The Evolution of Video Games, Voice Acting, SAG-AFTRA and Fair Wages

I’m weird. I have been a gamer almost all of my life, however the world of modern voice acting in video games is a realm that is actually somewhat new to me despite having been aware of and experiencing voice acting in video games since the late 90s.

Voice acting has existed in video games for a fairly long time (across millennia technically) and has evolved largely over the years; yet the pay-scale has not evolved with it. Actors in video games only receive a one-time fee for their performances with no residual payments, regardless of the sales figures of the game, which can often be unbelievably high. Financially, the video games industry is now bigger than Hollywood and many actors in video games use the same performance and motion capture techniques to portray characters that are utilised by actors in many Hollywood movies, such as in The Avengers and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Voice actors are seeking a fairer wage. The actors union SAG-AFTRA is currently holding negotiations concerning this and voice actors are trying to bring attention to it. On Monday 2nd of March 2015 and since, depending on what circles you are in and who you follow, you may have seen on Twitter many people tweeting something like, “If You Believe Performance Quality Matters in VideoGames, plz #RT #iAmOnBoard2015” or at the very least mention the all important hash tag #IamOnBoard2015

I won’t try to pretend to be the foremost expert on this. Arguably I am a more of a Nintendo fan than a gamer per se and I know I have missed lots of iconic voice acting in games that tend to be on Xbox, Playstation and PC as opposed to Nintendo; but as a gamer (or Nintendo fan), a voice actor and a big fan of voice acting, this was a subject that I wanted to talk about.

My first experience of voice acting in video games was probably in legendary Nintendo 64 game Super Mario 64, though the first ‘big one’ definitely was Lylat Wars AKA Star Fox 64 (also on the N64). Due in very large part to the voice acting, I found the game fascinating and have loved it deeply even to this day (a couple of months ago I got a new high score on it, booyah!) The voice acting gave an extra layer of depth to the characters that I had never experienced before in a game and it on the whole added something intangibly brilliant. It was like what the Pokémon animé (the TV show) did for the games, except this did it within the game itself. In fact, the next Star Fox game and one of my favourite games of all time, Star Fox Adventures, was my next ‘big game' in the voice acting department, it had stepped things up a notch and I loved it.

In the last few years I have branched out further with my gaming, growing up a bit you might say, and have been treated to the incredible likes of Batman: Arkham City and Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. These games feature stories like I have never seen before in games and feature utterly mesmerising performances.

I understand that firstly and above all else, video games are a playing experience. So I understand if voice actors never got paid for every single unit of a game sold. But it doesn’t hide the fact that voice acting is much more prominent in video games than it used to be and that video games sell ferociously well. Video game voice acting has evolved from having no voices at all, to having announcing and grunts to what we have today: full-on, interactive story telling, where the player is immersed in a realistic, comprehensive world with fully fleshed out, real characters. The voice acting in video games has become such a major part of many games that the quality of the storytelling in these games has become a factor in a person’s decision to buy certain games.

Yet, the voice acting in video games and the voice actors behind them is something that not everybody thinks about, it is still taken for granted and under appreciated. It also is very misunderstood, as it is much tougher than it appears. These amazing voice actors perform their way through what is sometimes literally a book of dialogue, grunts, screams and more. This can seriously hurt one’s vocal chords, so much so that the ‘screamier’ parts of recording are often reserved for the end of the recording session or even on a Friday afternoon, giving the actors a whole weekend to recuperate. At the end of this blog post I have posted a video where you can watch the superb Gary Oldman talk about this and his experiences of voice acting in Call of Duty in this entertaining clip from The Graham Norton Show.

Voice actors are some of the most wonderful people you could ever hope to meet. If you ever get to watch one of these magnificent human beings perform in the flesh, it is nothing short of magical. I don’t know what the future holds for the wages of the video game voice actor but what I do know is…

I believe performance quality matters in video games and I am most certainly on board. Thank you so much for reading.