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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Mama’s Gotta Work: The Feminist Origins of Wages for Facebook

Why do we do all of this work for free?

At the moment, Facebook currently has over 1 billion active users. If we were to tally the total number of posts (which would include photos, videos, and text status updates (including checkins) on the site, I imagine it would be in the trillions. Each post is linked to tons of metadata, points of information about the user including name, age, gender, locations both geographic and commercial. This information is then repurposed for targeted advertising, as you can purchase ads based on the users who fit a desired demographic, location, device, interest, or behavior. Targeted advertising is how Facebook generates the bulk of its profits. Start posting about baby showers or liking the local day care and your ads will be full of baby clothes, diapers, strollers, and other commercial objects for the soon-to-be parents. Pregnant? They might even know before you do. In short, this is how Facebook makes money.

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The content Facebook users generate is the product which is then sold to advertisers in exchange for access to our eyeballs and clicks. By assembling our personalities, desires, habits, preferences, and relationships, we provide businesses with the raw material through which they extract value. Put another way, Facebook users are part of the labor force which makes Facebook run. Some have made this connection and have decided that this form of labor deserves wages.

The Wages for Facebook campaign made just this connection. Created by artist and curator Laurel Ptak in 2014, the campaign demands to know: Why do we provide untold hours of unpaid effort into Facebook so that they might generate billions in profit from that labor?

“They say it’s friendship. We say it’s unwaged work. With every like, chat, tag or poke, our subjectivity turns them a profit. They call it sharing. We call it stealing. We’ve been bound by their terms of service far too long — it’s time for our terms.”

How much money does Facebook make from us? In 2015, the average Facebook user generated $12.76 in revenue for the company. This is projected to increase to $17.50 in 2017. However, analyzed by country and region, a Facebook user in the United States generates about $48 in revenue, even though 85% of Facebook users are outside the US or Canada.

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You can trace the origins of Wages for Facebook back to Wages for Housework campaign, a 1970’s Italian Marxist campaign which demanded that women be compensated for housework. The vast amount of time spent cooking, cleaning, tending house, raising children, and other duties were seen, and continue to be seen, as being done for the good of the family. Italian Marxist-Feminists sought to demystify the work in housework so that women might ultimately struggle against it. The wage was actually a step towards the abolition of housework.

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The Wages for Housework campaign is the precedent for Wages for Facebook, whose goal is also to demystify:  in this case, the labor that takes place interacting with our screens. But, the skeptic might ask, how is this actually work? If Facebook users voluntarily decide to use Facebook and share revenue-generating information, then isn’t that their choice? Further, if all of this is for leisure and the joy of sharing, then is it actually labor? Ptak might say that this is the logic of capital at work – a logic that has convinced us to accept unpaid labor in many forms. We are seen not as laborers who might have solidarity in a common struggle, but as users or potential friends.

In order for the idea of Wages for Facebook to make sense, one has to make the leap and imagine oneself not as a free internet user, surfing the web and participating at will in various forms of social media, but as a laborer in the digital economy. Ptak has observed that this is a difficult leap for some to make. Indeed, the very idea of Wages for Facebook feels alien as it rolls of the tongue. But, the supposed implausibility of the campaign is not a critique. For one, since when is something we choose to do not work? What does choice have to do with whether or not something is considered work? In addition, what about the number of people whose “actual” job it is to interact with Facebook? The company employs almost 14,000 with offices around the world. Outside of Facebook itself, there are thousands of people employed in fields like advertising and PR, people who receive their own wages (or salary) to interact with Facebook and other social media sites. It is so well known that celebrities and politicians have staff managing their social media that they sometimes resort to initials to indicate when a post is actually by them rather than simply on their behalf.

Further, wages for Facebook already exist in some sense: Facebook employs many people to do “content moderation” – the constant removing of offensive and questionable material from our feeds. Facebook came under fire recently when it was revealed that humans, not algorithms, influenced what was displayed in the trending news ticker. Putting aside the question of whether algorithms are neutral (they aren’t), this situation brings to the fore issues of who does all the hidden labor that makes our online lives seem so seamless. Similar to the women who scan books for Google, much of this work is done by low-wage laborers. Clearly, there is much labor that goes into making our social media seemingly free and fun. Why not admit that our contributions are also a form of valuable labor?

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While the argument for wages has gained some steam, it doesn’t yet have a strong movement behind it. There are, however, groups of people who have taken up this argument in a different form: artists and freelancers. From unpaid internships to artists and writers producing work for free, the current iteration of neoliberal capital attempts to hide unpaid labor under the guise of leisure, passion, and creativity. For the promise of future, potential earnings, employment, or skills, many people are asked to provide their work in exchange for exposure.  But, as anyone who has produced any sort of creative work online can tell you, exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Artists such as Will Wheaton have declined to write for multi-million dollar enterprises like the Huffington Post because they refuse to pay their writers. Other writers, such as Yasmin Nair have also commented on the absurd notion that writers should be expected to write for free since writing is a “labor of love” (an expression that still has the word labor in it). Sites like Patreon have come into being precisely as a response to artists who struggle to find people to support their work, transforming the centuries old practice of patronage for the digital age. If we can accept that artists and other creative workers should be compensated for their work, then perhaps we can begin to extend the argument to our unpaid labor on social media sites like Facebook.

One must be careful to not get caught up in the practicality (or lack thereof) of the campaign. As the Wages for Facebook website states, the purpose of demanding wages for Facebook is to undermine the logic of wage labor in general. Wages for Facebook is deliberately utopian; it is a form of consciousness-raising. The goal is not to be paid for our labor for Facebook, but to question labor and wages as we currently understand them. The demand for wages for Facebook is a demand to make that labor visible. And, once this labor is visible and demystified, they gamble, we can better critique and refuse it.

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Additionally, demanding wages for Facebook can put us on a path towards rejecting the commodification of our relationships and the exploitation of social relations. Facebook and other sites have an active interest in not only the obfuscation of labor but in the disguising of this labor as a form of pleasure, as seen in Facebook’s potential plan to weigh posts in the News Feed based on how we React.

While most utopian dreams involve grand and sweeping changes (the eradication of sexism or racism, for example) Wages for Facebook seems deceptively mundane in scope. But, it is in this mundanity that we find its power and reach. 1 billion people use Facebook daily and it has managed to integrate itself into everyday social life on a global scale. While Wages for Facebook asks a simple question (Why do we do all of this work for free?), its reach is extraordinary in the sense that it calls into question some of our most basic socioeconomic relations (What qualifies as work?). Social relations emerge and are constituted in the everyday and it is in the everyday where our most familiar habits and beliefs are formed. Like the demand for wages for housework, wages for Facebook demands a reformulation of everyday relations.

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Do You Think This Is A Game?

How does “life” attempt to imitate video games? Or, how do other media forms and corporations turn to video games for inspiration?

In some video games, character statistics are measured in numbers or grades and improvements in abilities are correlated to increased stats. In some video games, players even allocate points to different skill metrics as their character advances. The more points in your Strength skill, the stronger your attacks, etc. In others, the metrics are invisible to the player or are allocated automatically. Video game characters may learn skills by leveling up or by using a particular weapon until one “learns” the skill completely. Video games have distinct, achievable skills for players to learn and the system rewards players with points (experience, grade, rank) and achievements when milestones are passed.

Gameification is a huge draw for companies. You can turn your boring professional conferences into fun experiences through gamifying the conference with an app. Take a picture. Answer a question. Scavenger hunts. Rewards. All of these draw inspiration from the video game achievement. People like to play games. People love to be rewarded.

The fitness website, Fitocracy, uses an achievement and game model for fitness goals and workouts. You gain experience points for every workout which helps increase your user level. You gain achievements for different types of workouts and repeated regimens. The Fitbit and other wearables also tap into a video game sense of accomplishment through the quantification of health metrics. Each step is like an experience point and each goal a new level.

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But, don’t video games also try to imitate life? Simulation games are a popular genre. The Sims 3 sold 1.4 million copies in the first week alone and Second Life has attracted researchers from a variety of disciplines.

The language of role-playing games (RPGs) also suggest an attempt to locate the real in the fantastic. The very phrase “experience point” denotes a discrete, measurable achievement earned through the experience of a particular event or activity. In some games, one gains experience points for simply discovering a previously unknown location. Experience isn’t always gained from combat. Some games emphasize very “real world” achievements in lieu of more fantastical elements of combat and magic.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

In the MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, several character classes are devoted to crafting and gathering. You can gain achievements and experience for things like fishing, gathering herbs, making clothes, armor, and weapons, and chopping down trees. Through the use of fantastical environments (fishing on a river in a magical forest while water elementals frolic around you), Final Fantasy XIV turns the mundane chore of chopping wood into discrete, achievable blocks of experience that result in easily visible rewards (access to better equipment, the ability to find rare fish, titles and achievements to show off, and, of course, a musical fanfare when you level up.

There was something very soothing and fun about fishing and logging in a video game. Despite the hours I spent gathering through a rather monotonous process, it never felt boring. Every level I gained on my Fisher was a reward the game gave me for a rather everyday experience. Finding that Princess Trout for my level 10 Fisher quest was my first big land and, as the Fisher Guildmaster told me, “no one ever forgets their first.” And, I didn’t even need to get my feet wet!

Fisher, Final Fantasy XIV

In fact, the gameplay of the Animal Crossing series is based upon the very mundane (yet frightening to this queer millennial) realities of American capitalism: the perils of home ownership, debt, consumption, and neighborly appearances. In Animal Crossing, you create and control a humanoid character who moves to a new town for a new life. The game opens with you reaching your new town and seconds after you get off the train than you meet Tom Nook – the tanuki who owns the town store. Conveniently, he is also the town financier and in no time at all, you are 20,000 bells (the game currency) in debt for the new house you just bought.

Animal Crossing has no clearly defined objectives or plot. There is no story or driving force. Players are simply encouraged to just live a life in Animal Crossing. You can go fishing, collect fossils and bugs for the museum, beautify the town with paths, gardens, and other features, and do favors for the anthropomorphic animal townsfolk. The game continues whether or not you are playing by using the game console’s clock to measure the passage of time. Days pass and seasons progress. The game encourages you to play at different times so you can find that nocturnal fish or attend that party your frog-neighbor is throwing. Or, you can choose to not to play. Your house can gather dust. The townsfolk wonder where you are. But, life in Animal Crossing goes on with or without you.

Animal Crossing is a video game that feels an awful lot like work. You spend a lot of time catering to the needs of the townspeople, especially in the latest iteration, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, where you are also immediately elected (crowned?) mayor upon arrival. Here, the burden of affective labor comes in, where the player spends time and energy devoted to the desires of the townspeople who may or may not be happy with the new fountain you installed in the park you spent hours landscaping. Affective labor is also a feature of other games, such as Diner Dash and Cooking Mama.

Comic by H. Caldwell Tanner

But, you might ask, what happens when you pay off your loan? What’s the point of the game, then? Have no fear, capitalism always has a response: a bigger house! When you pay off your loan, Tom Nook gets to work on upgrading your house – for a loan larger than the first, of course.

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In Animal Crossing, there is always a loan to pay off, a house to further furnish and improve, clothes to buy, fossils to find, bugs to catch, neighbors to catch up with. The achievements in Animal Crossing are the achievements of capitalism. Buy a home. Then a bigger one. Upgrade often (As my grandmother says, “new is nice”). Consume. Remain in debt constantly. Yet, unlike Animal Crossing, it is difficult to choose not to play.

One could imagine what would happen if Tom Nook charged interest. He was rather trusting to give a loan to a complete stranger without even a credit check. Unable to find the bells to cover your payments you neglect to play out of fear. Tom sells your loan to your elephant-neighbor at a subprime rate. Your house is foreclosed on and your house and furnishings are sold. The market crashes and the town declines under the weight of an economic collapse. Anthropomorphic animals attempt to drown themselves. Is Tommy Nook too big to fail?

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What do you think? Does life imitate video games? Do video games imitate life? Is this a distinction that is even worth drawing?