Published: Feb. 9, 2021


As part of the ATLAS Institute’s third annual Whaaat!? Festival, join an interactive excursion into the world of nature and video games, led by Tracy Fullerton, game designer and creator of the award-winning, "Walden, a game."  "Walden" is an exploratory narrative and simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond. Unlike action-packed video games, the game invites players to contemplate their natural surroundings, fostering inner calm and personal wellness.

During her online talk, Fullerton, a professor in the USC Games program at the University of Southern California and the director of the Game Innovation Lab, will discuss her design methods, encouraging participants to find inspiration in ideas and activities that have meaning to them and seeing where those ideas lead, rather than relying on standard genres and design solutions.

"It’s my hope that participants might be inspired by a game like Walden to try and develop their own philosophical games, or games that take on new ways of thinking and being in the world," Fullerton said.

The game begins during the summer of 1845 when Thoreau moved to the pond and built a cabin there. Players follow a narrative of Thoreau’s first year in the woods, surviving by finding food and fuel and maintaining their shelter and clothing while surrounded by the natural beauty of the area. Each season holds its own challenges for survival and possibilities for inspiration, offering more opportunities for reflective play than strategic challenge. The game is not an adventure of the body pitted against nature, says Fullerton, but of the mind and soul living in nature over the course of a New England year.

Tracy Fullerton

Tracy Fullerton (USC Photo/Roberto Gomez)

"Because the game’s systems are built around Thoreau’s ideas of simplicity, it's a very different kind of game," Fullerton said. "Rather than asking players to 'level up' and seek more money or treasure, this game asks the question, 'What if less is more in life and in games?' In Walden, if you focus on living very simply in nature, you have time to notice the details of life in the woods and be inspired by them."

In place of the in-person, all-day annual event and due to the pandemic, the Whaaat!? Festival switched to remote programming in September and is continuing with online events throughout the academic year.  Game scholars, critics, researchers, developers, designers and enthusiasts have come together online for a wide variety of events, including John Sharp discussing his book, "Works of Game," and an experimental gameplay session with Paolo Pedercini from Molleindustria.  Besides “amazing guests," the festival includes "secret game clubs, virtual pop-up arcades, a book club, as well as surprise swag by mail and more,” says Matt Bethancourt, an ATLAS senior instructor who coordinates the annual conference with his partner, Lisa Bethancourt, and ATLAS Instructor Danny Rankin. Bethancourt and Rankin co-direct the ATLAS Whaaat!? Lab for Games and Experimental Interactions.

"The festival's goal is to feature creative and original games that break the rules, inspiring delight by forging new ways to live, interact and play," says Bethancourt. "The kind of experience that makes you say, 'Whaaat!?' "  

Creatively adapting to the circumstances, this year festival-goers had two ways to participate: a free festival ticket that offered access to all of the festival’s online events, including talks, livestreams, virtual arcades and game jams; or a limited number of $13 Whaaat!? Experience subscriptions (now sold out), which included priority registration to all the festival’s online content, plus exclusive programming delivered through physical mailings and by phone, and other secret experiences.

The Whaaat!? Festival receives funding from CU Boulder’s Engineering Excellence Fund and the ATLAS Institute.

If you go

What: As part of the Whaaat!? Festival, join a virtual conversation with Tracy Fullerton, creator of the award-winning videogame, "Walden," an interactive excursion into nature inspired by the philosophies and ideas articulated by Henry David Thoreau in his book of the same name.

Where: Zoom. Registration required.

When: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 6 to 7pm, MST

Cost: Free

More information about the Whaaat!? Festival