The issue of unionization in the games industry has been growing in profile over the last few years, with reports of long periods of overwork, or crunch, as well as mistreatment of contract workers. For mistreated workers, the appeal of collective bargaining as a union is clear.
But for those who voice or portray beloved video game characters, these union bodies already exist in unions like ACTRA. The friction is whether video game publishers are meeting them at the bargaining table or are soliciting non-union work instead, work which these voice actors need to pay rent. In some areas, as one source tells USgamer, it's not uncommon to see video game work for voice actors be non-union productions.
This particular issue came to a head recently over Dragalia Lost, a fantasy mobile gacha-style game published by Nintendo. Over the past two weeks, USG has been investigating reports of union workers contributing work without an agreement and below union rates to Dragalia Lost. But during the course of reporting, a new development occurred which could point toward a better relationship between game companies, actor unions, and the talent the latter represents.
ACTRA's British Columbian branch, UBCP-ACTRA, recently negotiated a union contract with the producers of Dragalia Lost. This is the result of over a year of ongoing work to unionize the work done by voice actors, as a number of union members have contributed to the project over the past year without a contract established.
Sources reached out to USG notifying us of non-union work potentially being replaced and at least one voice actor under scrutiny, one source says. Several voice actors contributed work under a pseudonym or, in at least one case, went completely uncredited, according to our sources. These sources have asked to remain anonymous, in fear of retribution for contributing non-union work.
A source familiar with the situation told us this isn't uncommon in Vancouver, where Dragalia Lost's voiceover work was recorded. "It's one of those things we need to do to survive," they tell us. "It is a very, very, very difficult industry, and it's incredibly competitive, especially for voiceover."
They tell us that "every once in a while" UBCP-ACTRA would catch wind of non-union work and a notification would go out. In this case, a video went to UBCP-ACTRA members, specifically citing Dragalia Lost and members contributing non-union work. The video, shared with USG, is an address from UBCP-ACTRA president and ACTRA vice-president Keith Martin Gordey to members of the union, where he says union staff has been actively working to unionize production and feel "confident" they will prevail.
"To ensure these organizing efforts meet with success, it is imperative that we union members act in solidarity and refuse this non-union work," Gordey says. He goes on to say that there will be consequences for those who've contributed non-union work, including reprimands, fines, suspensions, or permanent expulsion.
"It's a tough business," Gordey says. "And while I have compassion for those truly struggling to make ends meet, who might consider taking non-union work, it's still not right."
But as one source familiar with the situation tells us, it's not just about working wages. There's an element of prestige to contributing to a Nintendo project, even if you work under a pseudonym. Others still go where their agents tell them to, because work is work. In one union member's case, they felt it was a grey area. (The UBCP-ACTRA page clearly notes "videogame productions" as one of the areas its agreements cover.)
"I don't think anybody thinks they're in the right, but I don't think they think necessarily all the blame is to be held on the voice actors," says one source. "It's just one of those situations where people want to work, and it was an opportunity to do that."
Though one source says it felt like a "huge almost-overreaction" due to some of the voice talent participating in Dragalia Lost, they do note that all the game projects they've worked on have been non-union. Another source corroborated this, saying video game voiceover work is rarely union work. Even given the success of Dragalia Lost, which in its first month alone generated $26.4 million in revenue according to analyst site Sensor Tower, the project only became union work around last week, according to multiple sources.
In a follow-up address to the union obtained by USG, Gordey proclaimed "solidarity works" and the union had negotiated a contract with the producers of Dragalia Lost-negotiations which Gordey says have been actively worked on for "over a year."
"It means that these performers will have all the benefits and protections that the union affords," Gordey says. "Fair remuneration, insurance and retirement contributions, and if they don't get paid, we will track that money down."
We've reached out to UBCP-ACTRA about whether non-union work would still be penalized, as well as whether it's hopeful this will spur further negotiations. A spokesperson replied that they have no comment at this time. We also reached out to Nintendo of America, asking whether this indicates a further willingness to negotiate union contract work for other titles, but it did not respond by time of publication.
While some sources we spoke to understand the hesitancy, especially for low-budget independent developers to contract work at union rates, they still wished for video game companies and the union to find a meeting place so more voice actors could do credited work at fair rates. One says it feels like there's a lack of proper dialogue between unions and game companies, even as discussions of unionization within the developer side of the industry continue to propogate.