On Friday, SAG-AFTRA, the union representing voice actors in the video game industry officially went on strike. This comes after breakdowns in negotiations between the union and several major companies in the industry over workplace treatment and safety and compensation for actors. Workers are striking against some of the largest names in the business, including Electronic Arts, Activision, and Disney, companies with large amounts of resources behind them and that set the standards and tone for the industry as a whole. This strike is important not only because it demonstrates the importance of collectively organizing to achieve fair working conditions, but because it also points to broader issues surrounding the proliferation of immaterial labor in contemporary life and the increasingly blurred distinctions between labor and leisure.
Voice actors are striking over transparency in what roles they are given and the nature of projects and for secondary compensation for successful games that sell more than 2 million units. In addition, they are also striking for better working conditions, such as limiting the amount of time actors can perform physically demanding voice and screen capture work. After two years of negotiations, these issues have been unresolved and SAG-AFTRA has initiated a strike in response. The strike seems to have a lot of support from players, fans, and actors themselves. Will Wheaton has voiced his support and voice actress Tara Strong (the voice of all your childhood faves) has tweeted about the treatment she and other performers have been subject to.
Not everyone, however, is on board with the strike. The Voice Realm, a voice-over casting site, is already positioning itself to take on the work that the striking workers won’t do. In other words, they are willing to be scabs. Others are criticizing the voice actors, calling them ungrateful and reminding them that there are others waiting in line to do these jobs who would do the work for far less. In a time where unions are under attack in many industries, we must fight back against critics who will try to position unions as unnecessary hindrances. Unions exist so that the rights of workers can be protected and advanced against the interests of the company who is looking to exploit them.
This strike is unique because it brings to light many questions about the boundaries between work and play, boundaries that have been increasingly blurred in contemporary life. Video games are a medium that is able to manifest play in countless new forms and transform work so that it no longer appears as such. It relies upon immaterial labor, work that produces immaterial products like knowledge, emotional responses, and relationships. Work and play have blended so seamlessly when it comes to video games, in what Julian Küchlich calls “playbor.” As Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter note, “game making blurs the lines between work and play, production and consumption, voluntary activity and precarious exploitation, in a way that typifies the boundless exercise of biopower.”
The problem that arises is that immaterial labor not only disguises the work that is done by creative types like programmers and actors, but it also disguises the work done by everyone else. While the voice actors are one of the most visible aspects of games, there is a whole chain of forces that must come together in order for a game to be released. This includes actors, testers, programmers, artists, musicians, and designers. But, it also includes janitors, office managers, and the workers who manufacture the physical disks. At all levels, labor is done so that a game can be produced and sold. All immaterial labor has supporting material infrastructure underneath it. Like code itself, you aren’t meant to see its inner workings. When functioning properly, you aren’t meant to see it at all.
This is a characteristic of almost all digital technology work today, not just video games. It includes non-creative workers like Uber drivers, mechanical Turk workers, writers, Google book scanners, Amazon warehouse workers, and the people who make sure your Facebook feed is PG. This labor behind it is meant to be hidden and disguised as routine, mundane, and normal. It is disguised by code and design, refashioned as a labor of love, and then made pervasive through exploitative practices like “crunch time.” For players, playing video games can be considered be a “form of consumption that reinforces the pleasures of work.” We are conditioned to believe that in order to do the things you love, they should be done at any cost. But, for the companies, it means we should do them at no cost. This isn’t to say that people should not take joy in the work they do. But, it doesn’t mean you have to accept being exploited by your employer to work in the field you love.
Much of the success of the video game industry relies on the underpaid labor of its workforce and the unpaid labor of fans and players. Corporate managers discourage unionization and are known to remind workers that they are lucky to work in a such a cut-throat field on creative projects that are meant to be enjoyed. They manipulate the desires of creative workers in order to manufacture precarious working conditions. The joy of play is used against workers by managers and anti-union critics in order to dismiss their serious grievances. They fashion play, a world-building activity that has potential for the radical transformation of people and society, into a weapon to be used against organizing efforts.
We have been given an opportunity with this strike. Situations like this bring to the surface all the small, myriad forces that come together to provide us with consumer products. These are not just the issues workers face in one industry, but the issues of people around the globe. Instead of calling those who demand better treatment and compensation for their work ungrateful, we should stand in solidarity with the strikers and use this as an opportunity to demand better working conditions at all levels.