SAG-AFTRA was in the news recently, and again, it wasn’t for good reason. In a revelation that stunned voiceover artists around the world, the union body announced a partnership with Replica Studios with one clear goal: facilitate the replication of prolific actors’ voices through the use of AI. It caused backlash online as hundreds of voiceover artists sounded war cries on social media, stressing their disappointment and dismay at the news.
Recently, I was fortunate to catch up with Doug Cockle (The Witcher, Baldur’s Gate III), who has been outspoken against the use of AI in game development of late. We talked at length about the SAG-AFTRA deal, the encroaching presence of AI voices in gaming, and what’s next for that portion of the industry.
Giving Up Everything
Doug Cockle went on record last year suggesting that the rise of AI in game development is ‘inevitable but dangerous’. In recent weeks, we’ve seen gamers the world over zero in (often aggressively) on the use of AI in the industry, whether that be for in-game commentators (such as in The Finals) or in promotional imagery for certain titles. It was estimated in September 2023 that, eventually, more than half of all game development activities could be handled by AI – and that includes voice acting.
One of the key principles outlined in the recent SAG-AFTRA partnership was the terms of compensation, which as I learnt, are in no way representative of current industry standards. This was touched upon by Doug (who disclosed beforehand that he hadn’t fully read the terms of the SAG-AFTRA deal and he isn’t a member of the union itself):
DC: “If someone allows their voice to be recorded on this AI software and they do 400 lines and they get paid $175, well that’s a job that if I were to do it here in the UK, I would have been paid, for the same number of lines, roughly £400. There’s a huge pay discrepancy there – HUGE. And what it means is that the actor for the AI work is being paid far, far less than the actor in the studio.
I mean some people say you’re getting paid for nothing. But you’re not – you’re actually getting underpaid for everything. Then they can make you say and do whatever and it takes no artistry, it takes the actor’s artistry completely out of the equation.”
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There are terms in the SAG-AFTRA guidelines that ensure control is given to the voiceover artist, even when they relinquish their voice and allow it to be sampled for use by an AI-driven replication engine. Cockle believes that ‘this is where the SAG-AFTRA deal is good’, but it still presents a core issue:
DC: “Basically, an actor does this – why would anyone ever hire the actor again? Why bother? You put your voice into this database and you have a certain amount of control, I understand, over what projects your voice can be used for and things like that, but still.”
‘I Just Get Mad About This’
Cockle explained that his voice is ‘already on databases’ and is being replicated online, but it’s almost impossible to police as an individual. Modders and some YouTube creators are using AI to copy his ‘Geralt voice’ for their own purposes, and whether that content is monetised or not, they’re effectively doing it without Cockle’s permission – and that voice is part of his identity. In his words, ‘Geralt is such a big part of me, I’ve been performing the role of Geralt of Rivia since 2005.’
DC: “The point is, I should be able to say whether I want my voice used in that way or not, and I just want to go to these people and say, look, fine, I’m going to use you to sell something and I’m not going to give you anything, I’m not even going to give you credit for using you. I’m going to use your face. I just get mad about this! They think that it should just be allowed and, ‘what’s the big deal, it’s just a mod,’ – no, it’s theft. It’s plain and simple theft, that’s all it is. There’s just no legislative way to combat it yet.”
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In the last few weeks, we’ve seen other actors take a similar stance. For instance, GTA 5’s Ned Luke referred to AI replication as ‘bullshit’ following the discovery that an application was offering his ‘Michael de Santa voice’ as part of a paid-for messaging service. Similarly, Red Dead Redemption 2’s Roger Clark spoke out against people using his Arthur Morgan voice in ‘AI song covers’ and memes.
This is very much a developing situation that remains divisive in the gaming community.
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