Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stuck in My Craw File #429520: Walden, the Videogame

The Onion, America's finest satirical journal, has been really spot on for the last couple of years. Remember that piece about the grotesque new MacBook? How could you forget it? The one about the new Six Flags rollercoaster based on a miserable codependent relationship with a woman named "Deborah?" Priceless. And what about the story about a bunch of University of Southern California academics receiving $40,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to design a video game based on Henry David Thoreau's Walden? Har!

Oh, wait. That last one wasn't The Onion. It was TIME.

Well. Let's talk about Walden, a Game. It's the only way I will be able to get over it.

Composing a more substantive response to this news than ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING was a greater challenge than I thought it would be, likely because the incongruity between what's written in Walden and some fan's idea to make a video game about it should be so searingly obvious to anyone who has so much as read the book's back cover, and in so little need of explanation as to actually defy explanation. But as I am of the belief that one is better off not holding any convictions unless he can articulate and account for them, I suppose I'm obligated to scrutinize the anatomy of my knee and its peculiar jerkings.

Question one: what's this Walden book about, anyhow?

In brief: this guy Henry David Thoreau, a sort of libertarian hippie type, believes that there's too much bullshit in the modern world ("modern" meaning 1840-1850) and its outstanding effect is a population that's widely unhappy and dull. Thoreau posits that a happier and richer life would be one lived with a minimum of unnecessary bullshit, and to test this idea he goes out to live by himself in a little shack in the woods by Walden pond, where all he has to worry about are securing and maintaining food and shelter. He finds that when one lives deliberately and severs as much "civilized" nonsense from his life as possible, a kind of lucidity follows, tuning him in to the essential sublime brilliance in all things, et cetera et cetera.

So from the beginning: this is a piece of literature whose main argument is that people would be happier shedding the trappings of technology and engaging more directly and personally in their transactions with the world. And now there are some people, people who have presumably read this book more than once, who want to turn it into a video game. The NEA is giving them $40,000 in taxpayer money to do it.


So I guess my question is what's the bloody point? I'm imagining something like Animal Crossing (the most depressing game in the world) without the cutesy visuals, and with snippets from Thoreau's writing wedged between the completion and assigning of fetch quests. My personal hope is that players who manage to achieve a 100% (or 200% as the case sometimes may be) completion rate in Walden, a Game are treated to a special message à la Guitar Hero à la South Park: "GO OUTSIDE."

On that note, may I suggest a substitute to playing Walden, a Game? 


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, says the game's lead designer.

Fair enough. But do you suppose Thoreau would prefer that those interested in his ideas and legacy spent five, ten, twenty hours hunched before a computer screen indoors, following his pretend footsteps in a pretend forest; or that they tore themselves away from all the screens in their lives for just a few minutes and went outside? Found their own special places? Thought their own thoughts? Experienced their own moments of revelation?

Would anybody truly be willing to argue that someone who goes outside for half and hour and practices a deliberate mindfulness of his surroundings experiences less of nature than he would by playing a video game about experiencing nature in his sterile, climate-controlled, artificially-lit bedroom or cubicle for the same amount of time?

Walden, a game [sic] posits a new genre of play, in which reflection and insight play an important role in the player experience. While traveling the virtual world of Walden, the player applies themselves to both daily task of maintaining the basic aspects of life at Walden Pond, as well as having the opportunity 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.

I don't think you can gain real experiential knowledge about nature and the world through pseudo-experience. That's not how it works.

You want to talk about the great outdoors? It reeks.

Nature is full of awful stenches. Nature is uncomfortable. Nature is mud and hairy coyote shit and vomit balls with fractured rodent bones poking out. Nature is rotting logs, grubs, maggots, and mold spores. Nature is a cloud of flies jumping from a half-decomposed animal carcass to a dung pile to your cheek. Nature is walking into spiderwebs face first, sap and evergreen needles stuck between your fingers, tripping on tree roots, and falling into poison ivy. Nature is blackberry seeds stuck between your teeth, trees with four-inch thorns protruding from their trunks, gnats flying into your eyes, poisonous snakes, ticks buried in your skin, and bears taking your food. Nature is sweating, shivering, bee stings, briars, and wet feet in the winter. Nature is pissing against a tree, shitting in the bushes, and wiping your ass with leaves.

The first step toward achieving that transcendental wonder for the wild world is to appreciate the fact that the living part of planet Earth did not make itself with any regard for you, your comfort, or your capacity to comprehend what it is and what it does. This is not something you can really know until you've been out in the thick of things (I never really grasped it myself until going on a camping trip that very nearly killed me), and the thick of things cannot be conveyed by a virtual "environment" that only communicates to your visual and auditory senses.

The potential for those sublime moments of peace and truth is always there, but you can't really receive them without first exposing yourself to the grime, stench, and discomfort. Supposing your can get the full taste of one without sampling the other can only be called shallow and shortsighted. It's the difference between diving into the pond and wading at the edge with your trouser legs pulled up to your shins. It's the difference between the living, growing, respiring thing and the mass-produced polystyrene image of it. It's the difference between doing something and playing a video game about it.

If you want to learn about nature, go outside and pay attention. You don't even need to be out in the middle of nowhere to do it. Nature is everywhere. The planet you're standing on is nature. Find a public park, a vacant lot, or really any place where the weeds are pushing up  through the concrete, and just pay attention to what's going on around you.

It might take a few minutes. It might take a few visits. But it's happening.

If you want a kid to understand nature, take him outside. Don't make him play Going Outside: the Game.

If you want a kid to read Thoreau, make him read Thoreau. If he is incapable of absorbing ideas that aren't being delivered through a video game, then Walden probably isn't for him anyway.

What we have here is a video game that's probably not going to be much fun, replicates something most people can do without a computer (going outside), and is designed to convey a set of ideas that you can simply go ahead and read without any intermediary Animal Crossing nonsense. It's basically pointless. And given that it's based on a book admonishing humanity for all the inessential nonsense it lugs around with it, Walden, a Game seems doubly pointless, and doubly demeaning to the spirit in which Thoreau wrote it.

The NEA grant is just insult added to insult -- Walden, a Game ain't a $40,000 idea, and with so many austerity hawks in Congress looking for programs to cut, the NEA picked a very bad time to endorse such a ridicule- and publicity-prone waste of treasure.


  1. Good God.

    Ever hear of a MMO called The You Testament? I thought that was the worst idea behind a video game ever. Thank you, but curse you, for proving me wrong.

    Man. Just. Man.

  2. Not that you're necessarily going to like this any more, but this did affect me in interesting ways.

    a) It is short.

    b) It made me angry. I played it on an iPad I'd just gotten as a gift, and it made me hate myself for using the thing, angry about my job, etc.

    I never used it again after that, quit my job the next week, and gave away the iPad a few weeks later. And some time thereafter actually picked up Walden at the library.

  3. Though for what it's worth, I am now going back to school to research educational games. Computer games about computer programming, which seems to make perfect sense to me. It's long been the thing I felt like I ought to be doing.

  4. You know people are going to buy the game just to see how fucked up it is...

  5. J: Punching "The You Testament" into Google and...OH JEEZ. Yeah, closing the window and forgetting about it now. How horrible.


    John: I can't imagine them charging people money for this thing. FOR DID THOREAU HIMSELF NOT WRITE THAT TRADE CURSES EVERYTHING IT HANDLES? Then again, since they've already proven themselves so susceptible to missing the point, I anticipate a $10-$20 price tag with a 40% teacher discount.

  6. Funny. This game actually did VERY well on many platforms. Sure its not for everyone, but nothing is. I'm sure you enjoy or believe some things that others do not. That doesn't make you ignorant, just selective. In todays age the younger generation identify with things such as games rather than books or involving themselves in outside activities (sadly I must admit), however it is what it is. Criticizing wont change things, just fuel the flames. The game is very informative, historical, and peaceful. Rather than obnoxious, violent, and pointless. To each their own, but this is a nice change for those who want to learn something the unconventional way and unwind. Hope this helps you to see things a bit differently and not be too quick on the draw with something quite harmless, and if anything, inspiring to some.