That’s Naturetainment

Can video games help us cure our 'nature deficit disorder'. A look at whether a virtual life in the woods is even better than the real thing


NaturetainmentIn a recent stroll in the woods, I came across a leafy bramble loaded with small dark fruit. Recognizing they were blackberries, I extended my arm and grabbed a handful. Moments later, I encountered a straight but flexible tree branch. I fashioned a fishing pole and dipped the hook into the nearby pond. Three quick jigs, and the pole arched. Soon I had a nice-sized perch dangling at the end of the line. I was really doing well. I was living by my wits and instincts! Maybe I’d take my forest booty back to my shack—built by me—and make some sort of blackberry-perch fricassee. Gross? Who cares. I wouldn’t actually be eating it. The whole experience was courtesy of the two-minute trailer “with footage from the current game prototype” of the forthcoming Walden, a Game.

The idea was that soon I could enter the world of Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 pond-gazing classic Walden; Or, Life in the Woods via Walden, the 3D video game. I would “follow in the footsteps of Thoreau” as I conducted my “own experiments in living deliberately,” all the while sitting at my desk in my downtown condo.

Perhaps I lack imagination, but I was left wondering who would find it interesting, entertaining or rewarding to sit at a computer pretending to fish, fake-build some fake-fire, and going for a slow walk in the virtual reality woods of a laptop screen?

In the first place, Walden, a book that includes a chapter-long, blow-by-blow account of growing beans, is a rather odd choice of source material. It’s as earnest and plodding as its thesis promises. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” writes Thoreau, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The book is a chronicle of Thoreau’s days, spent alone for the most part, seeking simplicity and self-reliance in the woods for two years, two months, and two days. He wanted to reconnect with the very basics: shelter, food, warmth, and clothing. It was by no means a best-seller in its day, but Walden lives on, even today, because of its subject matter, an ideal that most of us can identify with. Thoreau wanted the kind of unmediated, authentic experience of the natural world that he found was missing in modern life in urban Massachusetts.

So let’s turn that into a video game?

Sure, why not? Who, after all, could have predicted the success of fake farming on FarmVille? And we’re already busily turning the natural wonders of the world into consumer products. Have your photo taken professionally on the Grand Canyon Skywalk! Dine with Shamu at SeaWorld for $29 per person! Coming soon: Columbia Icefield’s glass viewing platform! We love nature, but we love it more at a distance, keeping ourselves safe from any unpredictability or even danger. Even better if we can press pause and fetch some snacks and drinks before resuming our ramble through a 3D forest.

The problem is that actual contact with actual wilderness is not merely one entertainment option among others, it’s more important for our happiness than we may think. Journalist Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, spent ten years speaking to parents and children across the United States about their interactions (or not) with nature prior to the book’s 2005 publication. Two years before the first iPhone was released, he identified how the creep of screen-time into our children’s lives was already replacing outdoor play.

“As likely as not today, ‘summer camp’ is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear—to ignore,” writes Louv. Our interactions with nature have a positive effect on our mental and physical states, and a lack of contact with nature will have a negative effect on us.

He followed Last Child in the Woods with The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age in 2011. Studies are now emerging that contact with nature is not just helpful to a child’s well-being, it is essential. One study shows that even adults experience demonstrable reductions in stress levels when they simply look out a window as opposed to nature scenes on a screen. Dozens of studies document the fundamental shifts away from nature-based recreation towards digital entertainment that takes place indoors and the corollary effects of increases in obesity, mood disorders, attention deficit disorder, and so on. Those high-definition channels of pristine beaches and calm meadows just aren’t going to cut it.

I mentioned my concerns about Walden, the game, to a very outdoorsy friend. She loves multi-day hikes with just a backpack and a pup tent. She’s not the target market for Walden, the game. “What I love about hiking,” she said, “is that it reminds me that I’m so insignificant and small. There’s nothing I can do to control whatever nature wants to throw at me.” How else do you experience the heady, existential freedom of realizing yourself as being puny on nature’s scale to matter? Might as well enjoy the rising scent of the hot forest floor, as you squint into the sun to watch a bird of prey ride afternoon thermals.

Nora Young, host of CBC Spark, points out in her new book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives are Altering the World Around Us, that as our lives go digital, our instinct is to cling to those primal, sensual, physical things that root us, like cooking, working with our hands, gardening, and even yoga or running. “We are animals,” she writes, “and yet we are failing to acknowledge just how vital a grounded, deep, embodied relationship to the world is to our well-being.” She offers the personal example of how she started “gardening and cooking in earnest” when her life became more digital, and she points to other “digerati” who look for analog, hands-on, handiwork in their spare time.

This summer, a two-hour midday walk with a friend turned into a six-hour twenty-five kilometre march after she and I became lost in the hills in the southern British Columbia interior. But with some plucky backtracking and a few basic wayfinding skills, we eventually met up with our intended trail. As I planted an overly demonstrative kiss on the wooden signpost, my friend started to giggle. As did I. Soon we were laughing uncontrollably. In actual fact, we hadn’t been in the slightest danger that day, but the rush of noradrenalin and serotonin was real.

As we returned back to the trailhead parking lot, even the joy of taking off our hot, damp and dust-caked hiking boots and socks was disproportionate to the actual effort. The day was an unfiltered, unscripted sensory bonanza. “Well you won’t get any of that playing a video game,” I thought as we heaved ourselves into the car. No matter how 3D a game like Walden might be, there is no substitute for a real walk in the real woods. Nobody codes like Mother Nature.

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