Yesterday at the Game Awards, Uncharted voice actor Nolan North made some vague and puzzling remarks referencing the recent voice actors’ strike during his acceptance speech for “Best Performance”. Throughout the web, his comments were interpreted as criticism of the strike. But was that really what he was trying to say?
Nolan North at the Game Awards
Perhaps North’s comments were too ambiguous. It’s likely that North was actually taking a stab at unifying two of gaming’s big labour issues: Developers’ “crunch” and shady voice actor contracts.
— Nolan North (@nolan_north) December 2, 2016
Last year, video game voice actors popularised the hashtag #PerformanceMatters to draw attention to perceived labour issues in the field. Voice actors regularly don’t know what video games they’re working on. They often receive flat fees for their labour instead of royalties or bonuses. Strain placed on their throats after screaming or wailing can be damaging. The SAG-AFTRA union representing them has threatened a strike several times to levy for better contracts.
— Wil Wheaton (@wilw) September 22, 2015
— Steven Ogg (@StevenOgg) September 22, 2015
That’s why, when North directly referenced the phrase “performance matters” last night, a number of observers and media outlets thought he was criticising colleagues for striking. It wouldn’t be insane — voice actors like Shawn Elliott didn’t sympathise with the SAG-AFTRA’s initiatives. Here’s what North said:
I’m going to go out on a limb. I want to thank a group of people at Naughty Dog. It’s them as a whole. I’m hearing a lot of talk lately about how performance matters. And it does. The performance of every designer, every programmer, every artist, every hard-working talented person at that office… that performance is so important… their performance matters more than mine. That’s important to understand in this day and age with all the talk going back and forth. Because without their performance, my performance would not only not matter — it wouldn’t exist.
North’s statement is hard to parse. Was he trying to argue that the voice actors’ strike is insignificant? Was he drawing a false equivalence? Given the context of North’s previous statements and current SAG membership, it doesn’t really seem that way. Nolan told Kotaku UK earlier this year that he’s a member of the guild and supports the strikes, although he added that he has “never been mistreated by the people I’ve worked for”. There’s no reason to think that he’s changed his mind. Here’s why:
During his speech last night, North thanked former Naughty Dog writer and director Amy Hennig who got him the Uncharted gig. Hennig has gone on the record alleging she didn’t know if she’d ever worked less than 80 hours a week at the studio. She’s been extremely vocal about how “crunch” made her miserable. Hennig’s statements rode on the tail of years of criticism over crunch, a common practice that has AAA developers working 80-hour weeks to complete a game. In 2014, a survey by the International Game Developers Association reported that 81 per cent of those polled had “crunched”. During “crunch”, developers can sleep in their offices, subsist off junk food and totally lose track of their families for days.
North in his statement emphasised Naughty Dogs’ developers’, designers’ and artists’ contributions to Uncharted. By noting that “their performance matters” too, North appears to have been trying to bridge the “crunch” conversation and the #PerformanceMatters campaign. In other words, he wasn’t trying to argue that the voice actors’ strike didn’t matter. He wanted his audience to realise that the people he works with — the people who transform his voice into a character on the screen — are just as important as he is. But they’re not the ones on stage at the Game Awards.
Voice actor Phil LaMarr, who has voiced characters in Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy and sits on the SAG-AFTRA’s interactive negotiating committee, told me that voice actors rallying with the SAG-AFTRA union are in solidarity with the developers. “I don’t think it takes a genius to draw a line between them working 16-hour days during crunch and us throwing our throats out,” LaMarr said. “I think Nolan felt like there were people online pitting the actors against developers and programmers, when in actuality, we’re all in this together.”
LaMarr doesn’t have intimate knowledge of North’s thinking. But his statement echoes the admittedly bland statement North’s publicist sent me over email: “I have great respect for both SAG-AFTRA as well as the Game Developers and hope they will come to a mutually beneficial contract very soon.”