Gaming Walden, Learning Thoreau

by Jennifer Fischer

“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.” ~Henry David Thoreau

“[T]he words that Thoreau wrote about his stay at Walden Pond are as important to us today as they were when he wrote them–perhaps more important. His thoughts about how advancements in technology and communication change the quality and pace of our lives are deeply relevant to those of us living in the digital age. So are his critiques of other aspects of society, including our relationships to governments and, of course, to nature.” 

These are the words that game developer Tracy Fullerton shares in her introductory letter to the corresponding Journeys In Film curriculum for the first-person, open-world video game entitled, Walden, a game. In sitting down (virtually) to speak with Fullerton about the incredible experience that is Walden, a game, we dive more deeply into the importance of Thoreau’s words and his experiences at Walden Pond and what they offer us today, including this invitation to live more deliberately, but expanding beyond that and contemplating what that invitation truly means. 

With Walden, a game, Fullerton and her team take players, literally, to Walden (the place and the book) and allow players to experience this special place in the same way that Thoreau did. Unlike a reading of the book, the game gives players agency and the opportunity to make choices through their engagement with the world around them. Fullerton is giving the players a gift, an opportunity and a depth of experience that complements the book and, for some, supersedes it or offers an opening to the book and increased access to Thoreau’s words and thoughts as there may be those who find the book itself a struggle. (Many educators are now using this game in their classroom and with great benefit and success). 

Fullerton selected Walden for many reasons, beginning with her personal connection to the text and place. This is a starting place for many people regarding Thoreau and regarding their own love of nature, their own desire to coax forth life from the land. Their interest began with a simple book or with a specific place. Fullerton speaks of a childhood spent constructing things in the woods and smashing acorns to make acorn flour, a desire to emulate Thoreau. In our conversation as well, she reflected on the different ways the book spoke to her depending on the circumstance in which she found herself at the time of the reading.

The game offers that same multiplicity of experience and understanding as players can make different choices–choices that will influence the outcome. Players can revisit and rediscover Walden differently each time they play the game. 

Beyond the personal connection Fullerton had to Walden and, thus, Thoreau, she also speaks about the pull of the book on her because of its “critique of materialism.” She explains that the book itself is laid out like one big experiment. This is something every gardener or farmer can understand. There is a science to planting. There is information and data that is used to improve the outcomes, but, at the end of the day, each seed planted is also a new experience and a new experiment in and of itself, an experiment that informs the next one. In this experience of planting and growth, we often find valuable lessons and metaphors for life.

Walden, a game gives us something similar. Through it, players are invited to interrogate their place in the world. “So, it is not a virtual nature for nature’s sake,” Fullerton explains, “but about our relationship to nature and finding that kind of mindfulness on a daily basis.” 

The game draws not only on Thoreau’s words, but also his philosophical ideals. “The game is based on Thoreau’s philosophy. The game is based on this idea that we should take care of our basic needs,” Fullerton offers, expanding this thought to stress the importance of considering our ephemeral needs, that the game experience should move players beyond that basic and into another level of our understanding. “But we also need to take care of our relationship with ideas and with nature,” she stresses. 

For Fullerton, the pull to create Walden grew out of her long-held personal connection to the text and place, but also because she herself was struggling with balance in her busy life. She understood Thoreau’s desire to go into the woods to find balance and to live “more deeply.”

“The underlying system of the game is about maintaining that balance,” Fullerton explains. “It condenses Thoreau’s experiment into a livable amount of time, so his first year is condensed into six hours of game play. It is not meant to replace a direct experience of nature in any way, so what we hope is that people will play the game and be inspired by the activities.”

Many people are finding this inspiration–people who already have a relationship with nature and engage regularly in sowing seeds and bearing fruit, but also people who do not have an established relationship with nature or whose engagement with nature is more minimal. Students living in urban settings or gamers who enjoy action experiences with a tight compulsion loop–all of these people take something important from the game and gain a deeper understanding of Thoreau and of what a balanced life well lived, deliberately lived, offers. 

Fullerton reflects on the point of it all: “In the game, if you’re playing as a bean farmer, and you’re growing and harvesting a lot of beans, you’re going to wind up selling your extra harvest and using that to buy more resources at the store…If you had spent the same amount of time that you spent harvesting beans getting to know the land, you could actually live off the land. So this is a question that we want people to ask, ‘How much time do I really need to spend earning money. How much money do I really need?’”

Walden: a game pushes players to interrogate their own lives and to consider what a sustainable life truly is and in this way it holds true to what Thoreau felt and what he was sharing with the world through his writing. 

Thoreau’s detailed notes on the environment of Walden Pond influenced other naturalists, environmentalists, and philosophers. “Because he started a process of noting blooming data and water levels and such, and then other people followed in his footsteps and because he became famous, so then other people followed in his footsteps,” Fullerton asserts. “So Walden is one of the most detailed scientifically studied areas we have that can show us the effects of things like climate change and industrialization as well.” 

Fullerton’s team took full advantage of the scientific wealth of information available about Walden to create a landscape as accurate as possible to the Walden that Thoreau experienced at the time, down to the tiny details of the birds chirping the forests. 

When I asked what Thoreau would have done now, were he alive in the time of COVID, Fullerton responded instantly. “He would have thought, well, it’s time to go to the woods,” but she offers this with a caveat as there are other important aspects of this time, beyond COVID-19. This is a time of continued struggle for equality and social justice in the United States, so she postulates that he might not have stayed in the woods exclusively. “In terms of civil disobedience and the role of citizens in the state and social justice, those things would have been important to him as well.” Those elements are present in Walden: a game as well–Thoreau refusing to pay taxes to support the U.S.-Mexican War and spending a night in jail, Thoreau assisting with supplies for different sites along the Underground Railroad. Both are incorporated into the game.

Fullerton reflects on Thoreau’s continued relevance. “It’s shocking how modern all the facets of his personality are to the questions we deal with today.” He was questioning industrialism and its effect on the environment and interrogating the political systems that reinforce oppression and inequality. 

“Games,” Fullerton posits, “are poised to play an important role in our understanding of where we fit into these natural systems and also the societal systems.” This is something Fullerton and her team have achieved through Walden, a game.

Additionally, they are also bringing Thoreau to a new generation and having a profound impact. Fullerton shared a letter she received from an educator who used the game in her classroom. 

The teacher wrote, For the first time in my career, I was amazed by the outcomes. While other teachers reported that students disappeared from their online classes, the students who are engaged in the game showed up every week at our Google meets. They commiserate about how hard it was to raise the beans and gave each other tips for keeping up their energy and inspiration.” The teacher went on to praise the game for offering students a unique way to learn about the abolitionist movement and the deeper impact of the game. “My students helped a fellow student who’s world had gone grey,” and students found solace in the game while they were stuck at home because of COVID-19. 

In Fullerton’s introduction to the corresponding curriculum for Walden, a game, she states “When he writes, ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,’ he is speaking for all of us when we consider the preciousness of life and the importance of choosing wisely what we do with our time here on Earth.”

Walden, a game and Walden, the book, work in beautiful harmony and invite us all to be careful stewards of the precious lives that we have. How will we spend our time and what, truly, do we need to live our own beautiful, deliberate lives?