“Walden, a game:” Virtual Travel in a Global Pandemic, by Missy G. Flinn
In an age long before COVID-19 made overseas travel challenging, my husband and I took delight in a series of travel presentations at Ohio State’s Mershon Auditorium. The place was always packed with people eager to travel virtually to far away places. We were also avid viewers of Travel with Rick Steves on PBS. These experiences allowed us to take trips to places we couldn’t afford to visit, revisit beloved spots that were forever etched in memory, plan for future trips, or just to learn about new places and cultures.
I am also a big fan of maps. This old-school way of traveling virtually sparks the imagination, allowing the map-gazer to travel in an abstract manner.
In the midst of a global pandemic, a new breed of virtual travel has made its way into our living rooms and laptops. This time around virtual travel adventure is inherently different from past presentations and shows, and more visually concrete than map gazing. It is experienced first-person, with the player squarely in the driver’s seat. Pining for a visit to Rome, for example, my friend Ruth uses the little yellow man in Google Maps to wander the city’s streets in “street view.” Google Street View also makes it possible to travel back in time and experience other cool travel options in ways that boggle my imagination. Last week my son showed me a tour of ancient Athens created using the “Assassin’s Creed” platform. That one left me kind of dizzy.
How about some literary travel? Enter the Game Innovation Lab, who with support from the The National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Endowment for the Arts, the Sundance New Frontiers Storytelling Lab, and the USC Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences initiative created a first-person game based on Henry David Thoreau’s book of 18 essays, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854. Oh yes.
The game’s website, waldengame.com, describes “Walden, a game” thus:
Walden, a game is an exploratory narrative and open world simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond. The game begins in the summer of 1845 when Thoreau moved to the Pond and built his cabin there.
Players follow in his footsteps, surviving in the woods by finding food and fuel and maintaining their shelter and clothing. At the same time, players are surrounded by the beauty of the woods and the Pond, which hold a promise of a sublime life beyond these basic needs. The game follows the loose narrative of Thoreau’s first year in the woods, with each season holding its own challenges for survival and possibilities for inspiration.
Screen shots of the game offer a glimpse into the beauty and detail of the virtual world players enter into and some of the tools they will use to play the game. Visit the website to learn more and to enter Thoreau’s world in this timeless game. The only rule is to “play deliberately.”