A Game in the Woods

27 Apr

So today I was sent a link to the kind of educational game that typically makes me want to bang my head into a wall: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/04/26/walden-woods-video-game-based-on-philosopher-thoreaus-life/

In this case, part of my reaction is through no fault of the game itself (which has not yet been developed), but because I harbor a deep and abiding cynicism and disdain for Henry David Thoreau. As a philosopher, Thoreau has some ideas that have formed the basis for non-violent resistance (“Civil Disobedience”) and increased support for and awareness of environmental causes (Walden). In that sense, I suppose Thoreau is a good thing.

What I cannot fathom is why a game based on Walden would at all be attractive. Thoreau “went into the woods… to live deliberately.” The vagueness of that phrase aside, the idea of “living deliberately” as a game mechanic does not thrill me (which the article linked to above does indeed note). The game is designed for – it appears – exploration of three-dimensional virtual space. There are other games – Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim – that have done this, and to great effect. The aesthetics of such games alone can make non-mechanic-driven exploration autotelically rewarding.

In terms of Walden, I am not optimistic. Walden Pond itself, while beautiful, is not a vast expanse of wilderness. It’s two miles from Concord, Massachusetts (to which, I will note, Thoreau walked on a regular basis to have lunch with his friends and buy groceries while “living deliberately” in the woods, as commenter Bryan J. Maloney notes: “Will it also feature the multiple times he was a dinner guest at the houses in the area?”). It takes about a half-hour to and hour to leisurely stroll around the pond. Not the kind of space one generally deems worth virtual exploration.

And, finally, there is the purpose of the game:

The team behind the video game Walden said it “posits a new genre of play, in which reflection and insight play an important role in the player experience”. While the player travels through the virtual world of Walden, and deals with everyday life at Walden Pond, they will also be asked, the team said, to “focus on the deeper meaning behind events that transpire in the world. By attending to these events, the player is able to gain insight into the natural world, and into connections that permeate the experience of life at Walden.”

Generally speaking, I am underwhelmed when my students suggest that the purpose of something (anything) is to “make you think.” Yes, reflection should be an integral part of the way we respond to everything, games included, but there needs to be more to it than that. Think about what? And how does the videogame experience of Walden Pond (which is largely a fictionalized account of supposed real life) encourage us to consider and interact with nature? While I am a proponent of videogaming as an important critical medium, even I am going to be a cynic about using a videogame to connect with nature. Nature is outside.