Walden: a Game, a first person documentary experience

Step into the shoes of 19th Century philosopher Henry David Thoreau as he experiments a spiritual retreat from the acceleration of modern life.

Developed by Tracy Fullerton, director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Walden: A Game is a first person simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond, Massachussetts, in 1845.

The game is part of the 2016 Sundance Festival’s New Frontier line-up, which showcases original digital creations that challenge traditional storytelling. Walden is an interesting take on documentary work, as it offers an immersive recreation of events that happened over 170 years ago, giving players the opportunity to step into Thoreau’s shoes and relive the 2-year experiment he documented in the classic Walden, or Life in the Woods.

Walden is a survival game, in the most naturalistic sense. Immersed in a recreation of the woods surrounding Walden Pond, players are invited to follow the steps of the philosopher, and engage in sustaining activities such as building a cabin, finding food and fuel and maintaining their shelter through eight seasons – and perhaps even more importantly, taking time to wander and meditate.

Walden: A Game

In creating Walden: A Game, I wanted to translate the feeling and sensibility of the book to an interactive experience. When Thoreau wrote, he did so from the first person perspective, and it seemed that putting players into that same experience was the best way to bring them into Thoreau’s experiment. The game has a quiet, reflective pace, which allows players the time to absorb the experience and the philosophy behind it.

Developed over a period of 8 years, Walden: A Game embodies Fullerton’s work to expand the narrative dimension of games, and their potential to express more complex forms of emotions. Interestingly, the game echoes the very topical need to get away and resist the ever-growing incursions of technology in daily life, something Thoreau’s experiment was trying to address as inventions such as the railroad and the telegraph were starting to alter the quiet pace of his life.

A singular figure in interactive media, Fullerton strives for diversity in the field of game design, and for more meaningful experiences, like the ones she nurtures at USC’s Game Innovation Lab: “I certainly hope that we’ll see more diversity in both the content of games and the designers behind that content. In working with young talent I am always trying to encourage them to think beyond existing tropes of play. It’s always a risk, but it’s one worth taking if we’re going to advance the game industry beyond it’s current limitations in narrative genres and play mechanics.

Games don’t make it easier for us to learn, they purposefully make it harder, but in a way that is challenging and entertaining.

In January, Fullerton released a new version of Mission: Admission, a Facebook game designed to help high school students understand the strategies and skills needed to apply to college, in collaboration with the MTV Get Schooled program. In addition to Walden, she is currently working on a home version of The Night Journey, a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola which has been on exhibit for a number of years, and on several new titles — a game in which you play a young scientist looking for microbial life deep underground, and a set of history games for middle school students.

On the educational potential of games, Tracy Fullerton doesn’t think of them as ‘tools’. “For something to be a tool, it would need to be an efficient way of doing something. Games are by their nature inefficient systems, and by that I mean, they don’t make it easier for us to learn, they purposefully make it harder, but in a way that is challenging and entertaining. I think that designers and learning specialists who don’t recognize the necessarily inefficient nature of games when designing for learning are in danger of destroying what is most special about a game experience. It’s critical that games not teach players, but rather that they allow players to learn. That distinction is one that has plagued the design of educational games from their inception“.

Walden: A Game is planned for a 2016 release on PC and Mac.
Walden: A Game website
Tracy Fullerton’s website
USC Game Innovation Lab

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