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‘Anthem’ Voice Actor on Unionization, Struggles of Creation

Sarah Elmaleh, the voice of “Gone Home’s” protagonist, a voice in so many other games — most recently Bioware’s “Anthem,” said she was “extremely saddened” to hear about the struggles that took place behind the scenes in the creation of “Anthem.”

“I personally loved working with everyone on the performance aspect –  all of them passionate, intelligent, talented, committed – and I’m proud of what we achieved, embracing the story, characters, and relationships as they evolved over the years,” she told Variety after news broke of the troubles surrounding the game’s development. “But I also feel kinship and gratitude for everyone I didn’t get a chance to meet and thank in person for their work, and pain that they should have to suffer so much to create something fun and meaningful for all of us. “

Her comments come a week after speaking with Variety about her work in the game industry both as a voice actor and an advocate.

Elmaleh said she became involved with union organizing after she moved from New York to Los Angeles. Primarily she’s involved working with SAG-AFTRA, who represent voice actors and people who do performance capture for games, but she’s also been involved in some of the bigger discussions surrounding video game development and unionization.

Since I moved to LA I’ve seen such a shift in the way that the union approaches games that I’ve gotten excited and involved with union organizing essentially around games contracts,” she said. “I was really, really involved in helping with the new low-budget contract and get that to the place it’s in, which means that union actors can now work on indie games, which they hadn’t been able to do before.

“There’s many multiple new contracts coming in that will cover more areas of games than before. The contracts reps at the union are extremely energized and available in a way that I think we maybe hadn’t seen from the past relationships between the union and the developers.”

In the past, she said, she felt like it wasn’t clear what the unions thought about video games, but Elmaleh said she wanted to be part of a union and part of a “sustainable lifestyle and a solution for everybody.”

I’m happy to see that that’s moving in a closer, more like closely knitted direction,” she said. “I’ve been really excited to see the SAG-AFTRA union organizers working closely with the Game Workers Unite folks and being really involved in supporting developers as they try to figure out how to kind of harness their leverage and advocate for themselves to increase better working conditions.

“SAG-AFTRA can’t organize developers — that’s on them to do — but we’re available and we’re supportive and we can provide our advice.”

While there’s no clear one-to-one comparison between video game development and movie making, Elmaleh said that if anyone can figure out a way to build a union, it’s game developers.

“They’re systems designers if anyone in the whole world can do it, they can come up with something,” she said. “If they want to fix it and do a new thing or custom thing, they’re best suited to figure out whatever that is.

“The point is building a floor of treatment, deciding whatever that looks like for yourself so that people can do this thing that they love as long as possible and as healthily as possible.”

Last week, BioWare publicly refuted reports of forced crunch in the development of “Anthem” in response to a Kotaku article about the game’s development.

Anthem’s” years-long development cycle was filled with constant upheavals, according to the Kotaku report. Many features weren’t finalized or implemented until the final months. There were big narrative reboots, design overhauls, team shakeups, and intense “crunch” periods. Plus, limitations with “Anthem’s” Frostbite engine reportedly caused numerous headaches.

Many of the developers who spoke to Kotaku said they suffered from depression and anxiety. Co-workers had to take doctor-ordered “stress leave” that lasted weeks or months. In its statement on Tuesday, BioWare said it takes the health and well-being of its team members very seriously and that it knows that “there is always room to improve.”

The refutation came as there is a growing push for more workers rights and unionization from many members of the gaming community, including the grassroots organization Gamer Workers Unite. Even the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor organization, recently asked games industry employees to fight for adequate pay and sensible work hours.

“This is a moment for change,” said AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler. “It won’t come from CEOs. It won’t come from corporate boards. And, it won’t come from any one person. Change will happen when you gain leverage by joining together in a strong union. And, it will happen when you use your collective voice to bargain for a fair share of the wealth you create every day.”

Elmaleh said that while she is not a game developer, she listens to what the developers around her are saying.

What I hear is a lot of the time that there are ways of doing this, of shuffling folks, of scaling up and scaling down that are more sustainable, that allow people to build, to make plans in their lives or continue their healthcare,” she said. “I don’t have the solutions and it’s not for me to sound the horn about what exactly is going on in those places. But I will be listening and sharing all of those calls to action or all of those experiences, concerns as much as I can because voice actors are part of this creation process.”

As an ongoing game, “Anthem” continues to receive support from the developers and new work from voice actors like Elmaleh. She said this is her first time working on a game with ongoing work. She’s even in the process of recording new lines for an update set for release around May, she said.

Speaking with Variety again this week, Elmaleh said that while she’s doesn’t spend time with the developers she feels a kinship with them.

“Our struggles may differ but our purpose is shared,” she said. “I’ve always felt a collaborative obligation to seek out developers’ insights and experiences, to try to grasp the bigger picture of how games are made and what all they can be – and any advocacy I’m involved in comes from that investment. All advocacy requires listening and caring, first and foremost. I can’t advocate for, or even conceive of, ideal interactive performance models, for example, without also hearing developers’ voices when they express their own process needs, when they advocate for their own well-being, for best practices, kind ecosystems, and sustainable working conditions within development at large.”

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