In the book Walden, Thoreau writes scene after scene of his adventures by the pond, each recounted with specificity and delight. I especially love his story about fishing by moonlight.
“These experiences were very memorable and valuable to me,—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again.”
I don’t have specific memories of playing the game Walden, though I’ve played it for hours. The moments of fishing and repairing the cabin and walking through the woods all blur together, and for good reason: each has the same in-game mechanics. The “catch a fish” sequence looks the same, every single time.
The game-makers call that sequence, “fishing,” but would Thoreau say the same? He argued for looking past the name of a thing, and focusing instead on what that thing actually was. “I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things,” he writes, with delicious acidity. He takes Concord as an example: “If a man should walk through this town and see only the reality…[and he] should give us an account of [it], we should not recognize the place in his description. Look at a meeting-house, or a court-house, or a jail, or a shop, or a dwelling-house, and say what that thing really is before a true gaze, and they would all go to pieces in your account of them.”
He means, I think, that we give labels to buildings (“a house,” “a post office,”) and then we think of the buildings as their labels. We err in thinking that a thing is what it’s called. That transference allows the game-makers to claim that a simulation of living deliberately allows the player to experience Thoreau’s own deliberate life. So, what’s the difference?
One day, Thoreau writes, he finds two species of ants battling on his wood pile. Instead of chopping wood, he watches them fight, “and certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment’s comparison with this.” The game simulates the wood pile, the setting in which Thoreau lived freely—an afternoon of log-splitting becomes one of ant-watching—but no capacity for spontaneous action, for your own free life within that setting. I split plenty of logs in-game, but I never saw an ant, even a peaceful one.
Once, walking in the game, I startled a small red fox. It bounded away, in a straight run towards the shore, then over the pond’s surface. It didn’t sink or swerve, but ran over water like it was solid earth. Two scripts, “water” and “animal,” not interacting, because they weren’t built to be able to.
So, was IRL Walden the right place to “live deliberately,” as Thoreau had? I drove there on a sunny morning last summer. I have a notoriously bad sense of direction, but, thanks to the game, I could actually tell where I was on the shore in relation to what I thought of as “my” cabin. I walked around the pond with my notebook, impatient for some relaxation (and missing the irony there).