections,” he said.
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