Are Hollywood-Style “AI Strikes” Coming For The Video Game Industry?

KEY TAKEAWAYS

The SAG-AFTRA strike is threatening to affect the world of video games as well after talks with large gaming companies failed to reach a compromise. What could the consequences be, and how is the public reacting?

The Hollywood actors and screenwriters’ strike is taking the world of media by storm, with actions that have lasted more than four months so far.

Studios have suffered to the point of shutting down productions or laying off thousands of workers, with knock-on effects to businesses across the landscape, from catering, to wardrobe, to logistics. Bankruptcy for some firms seems more likely every day.

Now the strike is threatening to affect the world of video games too, as the SAG-AFTRA union discusses authorizing suspension of services against various gaming companies.

A Brief Historical Context of the Hollywood Strike

The strike began on May 2, 2023, when talks between the screenwriters’ union, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) failed to reach an agreement.

A few months later, on July 14, 2023, the WGA was joined in the strike by the American actors’ union SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).

The main points of controversy were the payment of the residuals from streaming media, and the widespread fear of being substituted by generative artificial intelligence and deepfakes.

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Actors and screenwriters claim their wages have been substantially reduced, with streaming platforms paying less than expected, and claiming that data provided by the streaming companies is largely opaque.

There’s a generalized “fear of AI” issue, with actors and screenwriters asking for strong regulations and protections against unrestrained use of AI that could jeopardize their opportunities to work.

The talks have gone on for the last four months, but no agreement has been reached.

On one hand, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA claim they’re being paid “starvation wages”, while on the other, the producers claim they lost millions due to poor-performing shows.

Companies such as Disney have had to deal with a long stretch of movies bombing at the box office, or TV series failing so badly with the public they had to be pulled from their platform.

Many million-dollar contracts with screenwriters have either failed to deliver or produced content that didn’t perform (such as the infamous Mindy Kaling’s Velma). Overall deals with previously bankable showrunners look to be on the cutting board already.

The Video Game Strike

In the video gaming world, things are not going better on either side, and the talks between the SAG-AFTRA and large triple AAA companies like Electronic Arts (EA) or Activision have failed to reach any compromise. The union is asking for an 11% retroactive increase in rates paid to video game performers, plus an extra 4% in the contract’s second and third years of contracts to offset inflation.

They are also requesting protection from the AI threat, fearing that actors could be hired just once for their faces, voices and expressions — and then substituted by AI for the rest of their lives.

Actors request fair and life-long compensation for any future use of their features, regardless of whether these are later re-enacted by machine learning algorithms without their consent.

The video gaming industry is also facing similar issues to those currently affecting the media companies. The costs of developing video games have become massively inflated, and profits are thinning out over time. For gaming, the problems seems to have a different nature than for the Hollywood strikes, including the over-proliferation of greedy content monetization tactics and micro-transactions, or the nearly unplayable state of some games at release.

The triple AAA industry is facing a very rough patch, with many layoffs being predicted in the immediate future. Needless to say, a strike that could halt the industry is a dreadful prospect for everyone in this field, as the union’s attack may represent a true coup de grace to an already battered and bruised foe.

How Is the Public Reacting to the Ongoing Strike?

Usually popular opinion generally tends to steer towards the “little man” trench, favoring those who fight against big corporations to make a living.

However, in the last few years, it seems that the public have been less forgiving, and the dialogue in return taking a frostier approach. Recent on-screen failures have been deflected by producers, writers or crews by accusing audiences of normalizing racism, review bombing, or  ‘not understanding nuance and complexity’.

At least, in the gaming industry, producers had the dignity to apologize for mistakes.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the controversy and public perception, it is absolutely true that the ongoing union’s battle has its merits.

The risk posed by unregulated AI use is a serious one that can disrupt the entire industry, and cause many creative people to lose their jobs forever.

How a strike would affect the gaming industry is hard to tell, but differently from the media sector, this industry is not so reliant on big corporations alone.

The indie gaming sector is booming, and this crisis may be another opportunity for it to grow.

In the end, what we should all hope for is, as consumers, to enjoy more quality works of art in whichever medium, and to live in a world where honest work and creativity receive the praise (and the payment) they deserve.

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Claudio Buttice

Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., is a former Pharmacy Director who worked for several large public hospitals in Southern Italy, as well as for the humanitarian NGO Emergency. He is now an accomplished book author who has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty, human rights, and science for publishers such as SAGE Publishing, Bloomsbury Publishing, and Mission Bell Media. His latest books are "Universal Health Care" (2019) and "What You Need to Know about Headaches" (2022).A data analyst and freelance journalist as well, many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, The Elephant, Digital…