Since October 21st the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has been on strike over the working conditions of video game voice actors. I spoke to Uncharted actor Nolan North, a member of SAG-AFTRA, about some of these concerns to get his perspective: North has worked in the industry for almost 20 years, across titles large and small, and has seen the industry grow into its current position.
From the get-go, North wanted to be clear about two things: he stands with his union and knows he has had different experience to other actors, so speaks only for himself and no-one else taking part in the strike.
One of the four main points of the strike is over vocal stress. According to SAG-AFTRA:
Videogame voice actors are routinely required to simulate painful deaths, creature voices, grunts, barks and other stressful vocalizations that can strain and damage their voices, sometimes permanently. To minimize the risk and strain on performers’ voices, we are demanding that vocally stressful sessions be limited to two hours but paid at the four hour session rate.
North said he was aware of concerns: a doctor had spoken at a SAG-AFTRA meeting to explain the damage intense voice work can cause, as well as things he’d heard from other actors: “I've read a lot of reports and I'm surprised by a lot of the reports of people who have hurt themselves in sessions.” As for himself “I just look at it as part of my job and I have to know my own limitations. I take it as my responsibility to take care of my voice and I've dealt with any taxing work. I can't speak for everyone else but I've personally never felt coerced to continue a session when I'm not feeling well, and I've never been mistreated by the people I've worked for.”
North remembers one light-headed moment, though “it was my own fault.” He was recording the sound of his character running when “I almost passed out because I became light-headed, but that was my own fault and I thought it was funny.”
A spokesperson representing the companies named in the strike disputes SAG-AFTRA’s claims of vocal stress, sending me a statement saying:
“Although the Companies have had only one report of workplace injury due to vocal stress, the Companies have continued to look to ways to reduce the burdens on performers in this area through the more flexible work scheduling and other innovative work arrangements.
“We want to draw attention to the increased economic benefits and working condition improvements being offered because SAG-AFTRA’s website is inaccurate and out of date and does not reflect offers some of which have been on the table for more than a year.”
Another concern raised by the union was over transparency, saying that often actors will work on a project without ever knowing what the name of the game is. This is something North is familiar with “I remember people coming to me years ago and saying 'Man, you were great in Portal 2' and I'm like 'No, I don't think I did that.'” They’d take out their phone and load up a video of him voicing the spare cores in the game’s finale. He’d never known that’s what the lines were for.
North says if actors don’t know what project they’re working on then it may put their agent in a worse negotiating position but admits this hasn’t been a problem for him personally, potentially because he is in a privileged position. “I've done this for a long time and I have my quotes,” North explains. “I have a quote to do motion capture, I have a quote to do a game, and sometimes they'll say 'We can't match your quotes but we can offer this, would you like to do it?' and then it's on me and my agent to make a decision.”
However, North also said that the studios are already protected, “They've always had non-disclosure agreements so I don't think it's a problem to tell people what the project is.”
Nolan explained how “most games will have a code name” but that’s because the developer doesn’t want players to know a game is being worked on. “There's been times when an actor knows a project and accidentally tweets about it and now he's let the cat out of the bag accidentally,” North says but it’s hardly an activity restricted to voice actors: just this week a developer in Montreal accidentally revealed that Square Enix was already working on a new Tomb Raider because while on the train he was looking at a document that had the game’s actual name on it.
When the union was discussing strike action, North “read all the articles from the actors and what they've said” and it surprised him: he hadn’t come across these problems himself. North spoke with another actor whom he wouldn’t name and they were shocked that he hadn’t had these problems. For some actors, it appears they run into these problems repeatedly.
Nolan North stands with his union, and is joining in with the strike.