They’re not engaged in Mortal Kombat yet, but you could definitely call it a Counter-Strike.

On Tuesday, two Hollywood unions representing actors asked members to green light a strike against electronic game manufacturers when contract negotiations between the two sides fell apart.

Roughly 1,900 Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, members and 1,000 American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or AFTRA, members were asked for authorization to strike against 70 video-game publishers including Activision, Electronic Arts, Vivendi Universal, Rockstar Games and LucasArts.

The most contentious issue at hand: whether actors should be entitled to a share of the profits from video games that feature their voices.

“Nine of the top 10 selling games in 2004 were produced with union contracts, using union voice talent — and because of that, the quality of those games becomes exponentially higher,” said Seth Oster1, a representative of SAG and AFTRA.

Under one of several models proposed by the two unions, actors would receive additional compensation when a game in which their voice is used sells 400,000 units. When sales reach additional 100,000-unit thresholds, the actors would receive additional payments.

“Every other sector of the entertainment industry provides some residual profit-sharing model to performers whose talents make the product come alive,” Oster told Wired News. “The video-game business is the only exception, and that’s unfair.”

Bob Finlayson, of the game industry’s Publishers Interactive Bargaining Group, disagrees.

“People buy games for gameplay, not to hear voices,” counters Finlayson. “And technology creates gameplay, not actors. People who play these games understand that, and in fact, some gamers turn the volume down because (they) find those voices distracting. In film or television, the actor’s performance makes the experience. In video games, it does not.”

Game industry negotiators want to pay voice-over actors a single, up-front fee. During the recent negotiations, they offered the unions a 35 percent increase in wage rates over a proposed 3.5-year agreement term. Under that proposal, the standard rate for game voice-over sessions would rise from the current $275 an hour to $375 an hour.

The Interactive Media Agreement between the unions and game makers dates back to 1993, and was last updated in 2001. Talks between the parties to update the most recently expired contract broke down May 13.

While most of the working actors who lend voices to games aren’t household names, demand for movie-star cachet has exploded in recent years. The voices of James Caan, Robert Duvall and the late Marlon Brando will appear in Electronic Arts’ game version of the Oscar-winning movie The Godfather. Peter Fonda and Samuel L. Jackson are among the stars you’ll hear in the popular game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Action hero-turned-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can be heard duking it out with bad guys in the Game Boy version of Terminator 3.

Both unions must receive “super-majority” approval in order to initiate a work stoppage: SAG rules require a 75 percent approval, and AFTRA’s require a two-thirds majority. SAG and AFTRA are expected to tally their strike vote June 7, just less than a week before the game publishers’ final offer expires.

If SAG and AFTRA members approve a work stoppage, publishers say they’ll use nonunion replacement voices.

Founded in 1933, SAG represents actors in film, TV, commercials and music videos. AFTRA was created in 1937, and represents performers and correspondents in entertainment and the media, including television, radio, sound recordings and internet programming. The unions became involved with video games as more and more games began to feature union talent in the early 1990s.

By Xeni Jardin

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