On October 21st of last year, SAG-AFTRA, a labor union coalition representing over 160,000 media professionals working in various mediums, began a strike after 19 months of failed attempts at negotiating deals with games industry employees regarding the poor treatment, conditions, and pay faced by voice actors. The strike was taken against large figures in the AAA space, like Activision Publishing, Electronic Arts Productions, and Disney Character Voices.
We've seen many prolific voice actors contribute their thoughts; Tara Strong (Harley Quinn, Rikku) and Nolan North (Nathan Drake, Desmond Miles) are just two big names who announced their taking part. I live in the United Kingdom, in a coastal town called Bournemouth, where Doug Cockle, the voice of Geralt of Rivia in the Witcher series as well as various other roles in games like Blues and Bullets and Perfect Dark Zero, lives with his family and works at the nearby Arts University as the lead of their Acting course. We found an opportunity to sit down and talk about his thoughts on the strike from the perspective of an actor not affiliated with SAG-AFTRA.
"Just like athletes, you can only push so far until you break the machine. I support them and if I had any work at the moment, then I'd certainly consider not doing it in the name of the strike, " said Cockle. With around 17 years of experience, Doug has been subject of some of the poor treatment that SAG-AFTRA have been working to change. "I do remember, I did a game called Twin Caliber, voicing Sheriff Fortman. And it was a full day—it might have been two days—of shouting into the microphone. And I couldn't speak after the first day, and when we finished that project it took about four or five days to fully come back. That's not good."
According to a document released by SAG-AFTRA detailing their reasons for the strike, concerns voiced regarding vocal safety were met with offers of more tea and water in recording booths, a response that seems both lackluster and condescending in the face of a serious problem, especially considering the lengths that many voice actors will go to in order to achieve the performances that they produce.
"Just like athletes, you can only push so far until you break the machine."
"When I was auditioning, they kept pushing me lower and lower and lower, into my lower registers, and in the first Witcher it was actually much harder for me to go there. And now, I just slip right into it, so I've conditioned my voice, or damaged as you could say [laughs] to do that voice fairly naturally now."
Another significant move for change detailed in the document is the current lack of secondary compensation structures present in contracts between voice actors and their games industry employers. "I still get checks in the mail for Band of Brothers from DVD sales and things like that. But all I got for The Witcher and for any game that I do, and this is true for almost all voice actors, we get nothing past our basic studio fee. They do what's called a buy-out, which is usually 1000% of your hourly studio fee." Nor are there forms of compensation regarding the intensity of a performance an actor will have to work with. "When (SAG-AFTRA's attempts to negotiate with developers) were just starting to kick off, one of the things out there was about different rates of pay for different kinds of strain that you were potentially putting your voice under," said Cockle. "So, if you're doing a lot of shouting and screaming, there should be a different rate of pay and shorter session times so that you don't actually damage your voice."
With voice actors so integral to the success of a game with filmic storytelling, one wonders why they aren't treated as such by the companies that hire their services. "My performance as Geralt, you could argue that it's a big part of what makes the experience of that game (The Witcher series) really, really enjoyable. So shouldn't I get some kickbacks from the ongoing sales? The first Witcher, we didn't know that anything was going to happen with that, I certainly didn't know, but they're still selling it! It's still being sold, nine years on. So if that had been a film or a TV show, I'd still be getting a small percentage. But it could be an important percentage in terms of, my kids are going to go off to university in a couple of years."
Cockle's initial performance as Geralt is especially informative: Cockle's Geralt was the base for all of the translations. "It definitely was a case of me doing the voice first, and then all the other actors in other languages did their recordings, but they were all basing their performances on what I had already done in english. So in that sense, I did create the mold, as it were." Having such an impact on the way a franchise is presented surely warrants a greater display of credit.
It seems this sub-par treatment and respect stems from the original SAG-AFTRA interactive contract, written in 1994, at a time when video games were a very different industry. It wasn't the multi-billion dollar industry it is today, nor were the requirements on actors nearly what they are in an era of games that feature multiple-hundreds of hours of voice. "I think that the games industry does need to grow up a little bit in terms of how they use and work with the voice actors. When I first started doing voice acting in 1999, there just wasn't a lot of it happening. It was brand new, it was fresh," said Cockle. No matter how much has changed in the industry, the initial agreements remain in place.
Cockle isn't participating in the strike, since he isn't a SAG-AFTRA member (and doesn't have any current projects). But having seen the problems faced by many like him in the games industry, he sympathises and supports both the union and its members. "It's about fully appreciating what the voice actors are bringing to the work now, because they're bringing a lot more than they had to in the past."