Zen and the Art of Virtual Farm Maintenance: Life Lessons from Stardew Valley

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We all need to slow down in today’s fast-paced information highway laden world. But slowing down and feeling connected to nature again can come from, of all things, a video game. This is no surprise to me. I grew up with video games and have always found relaxation there, from both violent games (They don’t cause violence and I literally wrote a whole research paper on it you can find here ) helping me work out aggression and from slower paced games to help me unwind. Stardew Valley, an independent game all made by only one person and now a rousing success, has a concept I’m familiar with, having played the Harvest Moon series of games it’s inspired by, but it’s not the kind of thing most people might think of as a video game.

In the intro of Stardew Valley, we’re shown someone beaten down by the corporate world who decides to take over a family farm for a fresh start in life. The person is you, the player. You move from “cubicle farm” to real farm, moving from your corporate office to the peaceful small Pelican Town in Stardew Valley. There are quests, like many games, but they’re largely optional. There are many things to do. You can clear your farm of rocks and fallen lumber and save up the materials to build things. You can plant and harvest crops or raise chickens and cows, gathering milk and eggs to sell, cook, or make into other products like mayo and cheese. You can talk to and befriend the townspeople and learn more about them and their lives, and you can choose one to court and marry if you want.

Like most things in the game, getting married is optional, though you can court any of the single people regardless of the gender you picked for your character, a refreshing take on the dating sim aspect, though it’s become more common over the years ever since The Sims broke the mold. The Sims broke the mold by accident, when two female Sim wedding guests in a live demo decided on their own to kiss in front of the crowd, and because of the public approval, the code was left as it was. (Details on that here) The townsfolk of Stardew Valley don’t make a big deal out of it if you marry somebody of the same gender. If only real life relationships started as simply as talking to and giving gifts to your lover every week though, right?

I put many hours into the game at first, but I started enjoying Stardew Valley less after a while, and when I thought about it, I realized why. I had started focusing on the next thing I wanted. “If I grow more of this crop I can unlock something.” “If I gather more wood I can upgrade my house.” When I started thinking about it that way, the game became less fun.

There was less beauty in the valley if I saw it as means to achievements. I hadn’t only let the game become that way. I’d let my life become that way too. I kept focusing on what I don’t have, on what I can do to get more things I want. That kind of attitude makes you start to enjoy what you already have so much less.

There are many who actively discuss Stardew Valley online, and there’s plenty of advice for new players. One big piece of newbie advice I saw was, “You can’t do everything at once. You have to pick what you’re going to focus on.” Another was, “Some people focus on the quickest possible ways to make money, but I don’t play that way because it’s less fun.” This isn’t just advice for Stardew Valley. It’s advice for life, and I’m going to keep it in mind.

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