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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Game 'Walden' Shows Us That Some Things Can’t Be Digitized

I booted up Walden, a game, on a recent rainy afternoon. I “hiked” from my cabin down to the Walden Pond shoreline, and clicked to “go fishing.” A swipe of the trackpad tossed the line out. I waited, then heard a splash, and a fish bounced into view, flapping halfheartedly. Outside—in the actual, real outside—rain splattered the roof. I sat at my desk, dry and cozy.

Walden is a simulation game, and you play as Henry David Thoreau. You might remember these names from high school: Thoreau was a philosopher and writer from 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts (Concord like the Battle of Lexington and Concord, so as classic New England as it gets, and about 20 minutes from my parents’ house, where I’ve been quarantining since March). He built a cabin beside Walden Pond, and lived there for two years. The game’s goal: to re-of create his time there.

The first time I read about this game, years ago, I laughed. Thoreau’s experiment—living for years in a cabin he’d built in the woods, to “front only the essential facts of life, and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach”—did not seem digitizable. He lived outside. How could a game, where the player sits in a house and stares at a backlit screen, re-create that?

This year, though, we’ve had to simulate the un-simulatable. I’ve been to Zoom engagement parties and Zoom weddings—even my grandfather’s funeral. I still didn’t think that Thoreau’s experiment could translate to a screen. But I wanted to try it out, to see the specific ways in which the simulation would fall away from Thoreau’s experience.

Walden simulates a range of Thoreau’s activities. You can walk around the pond; repair your clothes; gather firewood, wild fruits, and vegetables; visit your mentor, and fellow writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson; pop into town, where your mother may have baked a pie you can steal off the windowsill (really); take a job, like surveying the land; or till your beans. To perform most actions, you left-click, and a disembodied arm slings out and snatches the air in front of whatever you’re grabbing—berries, firewood, pie. There are a few side quests, and a “journal” mechanic to keep track of your accomplishments, but its first page is labeled “To do or not do.” The game doesn’t emphasize hustle; mostly, you’re supposed to just be.


At any moment, a right-click will zoom in on whatever you’re looking at: the night sky, the pond’s surface, a passing rabbit, the dirt or rocks beneath your feet. All of these are nicely and artfully rendered. The game sometimes rewards the choice to look closer with a bit of Thoreau’s writing about whatever you’re looking at: “Rocks—I cannot expect to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts,” or “Driftwood—With thinking, we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it.” These elements are all scrupulously accurate, down to the birdcalls. The game’s creators, the USC Game Innovation Lab—supported by the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, and Sundance, among others—were very attentive to the taxonomy.

Read Thoreau’s writing, though, and an uncomfortable truth surfaces: he would’ve hated this game. In his 1854 book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, he writes that he didn’t even want people to copy his life in reality: “One young man of my acquaintance told me that he thought he should live as I did…I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.” That’s a condemnation of trying to live like Thoreau did, IRL. We don’t know what he’d have said about the game Walden, but I’ve been playing it, reading Walden, the book, and visiting the actual place.

In the book Walden, Thoreau writes scene after scene of his adventures by the pond, each recounted with specificity and delight. I especially love his story about fishing by moonlight.

“These experiences were very memorable and valuable to me,—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again.”

I don’t have specific memories of playing the game Walden, though I’ve played it for hours. The moments of fishing and repairing the cabin and walking through the woods all blur together, and for good reason: each has the same in-game mechanics. The “catch a fish” sequence looks the same, every single time.


The game-makers call that sequence, “fishing,” but would Thoreau say the same? He argued for looking past the name of a thing, and focusing instead on what that thing actually was. “I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things,” he writes, with delicious acidity. He takes Concord as an example: “If a man should walk through this town and see only the reality…[and he] should give us an account of [it], we should not recognize the place in his description. Look at a meeting-house, or a court-house, or a jail, or a shop, or a dwelling-house, and say what that thing really is before a true gaze, and they would all go to pieces in your account of them.”

He means, I think, that we give labels to buildings (“a house,” “a post office,”) and then we think of the buildings as their labels. We err in thinking that a thing is what it’s called. That transference allows the game-makers to claim that a simulation of living deliberately allows the player to experience Thoreau’s own deliberate life. So, what’s the difference?

One day, Thoreau writes, he finds two species of ants battling on his wood pile. Instead of chopping wood, he watches them fight, “and certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment’s comparison with this.” The game simulates the wood pile, the setting in which Thoreau lived freely—an afternoon of log-splitting becomes one of ant-watching—but no capacity for spontaneous action, for your own free life within that setting. I split plenty of logs in-game, but I never saw an ant, even a peaceful one.

Once, walking in the game, I startled a small red fox. It bounded away, in a straight run towards the shore, then over the pond’s surface. It didn’t sink or swerve, but ran over water like it was solid earth. Two scripts, “water” and “animal,” not interacting, because they weren’t built to be able to.

So, was IRL Walden the right place to “live deliberately,” as Thoreau had? I drove there on a sunny morning last summer. I have a notoriously bad sense of direction, but, thanks to the game, I could actually tell where I was on the shore in relation to what I thought of as “my” cabin. I walked around the pond with my notebook, impatient for some relaxation (and missing the irony there).

Walden, though, has suffered the same fate as artistic neighborhoods invaded by non-artistic tourists: it’s too full of people seeking an experience from it to be well suited for that kind of experience anymore. It’s really busy. The path around the pond, narrowed by fences to a sidewalk’s width since I can remember, is now one-way, to allow for social distancing. Loud groups clog the track, and it’s hard to space out your walk enough for even one moment of quiet.

Even so, I can experience nature there in a way that the game doesn’t allow: I can look, really look, at what’s around me. The pond’s surface, sure, and the views, but also smaller scraps of nature. Sun on the pond surface etches a constantly shifting liquid light, even on a calm day like this one. A shadow blips over: a Great Blue Heron arcing over the water, holding its neck in that impossible double bend. You don’t need to be at a famous wild place like Walden to witness wildness. The grassy strip between sidewalk and the road, or any city park or patch of dirt or single decaying leaf, can offer an infinitely interesting zoom in.

There’s a statue of Thoreau near the Walden parking lots, by a little replica of his cabin. Thoreau’s cast in metal, with wild high hair, midstride. One arm’s flung behind him. The other’s held up in front of his face, the hand active, like he’s midthought and gesticulating in self-conversation. I looked Walden up on Google Maps recently, and saw a photo of that statue. Someone had placed a smartphone in his hand. It fit perfectly. I’d read the statue’s pose as pensive, absorbing, question-provoking—where is he going? What’s he thinking of? Phone in hand, squint perfect for a 2020-style doomscroll, the statue becomes a more familiar image—and a less interesting one.

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