Award-winning indie game ‘Walden’ rewards contemplation rather than conquest

A 19th-century book about building a cabin in the woods and spending a couple of years musing about the meaning of life may seem like an unlikely subject for a video game, but Walden, A Game has recently claimed the Game of the Year and Most Significant Impact awards at the recent Games for Change awards.

Developed over a decade by Tracy Fullerton, director of the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, the innovative indie game draws its inspiration from the writings of Thoreau, encouraging a deliberate and thoughtful pace. Walden Pond has been meticulously recreated, and the game loosely follows the events of his first year in the Massachusetts woods.

There’s a survival aspect to the game, as you must build your cabin, plant beans for food, and so on. But you’re also encouraged to explore the meticulously recreated Walden Woods to find various animals, plants, and relics like arrowheads. Spend too much time grinding away at working, however, and your “inspiration” level starts to drop. The world loses its luster as the colors become less vibrant and the music fades away.

Fullerton elaborated on some of the design decisions for Walden in an essay for Rolling Stone. “Today, we live in a world that has sacrificed simplicity and self-reliance for interconnectivity and convenience,” she said. “The speeding up of life that Thoreau identified as ‘railroad time’ might now be just as well thought of as ‘Internet time.’ The design of this game, with its affordances for reflective play, offers a chance for players, young and old, from all walks of life, to go to the woods, virtually, to live and play deliberately.”

The game received some notice in academic circles as well. It got funding from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Smithsonian magazine called it “the world’s most improbable video game.”

Would Thoreau have approved of Walden, A Game and our interconnected and wired lifestyles of the 21st century? Possibly not, if this quote from Walden is any indication: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

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