Voice actors and video games in the age of convergence

Abstract: “What type of sword am I wielding?” For most performers in visual media this question is moot, clearly answered by the prop department – but for video game voice actors, understanding the imaginary weight and velocity of an object provides essential information to help them find the appropriate vocal range for a performance. Voice acting, or the auditory human performance attached to an animated body (as distinct from voice over) has become an essential component of video games since the 1990s. Video game voice actors face a unique set of performance conditions: they record, occasionally mix, and submit their own auditions, rarely know the character(s) they are cast to voice or even the game they are working on, frequently record alone without the benefit of playing off other actors, place great strain on their voices in action scenes, and often don’t get to see the final results of their performances. The production practices of casting, recording, and producing video games separates voice actors from the characters on screen.

In 2014, SAG-AFTRA’s video game contract expired sending the union to the bargaining table with video game companies. The 340-day voice actor’s strike, the longest in SAG or AFTRA’s respective histories, sought video game residuals, better working conditions to mitigate vocal strain, and transparency about the projects. We can look at this recent strike as part of an ongoing struggle of talent looking to share in digital profits, but from an industrial perspective it also demonstrates some of the challenges of convergence. Technologies have converged, audience members traverse media forms, conglomerates produce for multiple platforms, but historically separate industries still retain their unique and distinct labor cultures. The voice actor strike provides a unique vantage point to consider the relationship between convergence culture and media labor. Using interviews, this presentation will locate the work and performances of voice actors within the larger field of screen acting. I argue that while much of voice acting helps converge cinematic narratives and video games, these textual, technological, and corporate logics are at odds with existing union practices. As Silicon Valley giants Apple, Google, and Facebook look for ways to produce content and hire film and television workers, the challenge for actors will be to assert leverage within un-unionized and exploitative hi-tech corporate work cultures.