Colloquium | Timothy Burke

Wednesday, December 2, 2015 - 12:00pm

Timothy Burke

Surviving Gameworld Armageddons: What We Desire When We Desire Virtual Worlds, and What We Should Desire Instead.

Since the first text-based “multi-user dungeons” appeared in the early 1980s, devotees of these massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs) have embraced the expectation of unending technologically-mediated progress towards virtual worlds of greater complexity, depth, and visual capacity, looking forward to an imagined point where the experience of virtuality would begin to have a direct mimetic resemblance to the embodied material life of “real life” while also having boundless imaginative and representational plasticity. Players have been looking forward to a moment where they could cross at will between their everyday lives and embodied simulations of life in capaciously “realistic” representations of world-building fictions like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

This vision of virtuality has become as predictable a trope in fictional and cinematic representations of futurism as flying cars were in an earlier era: we never stop expecting its advent even when actually-existing virtual worlds fail commercially or fall far short of the breathless aesthetic expectations set for them by players and designers. One does not simply walk into Kalimdor; its borders are secured by endless repetitive, labor-simulating quests to collect a thousand boar livers.

In this talk, I will speculate about some of the deeper histories of the desire for virtuality and describe how that desire has endured the actually-existing disappointments and failures of virtual worlds in their short history as a media form. I will suggest that in some ways, the long incubation of a desire for virtuality has misunderstood the object of its longing, and offer some ideas about how other kinds of games and digital culture might better realize what many players are hoping to find.

Timothy Burke's main field of specialty is modern African history, specifically southern Africa, but he has also worked on U.S. popular culture and on computer games. Professor Burke teaches a wide variety of courses at Swarthmore, including surveys of African history, the environmental history of Africa, the social history of consumption, history of leisure and play, and a cultural history of the idea of the future. Professor Burke is the author of Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Duke University Press, 1996) and the co-author of Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up With Cartoon Culture (St. Martin's Griffin, 1999). He is currently completing a book on individual experience and agency in 20th Century Zimbabwe, and has maintained the blog, "Easily Distracted: Culture, Politics, Academia and Other Shiny Objects," since Nov. 2002.

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