Street Fighters: Thoughts on the Video Game Voice Actor Strike

The voice actors strike brings to light questions about the boundaries between work and play

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Hunt for the Familiar: The Nostalgia of Pokémon GO

Pokémon GO brings players familiarity in an increasingly uncertain world

Pokemon GO has swept the globe in the past few weeks. Lest you doubt it’s success, it’s now even more popular than porn. And, of course, with the popularity comes the raging criticisms and impassioned defenses: Pokémon GO either turns us into zombies, or it is the perfect nostalgia. It brings happiness and familiarity in these dark and unpredictable times, or it is the armageddon.

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As an avid player, I lean towards the impassioned defense. It’s not surprising to me that many would embrace Pokémon GO as a realm of safety and entertainment. With mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and politics run amok across the globe, Pokémon GO gives players a portal back into our childhoods. It fulfills our desire to be like Red, the silent protagonist of the original Pokémon games. We can finally be Pokémon trainers in real life (or at least, in augmented reality). The sheer joy and giddiness I felt in seeing and capturing my first Pokémon in GO was undeniable. Now, like Red, I can finally wander the streets and countrysides rediscovering the Pokémon that are now hiding in plain sight.

But on second thought, is the world that Pokémon GO revives that reassuring? In her book, Updating to Remain the Same, new media scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that, in the time since its inception, the dominant perception of the Internet has shifted from a focus on anonymity to a focus on authenticity. In the 1990s, cyberspace emerged as a space characterized by freedom through anonymity. But today, the Internet is seen as a place where the authentic self is revealed through transparency and practices of authenticity. Far from being a symbol of freedom and security, anonymity is now seen as a danger that abuses trust and endangers security. In this new vision, practices of authentication, such as using real names and linked accounts to link together offline and offline personas, are seen as methods to foster responsibility in Internet users. Chun goes on to argue that the desire for authenticity, authenticating practices, and authentic intimacy makes the Internet more dangerous as we assume that danger lies only on the outside and from those whom we don’t know.

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If we take into account Chun’s argument, we might posit that the popularity of the Pokémon GO revives the original dream of the Internet as a cyberspace of anonymous freedom only to place it inside the newer vision of the net as a place of authentic engagement. Only with this critical difference: Pokémon GO functions by making the landscape, not the player, anonymous. In this new “augmented reality,” the landscape itself is uniform, with few textures that suggest differences between architecture. Pokémon Stops can be practically any landmark or even just someone’s home. While the appearance of the player character is customizable, the customizations are limited, so trainers generally look the same.

Despite this generic landscape and player character, the player can never be completely anonymous: you are identified by a unique name and you must login to play using a Google or Pokémon Club account. This is a change from the original Pokémon games, which were not network games. Gameplay was primarily single player and you could only interact with other players directly using cables to connect devices. With the advent of network technology in handheld consoles and the jump to the mobile phone, Pokémon has transitioned to a networked game where play is now seemingly global. It brings back the feeling of anonymous connectivity that characterized the perception of the Internet in the 1990s. Yet paradoxically, it is transparency and authenticity, not anonymity, that characterizes today’s perception of the net.

We see this in the public debates and discussions. Players are not arguing for their desire to play Pokémon GO anonymously, but for their desire to play Pokémon authentically and enthusiastically.  It is not enough to simply play, after all: one must defend one’s desire to play in troubling times. It makes us feel sane in a world seemingly gone mad. It revives the original Pokémon games vision of the world as completely mappable and knowable and the dangers obvious and catalogued. As the world seems to become more and more unpredictable, Pokémon GO taps into our desires for authentic engagements with the present and the past. It is a beacon of safe haven where everything is familiar once again. And, it is this enthusiastic desire for the familiar in the form of little familiars, for an authentic form of nostalgia, that players defend.

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But, as Chun observes, this desire for authenticity can actually be a site of danger. Chun observes two assumptions that underlie this desire: that the worst dangers online come from strangers and that transparency breeds responsible and acceptable behavior. As we place our trust in the familiar, friendly monsters of the past and when we search for genuine and authentic social relationships along with them, we might not realize the risk we place ourselves in.

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In Updating to Remain the Same, Chun observes that the present is characterized by constant crises to which we constantly habituate ourselves. Crisis is the new normal and adjustment to crisis a form of survival. Chun doesn’t argue for enhanced privacy and security in the face of insecurity, but for embracing the revealing nature of the networked life and the right to be vulnerable. Similarly, in Network Aesthetics, Patrick Jagoda argues for a politics of ambivalence in which we inhabit the contradictory and ambiguous feelings that accompany networks. I agree with their approach of inhabiting these ambivalent technologies in order to work through the strange and contradictory feelings they bring.

As Pokémon GO slowly fades into ubiquity, becoming just another daily habit, we should take seriously the nostalgic call it sounds. Everyday life now becomes a Pokémon journey, augmented with layers of green that make the world brighter and more familiar. As AR games continue to blur the already blurry distinction between offline and online, the virtual and the real, we should pay close attention to the ways in which we habituate them into everyday life. We should pay close attention to the feeling of nostalgia Pokémon induces and the ambivalence that may accompany it.  Pokémon GO sounds the call of the safe and the familiar in a world punctuated by crisis after crisis. Yet, Pokémon GO will not bring clarity to the future. It only revives the past to cope with an unclear present.

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The Internet of Despairing Things

“Hi, thanks for checking in. I’m still a piece of garbage.”

Is melancholy a dominant emotional state of many internet users? Why does everyone seem so sad and depressed? Are websites like Upworthy a response to this negativity? A feeble attempt to inject the positive into an all-consumingly depressing world? We all see those Facebook memes about positive thinking. Or people declaring that they’re going to start posting pictures of baby animals to interrupt the stream of negative images and stories. But whatever happy place we flee to, there still seems to come that periodic “knock knock.”

Who’s there? It’s depression.

While melancholia is a classical malady, something I have noticed over the past few years is the proliferation of posts online that feature extremely negative content. Posts related to depression & anxiety (in both their clinical and everyday senses), death, despair, and hopelessness gets tens of thousands of shares and likes.

These posts paint pictures of young people barely able to get by, suffering feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and an intense desire for death. These feelings may stem, in part, from the proliferation of micro-experiences online. As Dominic Pettman argues in his book, Infinite Distraction, new media increasingly modulates everyday social experience. Specifically tailored and modular feeds disperse people into micro experiences, where no one is seeing or feeling the same thing at the same time as others. This may lead people to develop an agonizing sense of isolation.

While social media seems to engender a sense of immediacy to social contact, in reality, it may, at the same time, widen the gaps. As some of the posts show, others often respond with encouraging messages and GIFs, but often that may not be enough.  We despair that our favorite followers are in different states, countries, and time zones. For those who might face harassment online for their opinions or identity, being online sharpens the double-edged sword, where threats encourage victims to log off and eschew contact of any kind altogether.

Some come to feel that they no longer live, they just exist. There is no joie de vivre, just an existence that will hopefully come to an end sometime soon. In this existence, life seems to happen only to survive.

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These micro-experiences create a feeling of distance between people that can become unbearable. But, the problems of social distance alone cannot account for these intense feelings of despair. In a political economy where the social safety net has been eroded, precarity is the name of the game. The fear of failure is enhanced not only because we witness the Hollywood highlight reel of other’s success, but also because failure can have dramatic consequences. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Further, student loans cannot be easily forgiven in bankruptcy, demonstrating that even when young people hit rock bottom they now have to start digging. Most Americans don’t have enough in savings to survive any sort of emergency, while stagnating wages prevent most from saving hardly anything at all.

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It’s not surprising that being able to simply manage is considered a daily achievement. Video games such as Animal Crossing allow players to tap into the everyday successes and pleasures that usually come with a secure life: home ownership, planting a garden, civic engagement, and leisure activity.  Games like these are designed to be played in the spare everyday moments of leisure that have become increasingly sparse and give players a feeling of discrete and visible success in a world that seems so uncertain.

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Where do we go from here? I am far from a technological determinist who believes that social media can only dictate these kinds of feelings and situations. Yet, I have also felt these feelings of despair and isolation acutely as I refresh Twitter feeds and my Tumblr dashboard.  While cutting ourselves off from social media and taking a digital detox may help some, others find that their only meaningful experiences are found online, however fleeting and distant. In a world that is increasingly connected through such forms, unplugging may be just as isolating as being plugged in. As Pettman notes: “Social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”

In light of this, I’ve become interested in the idea of ambivalence. In Network Aesthetics, Patrick Jagoda turns to the idea of ambivalence as a “mode of extreme presence”: a way of negotiating and thinking through an unclear present. Resisting the urge to opt out of networks (if that is even possible), Jagoda argues that approaching network totality through ambivalence requires learning to inhabit the contradictory and ambiguous feelings that come with it. By taking up ambivalence, we open ourselves to possibilities that are not yet clear, ready, or available.