Can a Video Game Help Players Live Like Thoreau?

Posted by Sarah Laskow

walden screenshot
When a gamer sits down to play “Walden, a Game” she’ll begin, as Henry David Thoreau did, by building a cabin. The game is set in Walden's woods, a lush world replicated in detail. To play this game means to “follow in the footsteps of Thoreau,” the trailer promises, and some of the tasks at hand are simple—like finding food, clothing, and shelter. But players also must try to follow Thoreau on more philosophical paths, "seeking out the more ephemeral experiences that make up much of the book," says Tracy Fullerton, the game’s lead designer.

"I don't want to give a lot of it away, but it will include a number of memorable sections of the narrative, including the bean field and, of course, the pond itself," Fullerton says. 

Fullerton, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and director of the school's Game Innovation Lab, has been working on the game with her team for several years and recently received a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support production costs. But Fullerton first imagined a Walden video game about 10 years ago, when she was re-reading Thoreau’s book and visited Walden Pond.  “I only jotted down some ideas back then, but I kept it in mind over the years,“ she says.

The team began by prototyping the game experience, then created paper models of the core system. They graduated to 2D prototypes and finally, the 3D world. They're working on building out the game’s features, which include details like seasonal changes to the environment. All this work depends on a deep reading of Thoreau’s Walden and research about the pond itself. The team made a list of every plant and animal that Thoreau references in the book and visited the site multiple times. “Also, our sound designer lives right near the pond,” Fullerton says. “So our simulation is really informed by both his writings and the pond as we know it today.”

Time is sped up in the game, but it replicates an experience that took two years of Thoreau’s life. Fullerton is interested in games that allow what she calls “reflective play,” allowing players to “bring their own interpretations and experiences to what’s going on in the game.” There’s time built in for players to reflect on choices, to reach for those less routine experiences that Thoreau wrote about.

It’s not a traditional video game, but Fullerton hopes that it will resonate with the modern problems players might be dealing with. “I think a lot of people can relate to the fact that Thoreau was writing at a time when life seemed to be getting more and more complex, to move faster and faster,” she says. She wants the game to help people think about balance in their own lives, even if they don't have two years to spend fishing and gathering berries.

Photo courtesy of Tracy Fullerton