the bewildering case of Michael Hollick: labor in the videogame industry

Hollick is the actor who played Niko Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV.  He was paid $100,000 over 15 months for voicing and motion capture work on the title character, but neither he nor any of the 200+ voice actors in the game are receiving residuals or royalties. The NY Times has this story, featuring Hollick’s thoughts on the matter:

“…it’s tough, when you see Grand Theft Auto IV out there as the biggest thing going right now, when they’re making hundreds of millions of dollars, and we don’t see any of it. I don’t blame Rockstar. I blame our union for not having the agreements in place to protect the creative people who drive the sales of these games. Yes, the technology is important, but it’s the human performances within them that people really connect to, and I hope actors will get more respect for the work they do within those technologies.”

The U.S. videogame industry was born in a time when labor unions weren’t just on the decline, but were targeted and scapegoated by the federal government (Reagan and Bush-41’s administrations, in particular) as being prohibitive and hostile towards business.  With the full emergence of new media on the internet and in videogames, it’s really no surprise that the labor issues were left in the dustbin of recent political and economic history.

The debate over Hollick’s worth to the GTA project is an interesting one, particularly in light of the recent writers’ strike that ground television production to a standstill and left viewers wondering what the fuss was all about. One of the major issues at stake involved royalties for digital entertainment, and it seems the videogames industry is going to have to address this sooner than later.  The videogames business in the U.S. is worth $19 billion annually, and triple-A titles like GTA, Halo and BioShock will obviously continue to push that figure even higher.  With so much money to be made, the equity issues are inevitable; these issues underscore the primary reasons labor unions exist in the first place, and I hope the game studios, publishers and artists are able to set an honest, trustworthy relationship amongst themselves to do the right thing.

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