'Walden, a Game' Creator Talks the Sublime, Life's Tough Questions, Games

Searching for meaning in a virtual Walden Pond

Conway's Game of Life Credit: Conway's Game of Life

In 1970, the British mathematician John Conway devised a fascinating set of rules for infinite pattern generation. These rules, when enacted on a two-dimensional grid of cells, each of which is either "populated" or "unpopulated," can produce a staggering array of algorithmically interesting "organisms." A universe of black and white creatures that seem to spontaneous emerge from these simple interactions.

Conway's Game of Life is, in actuality, neither a game nor life, but it's a convenient straw man for what we are all talking about at Games for Change: games that go beyond simple, situational conflicts, such as combat and direct confrontation, and instead look at more complex, layered questions about life and the kind of multilayered answers that we need to be able to parse in order to engage with it today. about life and the kind of multilayered answers that we need to be able to parse in order to engage with it today.

One of the reasons that Conway's project is called a "game" is because it is a set of rules, three simple, unbending rules that are enacted equally across each of the cells of the grid. The potential for these cells is simple and binary: they are on or off. In this granular sense, Conway's game of "life" is really a game of bits, and is the ancestor of all digital games, which, in their underlying architecture are all built upon this same kind of simple check: is something on or off, alive or dead, in or out, up or down, red or blue. We have built universes of play on a foundation of checking the state of bits like this.

Such lovely surprises have emerged from these patterns to shock and delight us; and because they seem to be self-generating, we react to them as if they are life itself. But of course, pretending that we see life in these layered bits is just a bit of mind-play in itself, just a bit of squinting and willful blindness to what’s lacking in the simulation.

That's because life, real life, is not either, or; it is not on versus off; it is not black or white; or any kind of duality. No matter how we try to simplify it, we all know in our experience that life itself is filled with grays, with nuance, with layers of perspective and problematizing factors. When we model life with simulations like Conway's, we know we leave much of this nuance out. We reduce for the sake of clarity and feasibility. And in our reduction, in our choices about what to include or exclude, what to allow or disallow, we make clear what we care about, our focus exposes our values, our concerns.

In building our own small universes of play, the rules enact our vision of how the world works. Will those visions be models of constraint? Trapping players in binary worldviews? Worlds where we are alive or dead? Right or wrong? Winners or losers?

This is fine for some kinds of play, but hardly represents the full spectrum of what we can aspire to. We as humans need lots of practice unpacking and understanding the gray areas of our lives together here on Earth. Games that model simplistic questions (Can I catch you, or will you catch me first? Am I right or am I wrong? Are you stronger than I am? Faster? More clever? More strategic? Better in any way?) are fun. But those games only allow us to practice a fraction of what it means to be human. What I am interested in nurturing are the games where we can wrestle with more complex, open-ended questions about life and how to live it; games without binary answers of right and wrong; games that leave us wondering or questioning the nature of our existence.

Wrestling with these questions is the very essence of engaging with the arts and humanities. With aesthetic forms that don't necessarily answer our questions outright, that don't seek to reduce our questions to simple answers, or even to produce answers at all. But rather to help us practice the deeply important act of allowing our questions to multiply, to unbend into new questions, and to provoke us to think outside our own experiences.

Enjoying art or literature doesn't mean that we walk away understanding exactly why Ahab chased that whale, or what the Mona Lisa is thinking of. But rather to carry those questions and experiences with us as we face our own unanswerable moments in life.

A society that believes that the world can be broken down into simplistic answers, into a binary existence is one that will not have the sophistication to survive or the insight to thrive in the face of complex issues. But you know this already, because you're here on Earth, today, in the middle of the complete mess we’ve made of it.

In my own work as a game designer, I strive to make games that attempt to provoke, and respect, the inner lives of players, to create a playful space in which to reflect on the ongoing narratives that we are all so busy creating as we engage with life.

For a long time now, I've been focused on the design of what I’ve termed "reflective play." By which I mean: play that allows for, and even depends upon, an internal and emotional process on the part of players – play that nurtures that internal process through its design, its scope and its pace.

My interest in a kind of slow-paced play is not because slowness itself is equivalent to meaningfulness, but rather because the process of making meaning through reflection requires time at a human pace, takes cycles of response, interpretation and unpacking of experience.

So, it might be said that slowness is one of the key affordances for reflective play. Projects that I have worked on such as Walden, A Game, or The Night Journey – a game developed as a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola – are examples of this approach to games: the idea that designing for slowness, or a human pace of thought, are critical to the development of digital games that afford reflection on the part of players.

In Walden, an adaptation of Henry David Thoreau's book of the same name, players take on Thoreau's experience of living on the land, in a first-person game simulation of Walden Pond and its surroundings.

The game begins in the summer of 1845 in the woods of Walden Pond, where players must find a way to fulfill their "necessities of life" as Thoreau described them: food, fuel, shelter and clothing.

Caretaking these necessities takes time and energy, and players may find themselves grinding away at these basic needs and falling into a kind of mundane existence unless they also take the time to seek out the beauties and inspirations of the woods – the sublime that Thoreau was looking for.

Finding balance between these two – the mean and the sublime – was the goal of his experiment. And allowing players to explore their own sense of where this balance might lie, and to reflect on how the choices we make in regards to that balance affect the quality of our lives, is a goal of the game. Walden is designed to allow players to realize the critical importance of this balance, once lost, and for the game to have the flexibility for them to change their approach to living and see the difference.

The game features more than 12,000 trees, plants, animals and objects that are detailed with Thoreau's writings. Seventy in-game acres of woods and water that take their boundaries from Thoreau's own surveys. Eight seasonal changes over our in-game year, in which all of the objects transition to reflect the advancing time. Water changes its color and quality over the hours of the day, the days of each season. Getting to know these woods, where the berries that hang on into the winter months may be found, or the ruins of old shelters that yield boards to help build your own cabin, where the water Skate hide, or the white-footed mouse makes its home, these things are also the "goal" of the game.

For Walden, our overall strategy was to engage players in the basics of Thoreau's experiment up front, but then to unfold over time, a multilayered set of possibilities that spoke not only to discovery of this virtual nature, but also to the various contexts – emotional, social and historical – of his experiment, and ultimately to the player's. We were a small team, but we knew from the outset that we needed to have a large enough possibility space for players to push against Thoreau's answers to find their own.

The meaning that players may glean from playing a game often lays between what they must do and what they can do, what they desire and what they discover. In Walden, a game, this dialectic fashions the potential for an emergent narrative to form from the collision of a player's own thoughts on their experience with the questions, insights, and reflections on the words we hear and read from Thoreau. This interplay allows players to find their own answers to Thoreau's questions, their own relationships to his themes.

For me, this kind of design is more than an open game world; it is, in the deepest tradition of the arts and humanities, an open thought world. It is a space where problems and conflicts are not decided absolutely, but presented for consideration, problematized, in this case, for play.

Today, we live in a world that has sacrificed simplicity and self-reliance for interconnectivity and convenience. The speeding up of life that Thoreau identified as "railroad time" might now be just as well thought of as "Internet time." The design of this game, with its affordances for reflective play, offers a chance for players, young and old, from all walks of life, to go to the woods, virtually, to live and play deliberately, to engage with Thoreau's questions about life, nature, and society, and to discover their own best answers to these enduring questions. 

Tracy Fullerton is an award-winning experimental game designer and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she holds the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment. Her game Walden, A Game, won this year's Games for Change game of the year and most impactful awards.