2 August 2017

Walden, A Game We Need

By Christina Yin

There’s a new game launched and it’s been called “the most improbable video game” by the Smithsonian Magazine.

Walden, A Game, has just been launched, on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century writer, philosopher and naturalist who famously spent two years living in the woods near Walden Pond, Massachusetts.

Thoreau wrote in his book Walden: A Life in the Woods: “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.”

Today, we live in a world where our thumbs are the most exercised parts of our bodies, where our eyes are glued to the screens of our smart phones even when we are driving and where our ears are attuned to the latest K-pop or Taylor Swift music videos. The sights and sounds of this modern world dazzle our senses and youngsters as small as toddlers can be seen propped up in restaurants and coffee shops taken care of by the most popular 21st century baby-sitter, the smart phone.

Many young people today spend a good deal of their time, energy and skills on video games such as Clash of the Clans, Counter Strike, DOTA2 and League of Legends. Gamers are sponsored and train like professional athletes (and are considered as professional e-sports athletes) for competitions offering millions of dollars in prize money. Many games have spawned big budget movies like Resident Evil, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed and Warcraft. Naturally, like any game, the objective is to win. And in this case, to win means to kill. No wonder one of the easiest debate motions to use for novice debaters is This House Would Ban Violent Video Games!

So in this noisy, hurried world of simulated and real violence, Walden, A Game has just been launched. The brainchild of Tracy J. Fullerton, the director of the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab at its School of Cinematic Arts, the game is intended to be a way to keep us connected to nature. Instead of winning the game by killing your opponents, Walden, A Game is about living a life of simplicity, seeking a work life balance.

Players go to the woods to experience “simple living”. They collect arrowheads, cast fishing rods to catch their dinner, gather twigs in the forest while listening to soothing music, insects and birds and snippets of the author’s writing. Though this sounds like a passive senseless effort, the objective is to survive a year in the woods (the game is supposed to take six hours to play), and to succeed in meeting the goals the player chooses, e.g. writing, farming. But that is not the sole objective of the game; players also seek inspiration from living in the woods in solitude with occasional interaction with animals and humans.

Will such a game succeed?

Some critics believe it would be better if people just went out into their gardens and enjoyed real nature. Wouldn’t six hours be better spent in the nearest neighbourhood playground or even taking a walk to the humble grocery store nearby instead of sitting in front of a computer? What could be more foolish than pretending to live in the woods, scrambling to survive without the most basic of necessities, thinking deep thoughts and enjoying solitude when we in the real world are said to be more detached and lonely than ever before?

Maybe it would be easier to persuade people to gain some respite from the hectic world of the 21st century by playing a computer game that requires contemplation and enjoyment of a simulated natural world than to get them out of the house and into the actual natural world. Not many of us have a garden that is more than a little patch of grass surrounded by a concrete porch and built-up house.

Finding our way to the nearest urban park could be too much to ask when braving the traffic on the roads is now a challenge even in the relatively small city of Kuching. Taking a walk to the nearby shops is hardly appealing given the noxious exhaust fumes we inhale amid the rumbling lorries and squealing tyres as cars and motorbikes swerving to overtake only to brake abruptly at the roundabouts or traffic lights.

Getting to nature is now a challenge that many are finding too great to overcome. So perhaps we should hope that Walden, A Game will succeed. It would certainly be a preferable alternative to six hours in front of a computer getting our blood pressure up, heart rates aggravated and minds scrambled in a simulated killing exercise.

Christina Yin is an Associate Dean with the Faculty of Language and Communication. She is contactable at cyin@swinburne.edu.my