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April 29, 2019

Game Innovation Lab Nabs $300,000 Grant to Expand "Walden"

By Hugh Hart

Ten years in the making, USC Game Innovation Lab's award-winning "Walden, a game" immerses users in a bucolic environment inspired by Henry David Thoreau's classic memoir. The virtual world of "Walden" comes fully loaded with lush visuals and thought-provoking paths of inquiry centered on Walden Pond circa 1847, when the nature-loving philosopher built a cabin in the Massachusetts woods. Lauded for incorporating themes like ecosystems, culture, and political activism into its gameplay, "Walden" recently earned a spot in New York City's prestigious "Design: Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial" exhibition, running through January.

And now, armed with a new $300,000 National Humanities Endowment grant, Game Innovation Lab director Tracy Fullerton and her team aim to take "Walden" into the classroom. "The core 'Walden' game that we give away free to teachers is six hours long," Fullerton explains. "We want to reach more teachers by creating game modules, 30 to 60 minutes long, that focus on the topics they're teaching." Preliminary concepts for curriculum-specific components include "Civil Disobedience," devoted to Thoreau's social justice activism; "Surveyor of the Wilderness," which immerses users in the conflicted relationship between pristine forestland and Thoreau's work as a surveyor; and "Underground Railroad," incorporating a history of the abolitionist movement as filtered through Thoreau's involvement in the fugitive slave network.

Game Innovation Lab will also use grant money to set up workshops for educators. Fullerton says, "Teaching with games is a new field and a lot of curious teachers are eager to try but aren't really sure how to do it. So we're going to run a series of professional workshops around the country where we'll work with teachers to develop best practices." During the game's initial roll-out in 2017, Fullerton learned firsthand how the video game medium brings Thoreau's ideas to life for students who might otherwise tune out his message. "The text can be pretty dry," Fullerton says. "I remember two kids came to this festival in Culver City and told us 'We read the book in class, it was boring!' But then they started playing the game and before you know it, they're telling us ' We didn't understand 'Walden' before. Now we get it.'"

"Walden’s" future potential as a teacher's best friend builds on recent artistic triumphs including "Game Of The Year" honors from Games For Change and Intentional Play Summit's "Best Overall Game" award. The game, produced with support from the NEH, the NEA, USC Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Sundance Institute, has also appeared been featured at art exhibitions in Berlin and Beijing as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum Of The Moving Image, and Sundance Film Festival. "One of the interesting things about design research is that with 'Walden,' our outcome on one hand is this commercial entertainment product that we've released," Fullerton observes. "It can also be an incredible educational tool. And then you have this other vector, where the same piece is recognized as a work of art. I think that's unusual for any project, much less a game."