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Walden: a game

Nineteenth-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s reflections on life, liberty and the Massachusetts landscape are being turned into a game, explains Kat Sommers.

Books have long been the inspiration for films, but the number of games directly inspired by books is surprisingly small, and when games developers do take up the challenge, they don’t start with the easy ones. In 2010, Electronic Arts released a version of Dante’s Inferno, a mediaeval meditation on the nature and consequences of sin, while last year the National Endowment of the Arts funded a team at the University of South California to develop a game based on Walden, a treatise by 19th-century transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau on the merits of “living deliberately”.

Living what now? In 1845 Thoreau left the daily grind, relinquishing all comforts of the modern world, and retreated to a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts for two years. There, among natural surroundings, he sought to isolate himself from civil society and “reduce life to its simplest terms” (albeit with a weekly visit to his mum to get his washing done). The game being developed at USC’s Game Innovation Lab does exactly that, reducing life into three core components: time, work and play.

 “This model allows players to experience some of the decisions and conflicts that are faced when one wants to “simplify” life to its essence,” says Tracy Fullerton, the lead game designer, USC Associate Professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab, in an email to The Literary Platform.

Challenges are set – clothes must be darned, and beans grown – but the player can take them or leave them aside as they wish. The rich environment shown in the game demo offers a gentler barometer of success than points or a timer: faithfully recreated from Thoreau’s text, it becomes more lush when explored, offering up quotations the player can paste in their virtual journal – but work too hard, and it simply fades.

It is tempting here to think that games are too reductive. Who can forget the delicate pathos of The Great Gatsby, reduced to a pixelated (albeit tongue-in-cheek) platform game?

Indeed, critics have leapt at the idea of a virtual outdoors world, an irony not seen since the opening titles of children’s TV show ‘Why Don’t You?’. Surely games offer not an active engagement with life (or, to use Thoreau’s phrase, a chance to “live deliberately”), but the opportunity to withdraw from it temporarily?

And yet Walden’s gameplay is deliberate in every sense of the word: purposeful, unhurried and methodical. The first year of the game takes about six hours to play, and then players are encouraged to continue their exploration in a ‘sandbox’ mode without goals or time limits.

“We are exploring what we think of as “reflective” play mechanics,” Tracy says. “We want to evoke a sense of reflection and introspection within the player as a part of the game experience.”

At the heart of both the book and the game is that old chestnut, life/work balance: by expending so much energy and time on our physical needs, are we neglecting our spiritual and intellectual needs? The result of Thoreau’s experiment was a collection of written insights and anecdote. Turning it into a game, however, allows the reader to go one step further: to make their own choices, and determine their own response to the question.

Perhaps only then in the comfort of their living rooms will they come to the same conclusion as Thoreau did, after two years on his own in the woods, exploring the natural world and recording every aspect of the flora and fauna around him: that life itself “is not a hardship, but a pastime” – a game.




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