Timothy Burke


I'm a professor of history at Swarthmore College. I was trained as a historian of modern Africa, and I continue to teach and research in that field. However, I've also developed a sustained interest in popular culture, interactive media and games and have published work on these topics. I'm particularly interested in 'virtual worlds' and MMOs, both in terms of their actual, flawed history as a media form to date and their implications for studying online sociality.

  • Session Proposal: Games and Consent


    Listening to the panel on narrative puzzles, I’m suddenly thinking of a whole genre of narratives about puzzles wherein protagonists discover that they are trapped in a puzzle that they did not intentionally engage or seek out (often with life or death consequences, as in the Saw films). Which in turn makes me think of another genre of fiction about games which players are compelled to play (Most Dangerous Game, most notoriously), or games whose rules are changed at the whim of one player (The Quick and the Dead).

    When games enter into larger public discourses, this trope sometimes figures very powerfully: the game which some players do not want to play but cannot escape, the puzzle which has been set by a sadist, the social system which power has turned into a game and then changed the rules.

    Games which are ‘fun’ or pleasurable by contrast seem to have as one of their central attributes the equal consent of all players (and an equal ability to withdraw from the game without consequence). This figures heavily in Huizinga’s definition of play, but isn’t limited to his view.

    Consent might be a way to think about games in relation to power? About what makes games ‘good’ and ‘bad’? And maybe about why games sometimes are an awkward fit for classrooms?

  • Session Proposal: Why So Serious?


    While a conversation about the discomfort of many academics (and many outside the academy) with scholarly, intellectual or researcher approaches to games and play might turn too meta for Ian Bogost’s liking, I think there’s a profitable session to be had about the status of games as subjects and practices in the academy (and in ‘high culture’ as well, perhaps).  I don’t mean this to be a self-pity party: in fact, I think one of the biggest issues is not with how other scholars or intellectuals treat colleagues interested in games, but with the ways that many games researchers attempt to legitimate their work by taking fun or pleasure out of the picture (a problem that many people working on serious or learning games run afoul of).

    This might make an interesting combination with a session on some of the scholarly ‘canon’ in the study of games and play, such as Homo Ludens.

  • Session Proposal: Authoring Tools, Past and Future


    At a moment when most other media forms are becoming more open to a wider variety of creators at a wider range of scales, games are largely going in the other direction: becoming more expensive to create, far more demanding in terms of technical skills necessary. I’d like to have a session to talk about past authoring tools, middleware and so on designed to help a wider range of producers make game content or designs, to talk about the insights that games like Minecraft offer about the shortcomings of some of those past tools (such as Neverwinter Nights) and to see if we can’t draw up both a list of specs for what the ideal authoring tools might look like and what the incentives might be to produce them.