Tracy Fullerton: I want to talk about the fact that our lives today are lived at an unsus­tain­able pace of activ­i­ty. They’re dri­ven by the quick­en­ing effects of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies on all aspects of the human expe­ri­ence, from per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion to busi­ness exchange, from edu­ca­tion to pol­i­tics, from pop cul­ture to fine arts. We have accept­ed a rapid cycling up of the inter­changes in each of our days, and real­ly our hours and even each of our minutes. 

This unre­lent­ing pace of tech­nolo­gies is deeply iron­ic, giv­en the orig­i­nal intent of them to make our lives more effi­cient and give us more time. But we can all attest that the actu­al effect of this esca­la­tion of effi­cien­cy has been to increase the pace of work and play in our worlds. To pack our expe­ri­ence of life more dense­ly and to deval­ue things like idle­ness and reflec­tion and slow­ness as an aes­thet­ic in our lives, even in pur­suits like games that were once thought to be leisurely. 

Now, I am a video game design­er and you may be think­ing, But games are one of the major cul­prits in this esca­la­tion of time-sucking tech­nolo­gies.” And that is true. Today’s dig­i­tal games invite us to play at a pace that goes beyond that which we have ever expe­ri­enced. So not only do we play games with fast-paced core mechan­ics or in quick, stolen moments of short­er and short­er game­play through­out the day, but we val­ue swift­ness in play lit­er­al­ly. We mon­e­tize our desire to play more quick­ly by charg­ing play­ers to move the game forward—microtransactions, real­ly, for mil­lisec­onds of game­play. And play­ers speak of lag time when judg­ing whether the con­di­tions of play are right or not. And now microsec­onds decide our twitch-based online games. 

The games that we play, the games that we are attract­ed to as indi­vid­u­als, as a soci­ety, say a lot about the issues that we’re grap­pling with in our world. So, ancient cul­tures invent­ed games about preda­tors and prey, as well as games of chance and fate, try­ing to divine our futures in the face of uncer­tain­ty. In the Middle Ages we invent­ed games of ter­ri­to­ry and con­quest between great nation-states. And still lat­er we invent­ed indus­tri­al games of eco­nom­ic pow­er and materialism. 

In each of these trends, soci­ety engaged in play­ful sim­u­la­tions around some of the deep­est issues of the times. And we still play many of these games today. In fact we play them so much that we have con­cerns about becom­ing addict­ed to our play. 

Our most pop­u­lar games still revolve around preda­tors and prey, war and mon­ey, but they do so on a glob­al scale in a way that con­sumes play­ers like rats in the prover­bial Skinner’s box, push­ing at levers until they get the win, the reward, the prize, or the pel­let. These games offer play to us that moves so quick­ly and builds on such basic instincts that play­ers have no time or con­text for reflect­ing on what they are play­ing about, what issues they are grap­pling with, grind­ing away at vir­tu­al lives in vir­tu­al worlds that are as fast-paced and pressure-filled as our real world. 

Now, as a play­er and as a design­er of games, I want­ed more. More pre­cise­ly, I want­ed less, but I want­ed more out of that less. And as such for the past fif­teen years I’ve been research­ing the sort of blue sky of reflec­tive play, or what we might call slow play.”

For me, the impulse to cre­ate games that offered an anti­dote to the mod­ern pace of life began in 2002 when I took a long dri­ve across the United States. I had recent­ly closed my mul­ti­play­er game­play com­pa­ny, a tech­nol­o­gy that con­nect­ed mil­lions of play­ers simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in games that synced to their tele­vi­sion broad­casts. After sev­er­al very stress­ful years of devel­op­ment and entre­pre­neur­ship, I took a post­mortem trip around the coun­try, hik­ing, and camp­ing, and read­ing, and think­ing about what was miss­ing in our world of play. 

And on this trip I vis­it­ed Walden Pond. And I sat on the shore to reread parts of Henry David Thoreau’s book about his exper­i­ment in liv­ing a sim­ple life there at the pond. It was a qui­et day when I was there, and I had the pond to myself. And as I read I began to feel a sense of time and how long it had been since I had a slow day. And this moment in the book, like so many oth­ers, stood out to me. 

Sometimes, in a sum­mer morn­ing, hav­ing tak­en my accus­tomed bath, I sat in my sun­ny door­way from sun­rise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hick­o­ries and sumacs, in undis­turbed soli­tude and still­ness, while the birds sang around or flit­ted noise­less through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west win­dow, or the noise of some trav­el­er’s wag­on on the dis­tant high­way, I was remind­ed of the lapse of time.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

And you may be think­ing, So what?” What does this pas­toral thinker, this nat­u­ral­ist and philoso­pher born 200 years ago this com­ing July have to do with the rapid-paced world of video games and tech­nol­o­gy that we live in? 

I think that Thoreau and the exper­i­ment that he set for him­self in liv­ing has quite a bit to do with the dilem­mas that we face every day when we con­front the tech­nolo­gies we’ve devel­oped to make our lives eas­i­er,” more effi­cient,” and per­haps by acci­dent, faster and less sustainable. 

In 1845 when Thoreau went down to the woods to con­duct his now-famous exper­i­ment in liv­ing sim­ply in nature, he was sit­ting on the nar­row edge of a par­tic­u­lar moment of time, and he knew it. The rail­road and the tele­graph were just com­ing into gen­er­al use and he could already see the pace of life around him in the small vil­lage of Concord where he lived accel­er­at­ing, quick­en­ing with the advent of these tech­nolo­gies. Suddenly, peo­ple were liv­ing on rail­road time, rush­ing up and down to Boston and liv­ing their lives by the punc­tu­al com­ings and goings of the trained in a way that changed the tra­di­tion­al pace of life in that vil­lage forever. 

Thoreau’s exper­i­ment in strip­ping his life to its sim­plest ele­ments can be seen as an ear­ly coun­ter­ar­gu­ment against this quick­en­ing that we are still grap­pling with, per­haps a har­bin­ger of today’s slow liv­ing move­ment and its charge to reclaim a more humane pace of life for exis­tence. We may call our pace of life Internet time rather than rail­road time, but it is only a rel­a­tive dif­fer­ence. The con­cept is the same. And per­haps the anti­dote is sim­i­lar as well. 

When Thoreau set out to reex­am­ine life, to strip it to its essence, he did­n’t go far—only a few miles away from the quick­en­ing pace of life in his home­town. But he went far enough to get a sense of per­spec­tive on the changes he saw in soci­ety. And he did­n’t go into the wilder­ness, just far enough into nature to fore­front it in his view. To play with the idea of nature in con­trast to society. 

In some ways we might say that his exper­i­ment in liv­ing sim­ply was a kind of game that he was play­ing with him­self, set­ting up the rules of his exper­i­ment and see­ing what he might find out about life by play­ing those rules. And as a game design­er that idea intrigued me. And as I sat on the shores of Walden and con­sid­ered the pace of life that I had been liv­ing, that we have all been liv­ing, it seemed to me that like Thoreau I need­ed a game that would allow me to play slow­ly, deeply, and reflec­tive­ly rather than yet anoth­er game that kept my heart charg­ing, my fight-or-flight reflex honed. I need­ed to play Thoreau’s exper­i­ment, but I want­ed to play it using mod­ern tech­nolo­gies to bring it to life wher­ev­er I was. 

So while it might seem iron­ic to some, to me it seemed a per­fect fit to cre­ate a vir­tu­al nature for mod­ern read­ers to expe­ri­ence Thoreau’s words and ideas. Thoreau him­self actu­al­ly was an intu­itive engi­neer, adept at under­stand­ing sys­tems. He invent­ed a bet­ter graphite mix for pen­cils, which was his fam­i­ly busi­ness. And of course it was also the tech­nol­o­gy of choice for his own cre­ative writ­ing process. And he made sure that his books were bound using the most mod­ern technologies. 

So to me, cre­at­ing an immer­sive trans­la­tion of his exper­i­ment was in the same spir­it as cre­at­ing a mod­ern illus­trat­ed edi­tion of the work. If you think about it, every year thou­sands of school­child­ren in America read Thoreau account of liv­ing slow­ly and sim­ply. But they do so while sit­ting in crowd­ed urban class­rooms, with­out any con­nec­tion to the nat­ur­al world he was immers­ing him­self in. What if I could give play­ers like these the chance to live delib­er­ate­ly in nature wher­ev­er they were? Whatever their cur­rent pace of life. We don’t all have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take two years out of life to ask the kind of ques­tions that Thoreau did. But we still need to ask our­selves these vital ques­tions, per­haps now more than ever. And play is the per­fect vehi­cle for such questions. 

In play, we can chal­lenge our­self to live lives we nev­er thought were pos­si­ble. We can take chances, we can make dif­fer­ent choic­es, and we can dis­cov­er out­comes that may lead us to ideas that we can bring back with us to our real lives. Play is practice. 

So what if we prac­tice play­ing delib­er­ate­ly, rather than instinc­tive­ly? What if we played a game slow­ly, and sim­ply, and reflect­ed on the choic­es we were mak­ing with­in it? What if we played a game about liv­ing in nature and watch­ing it change over time, and learn­ing its secrets, and lov­ing its beau­ties? How would that kind of slow play enhance who we are as peo­ple, as cit­i­zens of the world, a world that’s in crisis? 

And so I invite you to play a game of Walden; or, life in the Woods. To play delib­er­ate­ly; to reclaim these tech­nolo­gies that’ve quick­ened our lives, for a slow game about liv­ing in nature and ques­tion­ing the inevitable­ness of our lives. A qui­et game as an anti­dote to tur­bu­lent times.