Video Games for Transcendentalists; or, Getting Walden Wrong



by Chris Townsend

The University of Southern California’s “Game Innovation Lab” recently made the press with its adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s autobiographical work of philosophy, Walden. The experiment, of recreating Thoreau’s years spent living by Walden pond in Concord, MA, as a video game, was always destined to fail — but, in failing, it teaches us a little something about the strange world of the digital that we now inhabit, as glimpsed through the eyes of H. D. Thoreau. Video game technology was still some 150 years off when Thoreau spent his two years living in a rustic cabin in the woods. But Thoreau was seeking to get away from the trappings of modernity by living self-sufficiently in the wilderness; he rejected rampant consumerism, hollow materialism, and the idle squandering of time, all of which, he felt, were symptomatic of a society become sick. On the sliding scale between Nature and Culture, Thoreau wanted always to lean towards the former; video games — and the whole of our new digital world — are established well within the latter. Thoreau, we can be sure, would not have liked video games. This is the initial stumbling block for a game based on his works: if gaming cannot sit well in Thoreau’s universe, then we can’t expect his universe to sit well in a game.

It might make a kind of conceptual sense when you think of the project within the sphere of gaming — why not try to cordon off a space in the gaming universe for reflection, contemplation, and passiveness? Playing through a modern blockbuster like Grand Theft Auto V, it’s easy to imagine why an especially sensitive player, of literary sensibilities, might wonder why a similar experience — of staggeringly detailed and overwhelmingly vast digital landscapes — might not be achieved without the excessive violence, the frenetic pace, and the gameplay driven always by goals and objectives. It’s probable that most gamers have contemplated what it would be to create a world in which you simply observe and reflect, in a state of what we moderns like to call “mindfulness”. In a sense, that is Walden-the-game’s premise — to strip bare the experience of the modern open-world game, to place you in lovingly recreated woodland without real aims or purpose, and to say to the player: “Just look. Listen. And be.”

A few brief notes on why this particular game, taken on its own terms, is no real success. The digital renderings of Concord, Emerson’s house, and Ralph Waldo Emerson himself are all so minimal and lifeless that they feel more like museum exhibits than interactive elements. There is actually very little to encounter in the woods, with nothing of lasting interest to occupy the player, and everything you do encounter is merely an excuse for a non-interactive reading from Thoreau. In fact, so many letters and extracts from Thoreau are read aloud that it feels more like a visit to LibriVox than a gameplay experience. But the game’s worst fault, by some stretch, was being released the same exact month as Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a survival-based open-world game that does everything Walden does, plus a thousand other more exciting things, with boundless skill and confidence.

Regardless of the intentions behind a game like this, and the merits or demerits of its gameplay aside, Thoreau’s book Walden is a uniquely poor candidate for a video game translation. At the heart of the experience that the team behind it have tried to manufacture (and the manufacturing of experience might itself be an ideological problem here), is the tranquil contemplation of the woods of Concord. You gain “inspiration” points by listening to birdsong, you add to Thoreau’s journal when you zoom in on types of flora not yet noted, you occasionally chop wood. But, for all the time you will spend interacting with a digital squirrel in the Walden game, you will be doing categorically the opposite of Thoreau’s most basic instruction: to go outside.

The fact that gaming is a predominantly indoor activity is the beginning of this experiment’s conflicts with Thoreauvian philosophy, but it is not the end of them. Thoreau, as an exemplar of the American philosophical movement of Transcendentalism, looks to nature as the access point to “higher state”. When he writes that we “no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven”, he is describing his higher state through negation. The higher state is not human culture — at least, not the mainstream culture of the mid-nineteenth century as Thoreau viewed it. For him, we seek unnecessarily large and elaborate houses, too big to afford; we organize our wardrobes according to “the love of novelty and a regard for the opinions of men” and not for utility’s sake; we are slaves to our jobs and to our government; modern man “has no time to be anything but a machine”. He is also deeply critical of the logic of capitalism: “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only”, he writes; “Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul”. Thoreau sought the higher life “of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust”. The turn, in Walden, toward nature is a turn away from culture — or, more precisely, the cultures of buying and selling.

Gaming, like all forms of digital entertainment and experience, is in no sense a self-sufficient activity. Digitally fishing at Walden Pond is not the same as being Thoreau catching his dinner; you are relying upon game developers and internet service providers and manufacturers of microchips and computer hardware, and a thousand other tiny things beyond yourself and your own means. That you never see the actual means of production would be part of the problem for Thoreau. Gaming is an experience, like all digital experiences, firmly enmeshed and embedded within the impossibly vast networks of consumerism. It is only with a heavy irony that gaming can ever act as a commentary on consumer culture, and the irony reaches a steeper pitch when a game tries to recreate a unmediated experience of nature. Thoreau, the transcendentalist, imagined a plane of being above and beyond the needless complexities of the mainstream cultural world; today, we have built a whole new category of digital being for ourselves, lining our cultural products, and yet further divorced from nature.

Emerson, who features frequently in fireside scenes in the Walden game, and who, in real life, owned the land on which Thoreau set up his cabin, defines Transcendentalism within a broad history of thought: “As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell”. Thoreau, with Emerson, was an idealist: nature wasn’t the end goal, it was simply an arrangement of material things that pointed us towards higher truths, the worlds of ideas and spirituality. We cannot be sure how the Transcendentalists would respond to the digital world, but here’s a hunch: digitality, unlikes idealism, does not move beyond objects, but it sits inside them — like the world inside your computer, trapped behind its screen. It takes us deeper into the worst facets of mass culture, in an isolating electronic wilderness that rivals the healthy isolation of real woodland. Emerson, in his celebrated essay ‘The American Scholar’, even books risk a sort of bad ‘Third Estate’, divorced from ‘the world and the soul’. The digital world, for Emerson and Thoreau, would be furthest away from truth and knowledge.

The problem of this particular game stems, in main part, from a misunderstanding of Thoreau’s emphasis in Walden. It mistakes his hostility towards culture for a too-simple love of nature. If it was the case that Thoreau merely wanted us to stop and think about trees for a while, it’s likely that we could approximate something of that sort in a video game (whether it would be fun to play is a different matter). But, as Thoreau himself puts it, “the cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful” — and nature does not truly come before culture, even to him. The work of Walden is to criticise human culture, behaviour, habits, and history, especially where they are at their ugliest. The simplicity of the life Thoreau sought in Concord is not supposed to be nature for nature’s sake, it is supposed to be nature because not the dominant culture. Thoreau rejects, above all, the basest forms of materialism in the quest for renewed spiritualism. And, for a book about a man living alone in the woods, that there is a strong element of social thinking, even where Thoreau is critical of society. He learns, from Walden Pond, what the poet Wordsworth called “Love of nature leading to love of mankind”. It is not the man in his cabin that is lonely and isolated, it is the people in their city homes that are.

Walden is at bottom less an instruction to look at nature than it is a command that we take a good hard look at ourselves, and the risk, in treating the work as an overly simplistic tale about nature, is the same risk of the concept of mindfulness on tap (or on app). Looking to solve our ways of thinking by downloading and installing an app, whether for free or for a price (the game is currently retailing for $18.45), we’re unlikely to alter the most important part of a thought: its frame. This game is a tiny island of escapism that lies well within the parameters of exactly what Thoreau himself was trying to escape. We’re doing mindfulness within the context of convenience culture, as a relaxant after a day’s work that doesn’t help us to question the nature of work itself — and that is fundamentally at odds with the project of building one’s own home in the woods. A line from Thoreau’s chapter on ‘Economy’ is irresistible: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation […] A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind”.

It’s a strange thing that Thoreau’s enduring philosophy, of ethical libertarianism and radical individualism, can appear to be only a hair’s breadth away from its opposite: neoliberalism, the spirit animating modern democratic societies in our globalised world. Thoreau’s is a thoroughgoing critique of commerce and consumerism, but some of his more radical statements (for instance, “that government is best which governs not at all”) could be as applicable to human freedom as they are to market freedom. (Thoreau, though, would be the first to content that “free-markets” aren’t really free, but carefully controlled by those with enough power, money, or both.) It’s American liberty at a crosswords: down one path sits the natural man, contentedly sowing his bean plants in the act of self-subsistence; down the other lie the glimmering skyscrapers of big business and the wild frontiers of venture capitalism. Certainly, we are now living through strange times, ones in which mainstream political thought seems to value free trade above and beyond civil liberties. This hardly seems out of step with the rise of the new digital paradigm, and the dominance of institutions such as Google, Amazon, Uber, Deliveroo. This is the reason why the scathing cultural critiques of Walden-the-book are more valuable than ever; Thoreau is a reminder of that other path, that very different possibility for freedom. “The finest qualities of our nature,” he writes, “like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling”. So too must the book’s message be preserved, and video games cannot manage that delicacy of touch. If the only thing we choose to take from Thoreau’s work is the passive appreciation of some digital leaves, then our experience of nature might just as well be enacted down on the finely clipped golfing greens at Mar-a-Lago.