Follow the footsteps of Thoreau in 'Walden' through .. a video game?

A video game based on Henry David Thoreau's life at Walden Pond is being developed by a team at the University of Southern California.

Players of "Walden, a game" are invited to live out Thoreau's atomistic philosophy and discover life's essence from the comfort of their own homes. Responses so far have been mixed.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau in "Walden, or Life in the Woods," the seminal 19th- century Transcendentalist text on solitude and self-reliance. A mélange of acerbic social commentary, nature writing, and well-turned phrases, "Walden" chronicles the writer’s experiment of living, with minimal resources, in a one-room cabin beside Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., from 1845 to 1847. The book has been included on high school English syllabi throughout the country for many years, but a new video game based on Thoreau’s life and writings at Walden Pond promises to introduce even younger students to the wonders of living a simplified life fully integrated with one’s natural surroundings.

Tracy Fullerton, Associate Professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and Director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, seized upon the idea of creating a video game based on "Walden" about 10 years ago during a visit to Walden Pond, and serves as lead designer for the game. She told me, “The way [Thoreau] writes about his ideas, the choices he made – that we all make – and their effects on the quality of our lives seemed an interesting and topical basis for a game.” Fullerton’s team at USC was recently awarded $40,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to help produce the video game. 2012 marks the first year that video game designers were invited to apply for NEA Arts in Media grants.

"Walden, a game," was developed at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media Divisions’ Game Innovation Lab and “simulates the experiment in living made by Thoreau at Walden Pond.” The game happens in a real-time, three-dimensional environment and replicates not only the actual geography of Walden Woods, but also the experiment of ascetic living that Thoreau conducted and recorded in "Walden"  – an experiment that continues to be emulated by individualistic Americans today. According to the developers, the game “posits a new genre of play, in which reflection and insight play an important role in the player experience.” Spells, skirmishes, and seduction play no role in this documentary-esque game; instead, players are invited to live out Thoreau's atomistic philosophy and discover life's essence from the comfort of their own homes. Fullerton adds, “The game starts, as does the book, with the building of the cabin. It takes place in both the woods and in a section of Concord. The player takes on the task of fulfilling the basic needs of life that Thoreau discusses – food, fuel, shelter and clothing – and balances those tasks with seeking out the more ephemeral experiences that make up much of the book.”

Responses to the game so far have been mixed. While some have expressed enthusiasm for the idea of virtually recreating Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond, others have scoffed at what seems to them a rank violation of Thoreau’s tenet of living as part of nature; one online commenter noted, “Thoreau would be spinning in his grave knowing that people were about to commit the ultimate in abstraction and try to connect with the natural world through completely mediated means!” As if anticipating objections of this ilk, Fullerton said, “It would be great if everyone could take some time to conduct an experiment like Thoreau’s, but that isn’t likely for most of us. So this game is an experiment itself, one that I hope will challenge the audience and awaken ideas in them about the balance of our lives and the way our choices determine our experience of the world.”

Rhoda Feng is a Monitor contributor

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