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GBL Luminary Guest Post: Walking with Thoreau – Uncommon Wisdom for Game Designers

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

Filament Games stays connected to the scholarly side of game-based learning (GBL) through our GBL Luminaries Program. Academics in the Luminaries program work with our staff to maintain a healthy dialogue between game-based learning theory and practice through all-staff lectures and guest blog posts. Today’s GBL Luminary guest post is from Tracy Fullerton, experimental game designer, professor, chair emeritus of the Interactive Media & Games Division of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California as well as founding director of the USC Games program. A Games for Change “Game Changer” with a storied career in the interactive entertainment industry, Tracy’s research center, the USC Game Innovation Lab, has produced several influential independent games including Cloud, flOw, The Night Journey and Walden, a game.


Designers of games for learning and social impact often talk about the importance of creating game mechanics that are integrated with learning goals and content. We talk about the criticalness of mechanics that engage the player and are “fun” in and of themselves. These are indeed very important to the design of compelling and innovative social impact games. But too often, when we go to design game mechanics, we focus exclusively on directed actions or activities; the classic model of creating “interesting choices” put forth by well-known designer Sid Meier and propagated even in today’s era of experimental and innovative design thinking. 

But there are other, equally compelling modes of learning and understanding that may complement the systemic, challenge-based activity commonly found in game mechanics. These are modes of reflection and absorption that are often a part of the true synthesis of ideas, and the transfer of ideas into a personal and original connection to material. One of these modes is related to an often-maligned genre of gameplay, the “walking simulator” which takes as its central activity a representation of the everyday act of moving through space: exploring, thinking, reflecting and discovering. 

As writer Rebecca Solnit says in her wonderful history of real world walking, Wanderlust: “The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.” The phenomenologist Edmund Husserl described walking as the experience by which we understand our body in relationship to the world. I am also a walker, in both the real and virtual worlds, and it seems to me that walking simulators are a way of understanding our “player minds” in relationship to virtual worlds.

One of the affordances of walking simulators is that that the cadence of walking, even virtually, is related to the rhythm of thinking and reflecting and by building that rhythm into the core activity of a game, we open ourselves up to design possibilities beyond the well known action and choice focused mechanics that we generally associate with gameplay, and begin to imagine a world of intellectual and emotional play. Walking, and its simulation, is the kind of activity that has little cognitive load of its own, instead allowing space and time for players to bring their own interpretive power and imaginations to an experience. And this is an interesting and open design space for those designers wanting to create learning and impact, because both of these are enhanced by personal engagement and opportunity for reflection.

Now, I’ve spent just over a decade creating a game translation of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods. This video game simulation of Thoreau’s experiment in self-reliant living is, in one respect, the ultimate walking simulator – the simulation of a naturalist and philosopher who spent at least four hours of every day walking the woods of his native New England, building a relationship with nature and his environment while also reflecting and philosophizing about the individual’s relationship to both nature and society.  

In creating this game, my intent was not necessarily to create an educational game per se, but rather to create an experience that allowed players to take on Thoreau’s experiment and to create their own personal relationship to a virtual version of the nature that so fascinated him. The game is both a walking simulator and a simulation of Thoreau’s experiment in living, so players must make choices about how they spend their time in the woods, while also traversing those woods on foot, with plenty of time and space to reflect on their experience. As an experimental indie game, it serves its audience by being expansive, exploratory and filled with details that change and evolve over the six hours of play, much of which will be spent wandering the woods and engaging with our nature simulation, carefully reconstructed from Thoreau’s writing. It takes about the same amount of time to play Walden, a game, as it does to read Walden, the book, from cover to cover.

The game has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. As part of that funding, we are able to provide copies free of cost to teachers who would like to use it in their classrooms. We have also created a curriculum guide to help teachers implement the game in classrooms. And, most recently, we have begun a series of workshops that will introduce the game to teachers and help them develop best practices to use it with their students. (More info on how teachers can request a free license can be found here: www.waldengame.com/educators

One of the interesting things we have found in the early stages of this initiative to support teachers is that many of them are extremely attracted to the idea of a game that allows their students time to think and reflect. Some of the comments that we’ve received underscore the need for these kind of open-ended environments where students can learn the often-ignored skill of simple contemplation in our increasingly task-oriented society. A walking simulator, Walden or otherwise, is a good way of engaging students in this much needed mode of personal emotional learning by embedding it in the familiarity (for them) of a richly envisioned game world.

Of course, a walking simulator needs to engage and hold students’ interest in order to reach a level of absorption where the player’s wandering triggers reflection and imagination. So, what I am proposing is not blank worlds of commonplace reproduction. A walking simulator that works for learning and impact must have a sense of deep presence, must provide emotional motivation that drives exploration, and must trigger the player’s imagination along lines of thought that inspire contemplation. These are difficult design problems to attack, but I think that they are no more difficult than the classic model of creating interesting choices for our players. And, for some kinds of learning, they are where we must wander to arrive at new destinations with our students.

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