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Sierra Daily

May 09, 2012

Solitude, Simplicity, and Video Games?

Walden pond iStock_000002389651XSmallPlaying a video game based on Henry David Thoreau’s life and writings from Walden Pond? Isn’t that the polar opposite of going “to the woods…to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”?

The recent news that a team at the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to develop a game in which “the player will inhabit an open, three-dimensional game world which will simulate the geography and environment of Walden Woods” raised some eyebrows. “A video game about a 19th-century philosopher living in a shack, where there’s only one character and nothing happens?,”  chuckled Time. “Sign us up!” Grist suggested that the out-in-the-woods simulation “promises to be extremely ironic.” A Guardian (U.K.) reader gasped from his or her keyboard (with no apparent irony): “Thoreau would be spinning in his grave knowing that people were about to commit the ultimate in abstraction and try to connect with the natural world through completely mediated means!”

Nevertheless, the game developers “anticipate a rich simulation of the woods, filled with the kind of detail that Thoreau so carefully noted in his writings," as USC Associate Professor Tracy Fullerton told Time. “Of course everyone should spend time in nature; but not all of us are able to set aside our lives for the time it would take to conduct an experiment like Thoreau’s. The game is not a replacement for direct experience, just as the book is not.”

And any Walden fan knows that while plenty of Thoreau’s observations were site-specific (“A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.") the transcendentalist rose above his woodsy cabin, just as a high-schooler can mentally escape the confines of her family’s basement rec room, with peer-pressure-bucking insights like "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

Then, of course, there is the fact that Walden Pond itself isn’t what it was in 1847. Commuter-rail tracks pass its western shore, the four-lane Concord Turnpike borders the 335-acre Walden Pond State Reservation, and the pond’s parking lot fills to capacity on warm summer days with beachgoers.

Photo by iStock/jstroffoleno

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

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