Are you a big fan of Thoreau, but too lazy to take a pilgrimage to Walden Pond? Too busy too abandon your studies and go live alone in nature? Soon, you won’t even have to step outside of your room to get a taste of Thoreau: a team at the University of Southern California is developing a Walden video game, which will allow the player to simulate Thoreau’s famous experiment in living at Walden Pond in Concord, MA from 1845-47, from the comfort of their home. No need to pack up your belongings, build your own shelter, and live off the land—now, your virtual Transcendentalist thinker can do all those things for you!
The Walden video game has been in development for several years by a team at the University of Southern California (USC), but production did not really take off until the group received a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2012 to finish the project. Lead game designer, USC Associate Professor Tracy Fullerton, told TIME in an interview that this funding will allow them to bring the virtual world of Walden to life, with a “rich simulation of the woods” filled with the details noted by Thoreau in his writings.
The game will be single-player (obviously) and will occur in a real-time 3D virtual environment, where players can mimic the many facets of Thoreau’s outdoor, self-reliant life and adventures. Their aesthetic vision of the physical landscape of Walden is based on Thoreau’s comprehensive descriptions of the pond, surrounding woods, and plants and animals of the area—and if you have read Walden, you know Thoreau gives plenty of details. The USC team also wants to make Thoreau’s emphasis on introspection and contemplation in nature a central part of the playing experience, which will certainly make this a different playing experience than popular games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. The game is intended to be part of a “new genre” of video games, in which the player’s experience of and interaction with the virtual world is both sensory and philosophical.
So what exactly will there be to do in Walden? Well, in this virtual world, players will be able to fulfill the daily tasks of living at Walden Pond that Thoreau chronicles, wander through the untamed woods and ponder life’s deepest questions, stop to observe a family of animals or a particularly interesting plant, and return at day’s end to a simple, sparse cabin like the one Thoreau built for himself. Players will fulfill these tasks against a virtual backdrop that captures the natural lushness and beauty of Walden that Thoreau loved. The team hopes that through these different gaming paths, players will learn to live deliberately and insightfully, as Thoreau did, in this virtual world—and by extension, in the real world as well.
The game, while certainly an innovative idea, seems to ironically contradict the fundamental Transcendentalist messages of Thoreau’s work: that man should go into nature himself and live outside of the constraints of society. As the TIME review asks, why wouldn’t a Thoreau-inspired individual just want to pack a backpack and head out to a remote spot where he can ponder the questions of existence in real life? If Thoreau was alive today, wouldn’t he want us to step away from our computers and gaming consoles and experience real nature, rather than copying his steps in a virtual simulation? The USC team acknowledges these points but says that isn’t the main intention of the game. Rather, it provides busy people with the opportunity to experience “nature” without having to commit to an experiment like Thoreau’s. The game, like the book Walden, is not meant to replace experience in the natural world. Because the game is funded by the NEA and lead by a team of university researchers, it does seem to provide an interesting video-game alternative that focuses on the intellectual and introspective sides of existence, rather than depicting a fantasy realm or a world filled with gratuitous violence. Still, you can imagine that Thoreau might not be pleased with individuals who cannot find the time or energy to go into nature, but instead choose to engage with a virtual reality.
No release date has been set yet, but I know you will all be waiting on the edge of your seats to pre-order this virtual Transcendentalist adventure!