This Video Game Praises Balance Over Violence

A game based on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” is challenging the norms of what video games should be.

Stillness probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think about video games. (More like adrenaline-spiking and oftentimes, violent.) Yet “Walden, A Game,” based on Henry David Thoreau’s 19th century book “Walden,” is designed to help you see the virtues of a slower, more balanced way of life. No wonder Smithsonian Magazine called it “the world’s most improbable video game.”

Walden Pond image courtesy of Tim Pierce

The book, a meditative reflection on nature and our relationship to it, provides the framework for the game, as this New York Times piece explains. Players stroll around Thoreau’s Massachusetts property tasked with balancing work (like being a writer or helping build the Underground Railroad) with contemplation on their natural — albeit virtual — surroundings. The kicker? Fail to balance work and life (for example, working too hard on bean farming and forgetting to enjoy nature, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, being so immersed in nature that you forget to find food) and there are consequences, like fainting from starvation.

The entire game also shifts in response to how “inspired” you are. When your inspiration is low, the landscape becomes duller — “the woodland’s radiant colors fade and the music — a rich-toned backdrop of piano and violin, dusted with the twittering of nature sounds — quiets to a dull heartbeat,” as the Smithsonian article describes. The game’s composer and sound designer Michael Sweet told the Smithsonian that when inspiration is low, “Your world starts to get smaller.”

It seems counterintuitive for a video game to teach us how to get more out of life (which, in our modern world, means detaching from our screens long enough to really live), but that’s the goal. Lead designer Tracy J. Fullerton, director of the Game Innovation Lab and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, told the NYT that games have the power to make us pause and think about our actions. Speaking about how the game (set for release in spring, in time for the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth) can have real-life takeaways, Fullerton said, “Maybe instead of sitting on my cellphone, rapidly switching between screens, I should just go for a walk.”

As Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Read more about the game in the New York Times or Smithsonian Magazine.