Originally published in Area of Effect magazine
On its surface, Stardew Valley is a game about farming, crafting, and collecting. These tasks can easily take up most of the players’ time but they aren’t the point of the game, because Stardew Valley is really a community simulator.
The game begins as many pastoral fantasies do, with the romantic promise of escape offered by a return to the dirt—our collective roots. In Stardew Valley, the promise is a deed to a small farm in the game’s namesake town, where I was greeted by a field overgrown by weeds, rocks, and a forest that has taken advantage of years of neglect to encroach upon my one-room shack. I got straight to subduing the land and started dreaming of upgrading my hovel and how I would build a nice fence for the cow pasture I didn’t have yet.
Then my old-fashioned mailbox started blowing up with messages. First with words of welcome, but soon people were dropping by in person—with requests.
I decided it might be tactful to go into town and actually figure out what kind of person would pay 150 gold pieces for three dandelions. By the time I made it back home, I’d been taught how to fish, met a fellow urban refugee making art just outside of town, and realized that most of these digital people had their own challenges. I wasn’t the only person living in the valley.
This kind of self-centredness isn’t just a feature of my gaming, it’s a feature of me. I find it startlingly easy to put on blinders; to go my way and tend to my patch of land with little thought to those around me. I can hang some of this on being an introvert, but not all of it. I guard my energy jealously and hate having demands made of me, after all there are only so many hours—in the case of Stardew Valley, only minutes—in a day.
The question of where to invest my real-world time and energy has weighed on me in the wake of recent life changes. Last year I got married, moved to an unfamiliar part of Montreal, and decided to attend a francophone church, all of which made new and particular demands of me. Throw my job as an ESL teacher and grad school on top of all this and suddenly 24-hour days were looking short to this easily overwhelmed geek. Stardew Valley became my preferred way to escape and unwind but, as often as it relaxed me, it managed to remind me of an uncomfortable reality: that I have neighbours, and I was ignoring them.
I now have friends up the street, down the street and a few streets over, not to mention those only a short bus ride away. Yet I still find myself with my blinders up, working my small plot of land—wake, work, return, rest—even in spite of invitations to “drop by anytime.” I’m still untangling the reasons for this, but one thing that’s clear is I find it easier to be alone, or at least to be in familiar comforts. Many of these friendships are new and while some came as part of the built-in community of my new church, all of them required work on my part, mostly in the form of initiative.
But this fact, the hard work of community—accepting invitations or, God forbid, inviting someone for dinner—is something Stardew Valley won’t let me ignore. The game is constantly asking me where I want to invest my resources; more and more I’m finding the pay-off to be in people.
Recently, I was working towards an in-game objective that involved collecting high-quality turnips (they’re rarer than you think). I finally grew the five I needed by the sweat of my brow, quality fertilizer, and more than a little random luck, and was on my way to cash them in when I stopped by the community notice board. Alex, the town’s resident jock, was looking for a turnip. I checked my inventory: I only had my five gold-star turnips, no more boring common tubers. My next crop of turnips wouldn’t be ready for a week, and Alex needed that turnip today, so I had a decision to make.
Do I make the football-tossing jock who also happened to be a bit of a jerk a priority, or do I put myself first? I reluctantly decided to give Alex the turnip after concluding that his happiness had a time limit, whereas mine would only be delayed.
There’s that self-centredness again. I can barely give a turnip to a pixel-person without working out how it benefits me. I gave Alex the turnip, he said thanks, and I walked away. Then he told me his story.
He told me why he lived with grandparents. He told me his father had been a drinker; how he used to pay a heavy price when he’d get between his father and his mom. He told me about his mom getting sick; about the cancer that took her. Only his dog—and now myself—knew about what he’d been through, and he played football in the wild hope of becoming someone.
I blinked at my screen before selecting my response: “It’ll be a lot of hard work, but I think we can do anything we put our minds to.” I wanted to say so much more, ask more questions, but the cutscene was over. Later that week, in real life, I was inspired to get up early to have breakfast with friends before work. We prayed together and commiserated over the struggles we were facing; it was wonderful, but I haven’t done it again since.
Building community is a challenge that’s followed by the equally hard work of maintaining community; hard work I often avoid. Cultivating nourishing communities, much like growing turnips, takes time and energy—all of which can be hoarded or given away. But if given the attention it needs, community can bring more value to my life than all the fruits of my lonely labours, high-quality turnips included.