If you’ve grown up (or parented) in America in the last 40 years, chances are you have fond memories of falling victim to dysentery, trading bullets for lifesaving food, and making the tough decision about whether to ford or caulk a wagon across a river. Thus the power of one great computer game, The Oregon Trail, which—via pixelated green monitors and boxy early Macintoshes—made hundreds of millions of Americans intimately familiar with the plight of the pioneers who ventured west in the 19th century.
No computer game since has made humdrum history lessons interesting in so many schoolchildren’s (glazed) eyes. Except, perhaps, Walden, A Game, designer Tracy J. Fullerton’s just-released interactive adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist tome. In the game, as in the book, Thoreau (controlled by the player) explores the first year of what in real life became two years, two months, and two days alone in the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. (The game allows players to keep going after completing the first year, but the narrative ends and the rest is just a “sandbox.”) In order to thrive, the player needs to maintain the necessities of life laid out in the book—food, fuel, shelter, and clothing—but also to seek spiritual sustenance.
If the last computer game you played is along the lines of World of Warcraft, you’ll find this confounding. Aren’t video games about winning at all costs? Aren’t we iffy on the whole medium because it promotes violence? “Violence isn’t the problem; the problem is the wanting of stuff,” Fullerton says. “So many games have an assumption at their core that having more is beyond question. We need games that help us question motivation and the definition of achievement.”
In Walden, for example, as much as you’re encouraged to pick berries, build a cabin, and survey land to make money, you won’t win by overdoing it. Work too hard and you’ll faint, awakening to regained energy but a loss of inspiration. “We’re using this notion of survival as a MacGuffin,” Fullerton says. “You think that’s the goal, but really the goal is to maintain balance, and to ensure that nature continues to inspire you.”
Fullerton, you’ll gather, is far from your average game designer. She’s a pioneer of “reflective play,” a champion for diversity in the male-dominated field, and the director of University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab in the School of Cinematic Arts. And she sees the potential for video games to change the way people think—or rather, to get people thinking in the first place. “I sometimes think of it as ‘Slow Play,’ like the Slow-everything movements,” she says. “The pace is not inherent in the technology. It’s only inherent in what people have done with it so far.”
If that statement feels loaded coming from a successful game developer, it’s helpful to understand how Walden came to be. In 2002, after four years spent growing her start-up—which launched companion games for popular nineties TV shows like The Weakest Link—Fullerton found that business had dried up in the wake of the 2001 economic downturn. Burned-out and “worked to exhaustion,” she took a trip to Walden and reread the book on the pond’s shores. One inkling of an idea joined dozens of others in a journal until 2007, when Fullerton and her team at USC embarked on a 10-year labor of love.
It started as a book club of sorts—in which the team read Walden together and amalgamated the bits they found most meaningful. It morphed into a paper board game prototype, rebuilt several times to get the user’s journey just right. After that, they went 2-D, testing the concept and mechanisms without actually designing the woods. And finally, there came the 3-D immersive experience—complete with eight seasons of adventures, from skating in late winter to hill-climbing in early fall—that’s punctilious in its verisimilitude to what Walden was actually like in 1845.
Here’s an example of just how detailed this game gets: Fullerton’s friend and longtime collaborator Michael Sweet, artistic director of video-game scoring at Berklee College of Music, happens to live a few miles away from the pond. So he spent hours, seasons, and yes, years touring the area with experts who would tell him which birds, insects, and amphibians he could record—and which creatures wouldn’t have lived there 170 years ago. “It got to the point where I’d be sitting in bed at 11:30 at night, hear an owl, and run out to grab my microphone,” says Sweet, who then consulted Thoreau’s texts and expert sources to ensure the particular owl species might have actually hooted in Henry’s ear.
Such outright obsessiveness seems to be a byproduct of a Fullerton collaboration. “Her love for the projects she takes on really brings you into her world,” Sweet says. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of convincing for you to get really excited about her ideas and want to follow her dream for a project.”
From an industry perspective, Fullerton is going whether others won’t. “There’s a small tradition of video games that are thoughtful and contemplative, but she’s doing something unique,” says Andrew Ervin, author of the new book Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World, who hopes this game is the first of many to bring an important book to life. “I haven’t played the game, but my impression is that it’s very exciting to see this level of craft, thoughtfulness, and potentially genius brought to bear in this medium. It’s good for video games, sure, but it’s also good for people.”
Though the game took longer to build than anticipated, it’s undeniably topical. Thoreau retreated to the woods to escape the new technologies—like telegraphy and trains—that were speeding up life in the mid-1800s. He was an activist, an environmentalist, and a believer in the need to maintain a sense of wildness in nature. And lest you imagine him as the 19th century’s Al Gore, Fullerton portrays him as quite funny—and young. Thoreau was just 27 years old when he began his Walden adventure, and his game character is voiced by a child of the 1980s: actor Emile Hirsch.
Available to educators for free and with a complementary curriculum in development, Fullerton’s game might outdo even the bison-hunting glory of Oregon Trail. It’s worth noting, though, that it’s certainly not just history that Fullerton aims to instill. “We have an opportunity to build technologies that encourage us to take time to slow down and reflect,” she says. “I do believe that the games we play are rehearsals for who we become.”