I was pretty late in the game picking up Stardew Valley. The game was recommended to me by so many friends, colleagues, fellow gamers, and writers. It was the early fall of 2017 when I began my work on my first farm, but it wasn’t until literal months, and many, many in-game hours later, that I had realized what a profound impact it had had on me; not just as a gamer, but as a person.
Earlier that summer, I was hired at what I thought was my dream job, but as the coming months would show, the opportunity had turned into my worst nightmare. At first, I was never assigned any work to do, with the notion that I would get assignments later in time, but nothing came. I spent 40 hours a week essentially just on Reddit. It sounds pretty sweet to be paid to sit on Reddit all day, but trust me, after about a day, it gets pretty old.
My time there evolved from never having assigned work to getting chewed out for asking for work to do. The chewing out then turned to workplace abuse, where I spent nearly every day either crying at my desk or crying in the bathroom. I was a wreck on the weekends, frequently checking my email every other hour, unable to leave the house out of fear that I might miss another chain of 10 passive aggressive emails aimed at me.
This was not an issue with myself or the work I was putting in – this was months of being used as a scapegoat for the fundamental flaws in how this office was being operated. It was an oppressive and never ending feeling of hopelessness, a twisted version of workplace gaslighting. My mind began to warp. I was convinced that I was worthless, essentially a shell of my former self, taking in air and becoming convinced that this is what life is like until I eventually retire or die.
Around the same time this workplace abuse was happening, and after years of not playing it, I finally purchased and booted up Stardew Valley when it came out on the Nintendo Switch. I saw in the introductory cut scene essentially myself, eternally sad and sitting at that desk in Joja Mart Corp. I think I even said “aww, that’s like me”. After I was dropped onto “The Worst Farm” (I’m very funny as you can tell) with my cat Niles (I was also binging Frasier at that time), I was enraptured, and couldn’t put the game down for hours.
I remember feeling serene, given a new sense of calm after marathoning my first hours of play. I felt like my brain was finally able to function again, and I wasn’t just transitioning between one panic attack and the next. I stopped prioritizing my real life work, and actually put Stardew in the forefront of my life; compiling guides, organizing the seasons ahead, and romancing all of the eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
I found myself slowly starting to conquer my real life again and began to see my old self come out of the shell that had formed around me. My job, however, continued to feel like I was trapped at a desk at Joja Mart Corp, just waiting for an excuse (or an opportunity) to leave. I was literally praying at some points that I had some distant, previously unknown grandfather out there that would gift me his farm, so I could finally free myself and leave. Of course, I realized that it was never going to happen and that my ancestor’s gift to me was, well, me. I needed to cultivate myself like I did my farm. I had let myself get grown over with weeds of hate and abuse, and I hadn’t even realized it until I was downtrodden and a literal slobbering mess.
As I was coming to a close on year two of my farm, I eventually gained the courage to tackle the very real life issue that was at the forefront of my life. I decided to speak up about what was happening at my workplace, and if it wasn’t fixed, I was going to quit. “Simple as that”, I thought, “I had done this in the game, so how hard would it be to do it for real?” I spoke up, was immediately shot down, and then I quit. Simple as that.
I feel games like Stardew Valley are healthy for the soul and for the self. I think it’s the routine of it all, the pace and the focus of that routine is something that I control at my own pace. It’s the sort of feeling that I got while playing Breath of the Wild as well. Having my own sense of agency, space, and time in this small created universe.
Except this time, it was an agency of me in that universe, not needing to be a hero, but just needing to milk my cows and water my crops. Life simulators give the idea and the feeling of actually accomplishing things in real life. In a game like Stardew Valley, I played it so much that it gave my brain a chance to feel a healthy routine, which built up my self-worth, and because so many NPCs in town appreciated me, I grew confidence because of it.
Ever since I had gathered the courage to leave, I’ve felt like a huge weight was lifted off of my life. I feel in control again and I don’t think I could have done it without Stardew Valley. I cannot thank Concerned Ape enough for making a simple, yet unequivocally powerful game. Games are indeed life-changing.