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Photo credit: Sarah Nichols

by David Sykes, Vice-Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This year, the 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, his quest for peace, quiet and tranquility has been turned into a path-breaking video game with the goal of helping gamers achieve “stillness,” “tranquility”—the very opposite of the kinds of violence and action for which gaming is known. We thought this game, with its peaceful soundtrack and its goal of tranquility might interest readers of The Quiet Coalition.

Three of us at the Quiet Coalition have literal connections to Thoreau and Walden. Two of us live within a stone’s throw of Walden Pond and walk it’s tranquil shores frequently, and the third lives in a house on a street named Walden in another state. So, coincidently, our minds converge often on Thoreau and his sojourn at Walden Pond. That’s why we were astonished to see the following article in the New York Times, right on page 1, on Saturday, February 26: Walden turned into a video game?

Then we found the following lecture by the game’s developer, Tracy Fullerton, who runs the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California.

Why develop a game about Thoreau and Walden now? He’s relevant once again. Henry David Thoreau was a libertarian. He was also a small-businessman/entrepreneur and a technology developer (he patented a method of pencil-making and worked in his father’s pencil-making factory). We remember him as an environmentalist, but his “Civil Disobedience” signals that he was a supporter of armed rebellion in the pursuit of social justice and a strong advocate for the abolitionist John Brown. Beyond that, of course, there was his spiritual quest: he was a pantheistic spiritualist who hated noise.

No wonder he hid out in the woods for two years trying to calm down and make sense of things. But that was 200 years ago. Today, if you happen to visit Walden Pond near Boston, Massachusetts, don’t be surprised to find yourself hiking through the woods with folks from anywhere on planet earth speaking softly in a bewildering array of languages (including an astonishing percentage from China and Russia) and whispering assumptions about life that don’t fit easily into any categories you might recognize, political or otherwise. The only thing all of these folks have in common is their backpacks, hiking boots and perhaps a secret fascination with rebellion.

Thoreau doesn’t fit neatly into any of the buckets into which we sort modern life. He was definitely a renegade and a contrarian, an independent thinker searching for peace, quiet, synthesis, and meaning. And he did so in a particularly troubling time decades ahead of the war that killed more Americans than any other in our history, the Civil War, a war that left open sores and unresolved questions that still trouble us. In short, he lived his life and pursued his quest in chaotic, accelerating, noisy, and uncertain times much like our own.

Consider how similar: America then was overrun with technological transformations (like the noisy railroad he complained about that still roars past Walden Pond thirty-six times a day). The nation was entangled in “illegitimate” wars with Mexico and native Americans, and it was deeply divided by “institutionalized racism,” namely the slavery question. And it had what many feared was the nation’s first “populist dictator” in the White House, Andrew Jackson—a proud slaveholder whose portrait now hangs next to the desk of the current sitting president.

Interest in Thoreau and Walden waxes and wanes, but never goes away. The last time his popularity surged was nearly 50 years ago in 1970, when “Walden College” was the pseudonymous location for Gary Trudeau’s comic strip, Doonesbury.