AI Is Sticking Point in SAG-AFTRA Video Game Contract Talks; Strike Appears ’50-50 or More Likely’ Union Chief Says at SXSW

Rexa Vella

AI Is Sticking Point in SAG-AFTRA Video Game Contract Talks; Strike Appears ’50-50 or More Likely’ Union Chief Says at SXSW

Issues around the use of AI in the production process is the big sticking point in SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations with the largest video game companies, SAG-AFTRA chief Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said Saturday during a wide-ranging Q&A at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

Crabtree-Ireland, who is national executive director and chief negotiator of the performers union, said he put the chances of union members striking against key game companies is “50-50, or more likely than that we will go on strike in the next four to six weeks because of our inability to get past these issues,” Crabtree-Ireland told Brendan Vaughan, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, during a conversation focused on AI.

In September, some 98% of SAG-AFTRA members voted to authorize a strike against major video game producers including Activision (now part of Microsoft), Electronic Arts, Epic Games, Take Two and WB Games.

The union leader acknowledged that there are strong opinions and divisions within SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000-plus members about how to handle the threat to human performers posted by emerging AI and generative AI tools. Some pushed the union to demand an outright ban on the use of AI in union-covered productions. Crabtree-Ireland said he know that was a nonstarter.

“We would not have succeeded, any more than any union ever in history has been able to stop technology,” he said. “Unions that try that approach, they fail and they give up the chance to influence how those technologies are implemented. “The fact of matter is, we’re going to have AI.”

Crabtree-Ireland emphasized repeatedly that the union’s position on AI revolves around “consent and compensation” for its members when AI engines use their work. “We want to make sure the implementation is human-centered and focused on augmentation [of production], not replacement of people,” he said.

The AI provisions established last year in SAG-AFTRA’s hard-fought film and TV contracts are helpful in setting a template for a video game agreement. But gaming also has its own unique issues because of how the content evolves over long periods of time.

Hollywood’s largest studios had hoped to push off questions about regulating AI until at least the 2026 round of master contract negotiations, Crabtree-Ireland said. “They thought they would be able to get through this cycle without making any substantial agreements on AI,” he said.

Negotiators for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers were taken by surprise when SAG-AFTRA brought a detailed AI proposal into the negotiating room on June 27. By July 14, SAG-AFTRA began a work stoppage that extended through Nov. 8. The union leader noted that video game producers should not underestimate members’ level of concern around AI and their resolve to strike if necessary.

“We don’t want to go on on strike,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “But we’re not going to make a deal with these ocmpanies that don’t protect our members from abusive and exploitative uses of AI.”

As for film and TV production, Crabtree-Ireland said the focus is on finding productive uses for the technology that don’t threaten jobs. At present, he sees major studios as looking to “the use of replication to streamline their production process, more so than the use of full synthesis to replace performers,” he said “Our main focus is making sure that [any] replication happens with informed consent and fair compensation.”


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