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Ladies of YouTube: Nika Harper, Mighty Pen, Mightier Swords

Interview

As a platform, YouTube has opened up new opportunities for filmmakers, writers, pop culture critics, and other creative talents to share their work with the world. For female creators, YouTube and internet culture has often been a double-edged sword, allowing them to bypass the usual gatekeepers but often exposing them to hateful feedback online and even harassment in real life. In this new series Ladies of YouTube, I sit down with writers, camera women, and prominent personalities to discuss their work as well as the advantages and disadvantages of YouTube culture.

As a YouTube personality, Nika Harper is, in a word, unique. Her shows for Geek & Sundry range from recreating video game weaponry in Arcade Arms to imagining stories in story-less video games in Story Mode and creative writing advice in Wordplay. She took a break from her writing (and taking a bar mace to the chest) to talk about Geek & Sundry and finding her voice as a writer and vlogger.

Rachel Kolb (TMS): Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Did you go to school for creative writing, and how did life lead to you working with Geek & Sundry?

Nika Harper (NH): I was always the nerdy kid who read too much. I even had the unflattering nickname “bookworm” in the latter parts of elementary school, but I just took it in stride. Writing was the skill I never took seriously; I always wanted to be an actress or a teacher or any such thing, but it never seemed like being an author was a career path I would choose, it would just be something that would happen. I think I wrote because it was natural, so I didn’t consider it to be a real skill or anything to pay attention to. It was also, stealthily, the most fun thing I could work on.

Years and careers later, I’d easily consider it the focus of my life. It was especially interesting working in the video games industry and seeing how players reacted to reading and writing. I really started doing videos at Riot Games because the articles weren’t getting proper visibility, and we thought our players preferred to watch their content. It worked out great and scratched that latent theatrical itch in my life, plus I got to write and produce the episodes so it was just creativity all over the place.

Felicia Day and I had played on the same server in World of Warcraft waaaay way back in the day, and when we met her at Blizzcon, she recognized our guild name. We kept in touch (because she’s freakin’ awesome), and I’d show up as an extra in The Guild occasionally. Then we reconnected when Geek & Sundry wanted to start a vlogs channel. Since my writing show Wordplay was something I was going to be doing on my own anyway, I pitched it and voila, I was part of the vlogger family!

At the beginning of this year, I was asked by a friend of mine, Adam, to be a host for the show Arcade Arms where we travel around to weapon crafters and recreate video game weapons, then destroy stuff… I’m talkin’ knockin’ down brick walls and bashing armor. It was amazingly fun to work on, and I’m lucky Geek & Sundry asked me to host it with them!

TMS: How do you prep for your Story Mode videos, and what do you consciously do in order to distinguish yourself from other Let’s Play YouTubers?

NH: In Story Mode, I feel like picking a game that is slightly absurd is the key. The game’s logic exists and never falters, but you have to be open for worldly surprises. My favorite part of playing a game is writing my own headcanon about “Why this dire rat would be holding onto a hat” and “I am a seven-foot tall witch riding an evil skeletal horse, and the townspeople think nothing of it.” Capturing that in a video was challenging, so I picked a few games I kinda knew and added tidbits here and there to keep it interesting and easily condensed into a couple minutes of video.

TMS: What kind of games do you enjoy playing on your own time?

NH: I think I’ve shied away from the more competitive and serious games since I started focusing on my work so much. Not to say that I don’t like them, but in the last five years of my life I’ve preferred games that are a bit shorter, for convenience sake. Being “good” is also out of the question, as I’m too centered on being “good” at skills outside gaming in general, so if you saw me play Hearthstone for instance, you’d think I was half-asleep. I tend to favor short, story-driven games (like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable) along with open-world MMOs (World of Warcraft, Wildstar, Ultima Online, Free Realms). And then there’s the games that don’t seem to fit into any category but I will play until I rot (Age of Empires 2, Costume Quest, Skylanders, Diablo 3, Spelunky). It really depends on my mood. But I consider gaming to be a relaxing, take-time-off activity so if I get frustrated, that just isn’t the kind of game I want to play.

A long time ago I used to be far more competitive, but I also feel like I had more free time and reasons to do so. Nowadays, nobody should care if I’m the top five tank on the server because I’m focusing my time on being an author.

TMS: As someone that produces video blogs on writing and gaming, can you speak to how writing for video games is changing and any games in recent years that have impressed you with their writing?

NH: Not five minutes before writing this, I played Castles in the Sky, a very short little indie game by Tall Trees. It was brilliant, and I think we’re starting to see indie games move in this new narrative path before the rest of the industry can catch on.

There are many ways to write a video game and do so very effectively. Cinematic cut-scenes can bring a single-player experience together and have been done exceptionally well, merging gameplay with a deep, driven narrative. I think mainly of games like The Last of Us, which is brilliant, and the heavily environmental storytelling of all the Bioshock games where the world itself has its own voice alongside the gameplay and cinematic interactions. These are strong titles with a grasp on how to create a great narrative experience. But there will always be new art forms.

I’ve mentioned games like Gone Home and I’ll do it again. The game “play” is exploration, with minimal elements of typical “gaming.” In games, we are used to interacting with other creatures, people, puzzles and so forth, but many modern games (even starting with Portal) have stepped back and looked at it. You have a narrator of sorts, you control a single being, and through puzzles or exploration, you complete a story. It’s challenging a lot of the ways people think about what a game is, and that is an amazing conversation to be having. Journey has no words in it whatsoever, and it was a deeply emotional experience for the people who played it. Kentucky Route Zero, in classic adventure game form, tells its story via dialogue and minimalist, beautiful scenery.

Writing for games really depends on the type of game you’re intending to make… because narrative might not be words you write, it might be something you create.

TMS: You have mentioned Stephen King and Neil Gaiman as influences. Can you speak to how you found your own unique writing voice while being inspired by the work of others?

NH: Finding your style and voice in anything you do is a product of failing to be something else. Tons of practice, study, and errors merge into creating something that feels natural to you. It’s the hardest thing when someone creative, or anyone who makes anything at all, has a role model because it enables us to be both inspired and quashed. “I could never be that,” we say, “I can’t do that, ever.” It takes a lot of strength to realize that you don’t have to be that, whatever “that” is, and what you bring to the world is uniquely your own. I’ve compared myself to people who were fifteen to thirty years older than myself, how successful those people are! How unique and strong and wonderful! I want to be that!

What those people do worked for them, but it doesn’t always apply to you. I wanted to be a bassist in a rock band, just like Paz Lenchantin (from A Perfect Circle, the Entrance Band) and I heard of her classical music background, how her family all grew up playing any instrument they could get their hands on, and I felt hurt. I didn’t have that. Was I at a disadvantage? Could I ever make this musical dream a reality?

I think we get caught up in the “how” instead of the “what.” Our insecure minds tell us, “In order to make something great, I have to do it the same way they did.” That isn’t true in any way, and it requires a lot of strength and practice to find out how it is that you like to do things. That could be anything from writing, to working, to falling in love or mourning a loss. Experiment and challenge yourself to try new styles, new actions, new ways of learning how you best operate. Use the information others give you to inspire new ways of thinking, because then you discover what makes you really special.

J.K. Rowling wrote the entire Harry Potter series in crowded coffee shops. I can’t do that, not even one bit. I need to be alone, possibly in a hotel room with big ol’ headphones on. In fact, I’m doing that tomorrow. Wish me luck.

TMS: Where do you come up with your writing prompts? (Former teachers, writing books, or your own lovely creations?)

NH: Inspiration is everywhere! It does take a trick or two to find it, but very often a lot of ideas drop into my head and I start thinking “What if?”

Those are the best words for an author, by the way, “What If?” At least, they’re certainly my favorite.

For Wordplay, I think about a style of writing I have never done or one I may want to learn more about, be it noir fiction or a parable or a sonnet. Then I asked people to submit an “emotion, subject, or scenario” to write on, and I could mix and match. I’d scan the list, laugh and be bombarded by creative stimuli, and one would always pop out and say “Me! There’s a story in me!” Then I would take a moment and think, “What if…?” then pick out some I also feel are open-ended but interesting enough for others to write on. It is a challenge, after all!

My very first public writing project was a Tumblr I call Typeface Tales, and it was the first time I had ever released any stories or writing that I had done in a proper fashion. It was always a secret hobby I had that I was very nervous about, sometimes sharing with a few friends here and there. I wanted to write more regularly and I found that I had a love of typography and fonts, particularly going to font sites and seeing the wonderful diversity there. Everything like the name and the look of the font was like a playground—why was it named that? Does it suit the letters? What does this make me think of? I’ve written a lot of flash fiction that way, and it’s my go-to when I feel the itch to write and don’t have anything quite in mind.

A lot of prompts are about noticing things in the world and asking “Why?”

TMS: What are you currently working on in your own writing?

NH: Short list: I’m working on a noir fantasy novella, dark urban fiction, a short Twine game, releasing short stories every month for my Patreon supporters, and bringing back my Wordplay show!

I’m also putting together a workshop and a talk for LeakyCon in Orlando (the best fandom convention on this planet!) about finding your comfort zone in writing, and defending fan fiction as an art form.

What I’m actually working on is battling that fear that I never finish things. What I should be working on is my memory, because if I do finish things, I immediately forget and start worrying about the stuff I haven’t done again.

TMS: Do you handle everything when it comes to producing your videos (camera, sound, graphics, etc.), and if so, what is your background in media production?

NH: With my vlogs, I handle most of the production myself. Geek & Sundry has put the finishing touches and some well-needed polish on the episodes, but the bulk of it is me! I’ve never really done video media production before, so I have to thank my friends for their patience in answering all of my questions when I consistently have them.

TMS: How much of your episodes are scripted, and how much is off the cuff?

NH: The type of video determines whether it has a script or not, though I tend to do a little of both. I have a terrible memory so if there’s a lot of points I want to hit, I’ll likely be scripting something out in depth. My Wordplay shows, for example, had a lot of bullet points and some purely scripted parts, to make sure I got the technical terms correct, but when I’m playing games, for instance… anything goes. I prefer bullet points for shorter videos so I can go in depth about topics, but I also mess up and babble and say the wrong thing a lot and then… sorry, what was the question?

TMS: Some female YouTube personalities have spoken out about their struggle with their on-screen appearance and finding a way to express their opinions in a way that audiences concentrate on their words and not their clothing, make-up, etc. Do you find yourself making conscious choices about your appearance on-camera, or do you just put yourself out there unfiltered and know that the right people will listen to what you have to say?

NH: I am very conscious of my appearance in videos because the world is very visually-inclined. We tend to trust our eyes before most of our other senses, and as an author and speaker it can be very difficult to have our words truly heard. I consider it a human fault that we all share, so the challenges with bringing your work to a visual medium are lofty. I use YouTube to communicate, inspire, and promote my writing because it is an incredible tool for that, but there are many caveats. I consider YouTube to be a part of theatre, so I may dress up thematically for a video or dress down for a different one, and they are conscious decisions I make in order to merge the visual with the message being told.

That includes not wearing revealing clothing but hey, if that’s your market, rock it.

TMS:  I love your tattoos and your hair. (I don’t actually have a question here, I just really love your tattoos and hair.)

NH: AAAAAaaaaahhhhh *runs off happily into the night, with many triumphant air-punches*

Thank you so much for asking such awesome questions! I’ve been crazy busy working on writing and debuting Geek & Sundry’s new show Arcade Arms, and it was nice to take a step back and think about stuff for a minute. I’ve read The Mary Sue a lot (haven’t we all?) [Editor's Note: Awwww.] and I’m incredibly flattered to be talking with you folks. Keep on fighting the good fight!

Nika Harper can be seen on Geek & Sundry’s Arcade Arms, Story Mode, and Wordplay. She can also be found on Patreon or on Twitter @NikaHarper. For more Geek & Sundry shows, subscribe to Geek & Sundry on YouTube.

Rachel Kolb is a Disney fangirl, Swan Queen shipper, and life-long Broadway nerd with an encyclopedic knowledge of original Broadway cast recordings. She is currently a staff writer at JustPressPlay.net and a contributor to Sound on Sight. She is also the creator of LudusNYC.com, a website celebrating Broadway theater that offers tips on making theater-going more affordable. Since the fall of 2013 she has been a regular co-host on The Disney Film Project podcast, a show dedicated to reviewing every film released by the Walt Disney Company, from the classic animated features to Pixar and LucasFilm. She can be found on Twitter @rachelekolb and @LudusNYC.

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