Is There a Place for a Virtual Walden Pond? | eePRO @ NAAEE

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Is There a Place for a Virtual Walden Pond?

Greetings, everyone!

I was just made aware today of a recent article in the New York Times, about a Walden video game that is coming out in a few months. It will enable players to experience life at Walden Pond, from sowing beans to chatting with Ralph Waldo Emerson. The goal of the game will be to live a balanced and meaningful life. It will take about six hours to play, and will be integrated with opportunities to spend time in "virtual nature".

Critics argue that nature is all around us, and we are far better served by going outside and experiencing it firsthand. Proponents note that it provides an opportunity to expose a new generation of techno-savvy children to Thoreau and his life and ideas.

What are your thoughts on this game? Would you play it? Would you advocate its use?

I have added the link to the bottom of this post.


Thanks for sharing this!

I think that the concept is really interesting. A few points I'd like to discuss:
1) I think the $19.99 price point is a little high. With the idea that this app would expose more people to the idea of wanting to spend more time outside, the cost of this game would likely price out those who many receive the most benefit.
2) The animations are really lovely and it's a game I would like to try out - I'd like to know if they've done any focus group testing to see how the game was received?
3) This: "The project has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, though some say video game research is unworthy of federal funds." To me, anyway, it seems like we should be doing a better job of funding these types of projects since this is a medium that so many people use. No use in being a curmudgeon. Just because people may not like games doesn't mean they are unworthy of research.

Yes, thank you for sharing! I’m always interested in cases that develop the relationship between digital and physical spaces. I know this was a few months back, but I believe this game is still only in the early access alpha version.

I agree with many of your thoughts about access and interest in results of testing, Alex!

Just a few others of my own:
I think that video games like this one can be beautiful opportunities for students to experience worlds outside of their own. By letting students co-create individualized interaction to places and people that probably would not have come across otherwise, video games can address obvious barriers to entry (geographic location, ability/disability, identity as “outdoorsy”, etc.). This specific case also addresses temporal barriers in allowing students to experience a kind of immersive experience to a narrative different than traditional visits to Walden Pond offer. I think the hope then is that these games/experiences ignite the user’s interest to maybe one day visit the physical space or transfers to increase involvement with nature closer to home.
However, I’m concerned about how place is presented in the narrative of this specific game. In the short promo video, this game doesn’t seem to capitalize on what I consider the coolest feature of video games to overcome temporal barriers. Users walk through Walden Pond with Emerson as the sole narrator, and though one of the objectives is to collect “arrowheads” there is no mention of Walden Pond as ancestral Wampanoag land or history before Emerson. Inheriting places means inheriting its all of history and the wisdom that sits there.

Thanks, Jana, for alerting me to this via your post! This is fascinating. I'm not a video-game person, but I found this far more interesting than most other video games I've seen, partly because the graphics and soundscape are lovely and even soothing. But I'm somewhat troubled by the description of it being a six-hour game--that's an awfully long time for a digital/screen interaction! Or maybe I'm naïve. (Likely!) I also appreciate Jana's point related to the importance of recognizing and honoring the many different perspectives on place. I think that providing opportunity to engage with the range of place perspectives would be one of the enriching dimensions that a virtual world, such as this one, would be particularly well-suited to offer.

Thanks for everyone's thoughts on this thread. So interesting! I recently visited our local VR lab and they claimed that many of the behavioral benefits that we can get from sending kids outside can be accomplished through VR! I can't imagine!

I agree that we can't be too curmedgeonly about video games and technology in the outdoors anymore. If we do, we'll get left behind! And, Jana, your point about hidden histories is really important.

My first reaction in looking at the graphics of the video game is that it made me wistful to actually be outside. So much of the experience of being outside is the smell and the feel. A video game can only engage sight and sound. I wonder if that effects how people engage?


I just recently read The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams. In exploring recent research on the role of nature in human health and well-being, she encountered several studies looking at how virtual nature might be a "stand-in" for actual nature experiences. Her own experience of these virtual nature encounters was that they were nothing like the real thing.

My concern is about intergenerational environmental amnesia, a term first coined by Peter H. Kahn in an essay in Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations: Psychological, Sociocultural and Evolutionary Investigations from MIT Press. Basically, children use as their baseline for nature what they know. For instance, I grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, with a stand of floodplain woods behind my house -- maybe 30 or 40 acres of third or fourth growth. Yet as a child, I thought of that as wilderness. It was the nature that I experienced. If I had grown up next to a national park filled with old growth woods, then I would have had a different sense of nature.

Fast forward to today. Are children getting the outdoor experiences that will give them a sense of nature? If nature is instead what they experience in a virtual reality, could that one day be sufficient? What would that mean for the deep engagement with the wild other -- with life beyond the human, with the wild -- during childhood?

I agree that if experiencing a virtual Walden makes a child want to go visit the real one, or even check out a cool pond down the street, that is a marvelous outcome. But if it instead leads the child to seek other virtual experiences (virtual Muir's Sierras, anyone?), then I would find it deeply troubling. In short, I would be interested in seeing a research study looking at the effects of these kinds of virtual nature experiences on children. Do they spend more time outdoors as a result, or less?