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An Interview with J. Nicholas Geist

Interview conducted by April Murphy

April Murphy: I was blown away by your essay “A Murderer’s Work” in the Spring 2012 issue of Creative Nonfiction. The essay explores the tumultuous relationship between virtual violence for entertainment (as in video games like Far Cry 2 and Bioshock), and real-life violence based entertainment (like bull fighting). The narrator’s strong, vibrant first-person voice relates these two experiences.

Writing from the point of view of the character in a video game – so much as to say “I” – raises interesting questions about perspective and narration. If you’re playing a character that  someone else created, whom does the “I” represent?

JNG: For me, I think it’s like any other game. I was playing Settlers of Catan last night with some people who aren’t nonfiction writers, and I don’t think either of them thought, “Who am I when I am playing?” It’s certainly true that I’m playing a character that someone else has created–and, generally speaking, that a second person (or team) has written and a third person has voice acted–but it’s still me who’s playing. The choices I make are mine. Videogame characters are a sort of collaborative identity, but it’s the player’s contribution that actually individuates the character.

Recently, there’s been a bit of a mad hullabaloo about the ending to Mass Effect 3, and a lot of the frustration has run along the lines of “My Shepard wouldn’t do X.” I think that’s telling. When first I read Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, I was struck by a story he told about the first Mass Effect. (I’ve written a bit about this on my blog.) In short, he describes how, no matter what else is going on in the game, “his” Shepard always has a specific reaction to a certain character in the game. “My” Shepard always has the opposite reaction. We’re playing the same game, but in a very real way, we’re not playing the same character.

To say it more simply, even if the scenario is constructed for me by a team of designers, writers, and developers, the experience of playing the game is still mine, and the things that happen to my character are happening to me. They become a part of my experience, and a part of how I make sense of the world–which is ultimately why I think videogames are worth writing about.

AJM: As someone who is a thinker about several different types of pop culture narrative, including comic books, I’m curious about your take on the emerging genre of graphic nonfiction. I’m a scholar of graphic narrative myself, so I’m keen to notice a structural relationship between graphic novels, popular comic books, and memoir – but not many academics agree. 

JNG: I’d hardly call myself a “scholar of graphic narrative,” but I certainly read a lot of comics. I think more than anything using a graphic medium to tell stories is much like using text to tell stories–there are lots and lots and lots of ways to do it, and we do ourselves a bit of a disservice when we lump them all together. (We hear people dismiss “comics” and “videogames” all the time; we don’t ever hear anybody say, “Pfft. Words.”)

I think one of the most useful things about graphic media for a memoirist is the fact that comics already have a cultural acceptance of an interstitial authorial or narrative voice.

Consider:

The medium affords three different voices presented side by side–the voice of a character speaking in a previous panel (“His name is Jason”), the voice of Robin in the present action of the scene (“YEEEEEEEHAAAA!!”, etc.), and the voice of the narrator (probably Alfred–“He liked having him out there”). Each voice serves a different purpose, and so the writers are able to contextualize the scene in a way that a written text can’t easily emulate.

One of the things I love most about nonfiction writing is the way in which the different voices intertwine to help make meaning in complicated ways. In any given scene in an essay, “I” may be speaking with three different voices, all of which are in direct conflict–that is,