Review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated September 2017

Walden, a game

Thoughtfully designed game illuminates Thoreau's writing, philosophy

Subjects & skills
Subjects
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Skills
N/A
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
8-12
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Pros: Elegantly embeds deep philosophical questions in the act of play.

Cons: It's possible for players to get stuck on certain in-game tasks or miss important letters and events.

Bottom Line: It's rare to be so moved and permanently transformed by a work of art; that this game manages to (re)create these experiences is a triumph.

Walden, a game provides a living simulation of Thoreau's grand experiment in six hours, and it does it very well. This means that there are, by design, built-in moments for student reflection. Topics include many things that range from the seemingly mundane, such as bullfrogs and blueberries, to seemingly deeper topics like freedom, happiness, and the pursuit of knowledge and meaning. Teachers, therefore, could easily use Walden, a game to spur reflective writing or classroom discussion on philosophical questions that arise from these moments. As students play, their journeys and observations are captured in their own unique journal, which makes for an excellent jumping-off point for students' reflections as well as a fruitful starting point for discussion of how students' experiences differed.

A more complicated unit might compare and contrast Walden, a game with another game, Everything. Students could play through both and have them debate the merits of the philosophies presented in both games. Further historical research could be done on both Thoreau and Alan Watts, the main subject of Everything, to make the learning more human and connect their experiences to student experiences.

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Walden, a game is a simulation of Thoreau's grand experiment to live in solitude for a couple of years on Walden Pond. Students assume the role of Thoreau (in first person) and experience the seasons at Walden over about six hours of play, collecting bits and pieces (represented as arrowheads) of Thoreau's writing as they go. It works for both those familiar with games and those not. For students more into games, there's a working simulation in place that can be explored and understood akin to the popular "survival" genre of games. For students who might not play many games, these systems are relatively forgiving, and it's possible to just focus on the writings and philosophies of Thoreau -- often offered with voice-over narration.

In the opening voice-over, Thoreau explains his reason for going to Walden Pond (and, by proxy, the player's reason for playing): to live life, to not regret not living, to experience whatever he finds. Thoreau is hoping for something profound, but, if he finds something "mean," he also wants to experience this meanness in its entirety. The solitude of Walden Pond, for Thoreau, served as a place to find himself in the face of an unfair world just as much as an opportunity to find the sublime.

The game, and the player's experience, adds a thought-provoking buffer to the experience. The joy and majesty of play is magnificent (e.g., when spring breaks out of the long, depressing winter) and the revelation that Thoreau had lost a loved one prior to going to Walden Pond is tragic, but the game, as a buffer, seems to shield us from fully experiencing these things. Walden, a game forces the question: Is this a simulation of Thoreau's life, or is it about propelling us to find our own Walden? Or both? 

This duality is the core of the game, and why it's so fascinating to use a game to meditate on these themes. There's a constant push-and-pull between the game's systems and Thoreau's philosophies. For instance, players may want to manage the survival side of the game as efficiently as possible to maximize food and money production and minimize back-tracking, and to leave time for important tasks like checking the mail. But this efficiency comes at the cost of the slow and deliberate life Thoreau espouses (enjoying nature, focusing on experience, and reflection). Or does it? It's up to the player to construct his or her experience at Walden and what it all means. Walden, a game rewards careful reflection, but it also encourages doing whatever players find meaningful. Any activity -- from planting beans to helping to free fugitive slaves to staring at the night sky -- provides context and moments of thoughtful introspection and reflection.

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Walden, a game makes Thoreau's writings accessible to students, helping students derive their meaning by evoking them in context within the game world and the player's experience of living at Walden. Meaning arises not out of the page but the player's actions and Thoreau's own way of relating with the world, and often has site-specific significance. In other words, the player is in a moment during the game -- at a location in the game -- that relates to the quote in a meaningful way. This helps students consider the text more deeply.

As a simulation, it works beautifully and provides context for Thoreau's writings. The simulation includes elements from strategy and survival games, requiring players to chop wood, fish, build/repair shelter, and so forth each day to survive. This affects the player's energy levels, which get expended as Thoreau explores the area. By walking through the woods, along the shoreline, and seeing or hearing -- experiencing -- all the life that exists all around, Thoreau becomes inspired. The world becomes more saturated with color and the majesty of it all becomes more apparent. Certain arrowheads only show up when Thoreau is fully inspired; picking them up rewards players with deeper insight and meditations on nature and essential living.

The simulation is historically accurate as well, to the geography (as well as flora and fauna) of Walden Pond, life in the mid-1800s, and the letters and events from Thoreau's life (although some liberties are taken with the timeline). There's also a lot to learn about Thoreau's history, including the tragic backstory that led Thoreau to Walden, his involvement with abolitionism, his call for resistance to oppressive systems, and his transcendental line of thought that suggests living simply, free from the pursuit of material superfluities. Players learn, too, that Thoreau's mentor was Ralph Waldo Emerson and that, in fact, Walden Pond was located on Emerson's property. They learn the scope of the experiment, that Walden Pond and its surroundings are actually pretty small and only a stone's throw away from the town of Concord, where Thoreau still had his mom do his laundry! In light of this, players learn that what made Thoreau's work so phenomenal isn't that he decided to isolate himself (since he really wasn't that isolated), but that he could observe and reflect on life in a way that very few others could, possibly because of his life's prior experiences and tragedies. Did he find the sublime in nature and realize that material wealth was meaningless in response to seeking meaning after his brother's tragic death? Just one question, among so many others, to dig into in the classroom.

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Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

A deeply layered game with lots to explore and figure out, including the historical contexts for Thoreau's writings.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

This is a true simulation; play mirrors Thoreau's own journey. It's hard not to be moved and experientially learn something about transcendentalism, life in the mid-1800s, and Thoreau's perspectives.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

There's in-game help and various in-game texts to consult for certain "puzzles," but there's no help if you're stuck and no classroom implementation resources.


Common Sense Reviewer
Mark Chen Researcher

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