For the past six months I’ve immersed myself in the world of Stardew Valley, the popular farming simulator. The game deposits you on a weed-choked plot in the small Pelican Town and invites you to transform it into a functioning farm. Along the way you can make friends with the local townspeople, try out your hand at fishing, and explore the monster-filled mines. I’ve put about 50 hours into the game, but recently I stopped to wonder whether I was actually having fun. And, if so, why?
Stardew Valley has its obvious charms — the amiably retro pixel art, the sense of humour, the variety of items to grow and collect — but it lacks the obvious hooks of many other video games. There’s no story pushing you to an end-point. There are elements of dating sims and dungeon crawlers, but they’re fairly rudimentary. Really the only skill there is to master is the fishing mini-game.
What Stardew Valley offers instead is the joy of order. Each day in the game is a finite amount of time (about twenty real-world minutes), so one has to manage their time carefully. I quickly acquired a daily routine: water the plants, milk the cows, check the mushroom cave (a vital part of any farm), pick up chicken eggs, go to town to check the bulletin board, and so on and so forth. There’s a comfort to a routine like this, especially for me, and Stardew Valley rewards you for finding that comfort.
And yet, all the pixelated charm only gets you so far before you realize that the game is essentially work. You repeat the same monotonous tasks, few of which offer their own ludic satisfaction, day after day. Your goal becomes to reduce the amount of time your work takes you, by acquiring better equipment and crafting tools like sprinklers, but only so you can squeeze more work in and become even more productive. In a sense, Stardew Valley becomes an endless series of errands.
The game is, then, a prime example of ludonarrative dissonance, which is essentially a fancy game-theory word for hypocrisy. In its limited story, which sees you abandoning a life as a corporate drone for a quieter and more fulfilling life in the countryside. And yet, the mechanics drive you inevitably to becoming the ultimate homo economicus, generating income from dawn to dusk and constantly looking for ways to improve efficiency. The natural environment can be ruthlessly mined for resources, from the trees to the ponds. Even the relationship aspect of the game is chiefly economic: you win over your intended with a constant stream of gifts, and this investment inevitably yields a return. Ultimately, the player becomes another kind of corporate drone, their routine now self-enforced.
I’m far from the first person to notice this divide. Gentle Gamers has an article that reflects my experience pretty much exactly, from childhood memories of playing Pokemon until the game haunted my dreams to marveling at the beautiful Stardew farms people post on Reddit. I do, however, resist the suggestion (also made by Kirk Hamilton) that a focus on productivity is merely a choice the player makes — one the game may be satirizing. As in action-focused open world games, Stardew seemingly offers you free choice, but only a few courses of action are fleshed out in game play. If I want to spend the evening talking to my wife, or down at the local saloon, I’ll run through the limited dialogue very quickly. If, however, I go down to the mines to kill slimes and make some coin, the game will have plenty to offer me.
But I also don’t want to dismiss Stardew Valley entirely as a nostalgic fantasy of bucolic capitalism, as Alfie Allen does in his book Playstation DreamWorld. Rather, I think the game is compelling to so many people because it presents us with a vision of un-alienated work and production. Stardew allows you to live out Marx’s idyll of farming in the morning and fishing in the afternoon without ever being a farmer or a fisherman. (The writing-philosophy part of the quote is a little tougher to gamify.) It offers a word where work helps build your relationships with other people, rather than taking away from them.
In a way, Stardew Valley embraces the Marxist labour theory of value as well. Farming and foraging gathers you raw ingredients, which you can then improve through applying labour (the labour is normally just chucking them in a a preserves jar or other device, but whatever.) This added human effort is always reflected in the price — a pickled vegetable is more valuable than a fresh one, because your labour has been inserted. Stardew thus offers a glimpse of unalienated labour, where the economics of work are always fair and demystified (at least if you read the wiki.)
I also don’t think Stardew Valley is alone in bringing the rhythms of work to the hobby of video gaming. Anyone who’s played a roleplaying game is familiar with the task of “grinding” — undertaking frequent and repetitive battles to increase your character’s stats so that you can defeat a difficult enemy and progress to the next part of the game world. While other games may not statistically require it, players may find themselves repeating mind-numbing game sections frequently to build up their skills.
It is for this reason that so many games sometime feel like work — an unpleasant and repetitive task that one has to put hours into to obtain something they actually want (in this case, progress in the game’s story or perhaps simply a sense of satisfaction.) Simulation games often quite literally ask you to imitate someone’s job (or, in the case of The Sims, their domestic labour.) And players, sometimes millions of them, will happily do it.
This is, in part, an ideological function. Like schools, video games train young people in the rhythms of work and the concept of productivity. We are taught that only people who put in the work, and only people who can successfully pass increasingly difficult tasks, are worthy of reward. Even in our leisure time, we want to fulfill this unconscious script, being the productive worker whose skill obtains great reward.
At the same time, we like video games because they are work that is not like work. The economy of video games are transparent and fair, and work is already rewarded. One never has to worry about the boss’s relative being promoted over them. Master Chief is never laid off because stock speculators tanked the economy again. Video games fulfill all the promises to us that the capitalist world has broken.
Maybe it’s for these reasons that, as I worry about getting enough hours at my job and covering next month’s rent, I keep turning to Stardew Valley. It and games like it both reiterate the capitalist world of work while also allowing us brief glimpses of a different way. Maybe the great Pelican Town Communal Farm isn’t too far off after all.