Eyes Wide in South Africa

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Greetings from South Africa! I’m here at the first ACM conference held on the continent (DIS 2008) to present my work on games in virtual worlds (paper). You know I had to come. And let me tell you, it’s been an eye opening experience.

South Africa is a fascinating place — a mix of backgrounds from African to European to Malay, and so many more. Gorgeous rural landscapes punctuated by massive cities. New ideas everywhere the eye looks: clothing, food, advertising, architecture. 11 official languages (but, thankfully, pretty much everyone speaks English).

I mean, I’ve been to Africa before but being in a place where you can easily communicate really changes your perspective. In fabulous Senegal, I could pick up affect in French and Wolof but it’s a different thing entirely to be able to have a conversation and start to find out who people really are. I got to it.

At first blush, Cape Town seems to recovered remarkably in the years since the end of apartheid in 1994. I’ve seen less job segregation here than I did in Atlanta, for example. But peak behind the scenes (or, in my case, behind the wheel of a tour van) and that painful history starts to creep back in — from a tourguide’s inadvertent and unfortunate commentary on “informal settlements” to the clear lingering class distinctions between white, colored, and black in housing as we traveled the countryside and walked through city neighborhoods. We’re told anyone can live anywhere now, but that’s clearly bound by income and the end of apartheid did not magically re-distribute the money. And it didn’t re-distribute long held prejudices, either.

It was interesting to see fear in the faces of some well traveled folks making their first trip to Africa. Would they be robbed? Would the infrastructure be falling apart? Would the plane fall out of the sky? It was nice to see those fears evaporate when we hit the ground. (I’m sure checking in to hotels like the opulent and insane Extreme Sports Hotel didn’t hurt, either.)

Somehow, though, I didn’t have the same fears coming in. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been to Africa before. It’s not the naive notion that Africa is one country but rather that, to me, simply being back on the continent — anywhere on the continent — feels a lot like coming home. Being African American can do that to you.

For more on African roots, see Are You Sure You’re Black?

6 Responses to “Eyes Wide in South Africa”


  1. 1 Justin Ruckman

    Wow, Cape Town looks beautiful in that shot. Be well dude, I am jealous.

  2. 2 Jason

    Thanks, man! Yeah, it really is quite the amazing place. It’s too bad it takes 24 hours of travel to get here from the states. Still, if things continue as they have, I’m going to be back no matter what.

  3. 3 David Simon

    Hey, cool concept for the paper! I dig co-op gaming of all varieties. However, I was never able to get into Second Life like I was with Active Worlds back in the day… is it really flexible enough for doing the things you describe in the paper without UI or concurrency issues getting in the way?

  4. 4 Jason

    Thanks! I’m a big fan of co-op gaming, too. I was on the fence about 3d virtual worlds in general but I decided to take a risk and explore the possibilities with Second Life.

    Second Life certainly feels like the wild west but, once you learn some of the tricks, you can make it do pretty cool things. Concurrency isn’t really as much of a problem as impoverished affordances for building UI in general. (For example, you can only get 6 or so keys from the keyboard programmatically.) It’s pretty fun to be able to build things progressively in-world and get immediate feedback from folks along the way, though.

    P.S.: Apologies for the delayed response. I’ve been traveling in and around Johannesburg for a few days without internet access. O.o

  5. 5 African lover

    Really a nice shot. Reading all the news in the paers these days its hard to imagine to live peaceful in South Africa. I hope it will continue to improve, and not end in a terrible mess.

  6. 6 Jason

    African lover: I hope so, too. The situation is hugely complex but I saw a great deal of promise when I was there as well. Such a beautiful place, such a beautiful people. The recent troubles certainly hit home for me.

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