‘Stardew Valley’ Isn’t Just Escapism. It Made My Life Better.
If you haven’t played Stardew Valley, this is for you. Particularly if you’re having a bit of a rough time, a broken moment. Maybe, this game might be the thing to help you find yourself again. It was for me.
In the space of one week, I moved to a new house, found out my dad has cancer and was made redundant from my job. In that order, with the first two on the same day. I can’t recall the numb weeks that came after. Pillars of my life had altered all at once. It was too much.
25-50% of Australians will have a mental health issue in their lifetime, according to CheckPoint, a charity providing mental health resources for gamers and the gaming community.
In desperate need of a distraction, I found myself scrolling through the PlayStation store, not looking for anything in particular, just a world to escape into. Stardew Valley‘s cover looked cute, so I bought it. It was only as I was downloading it; I realised what it was — a farming simulation game.
“Jesus Christ,” I thought, “Things are fucking grim”.
In Stardew Valley your character inherits a plot of land after the death of your grandfather (stay with me) and packs up from his/her/their dull office job to work on their new farm in Pelican Town (yeah, it’s part of the valley).
When you arrive at your new home, you realise it’s a bit of a shitheap, and you need to get to work immediately, clearing space on the farm for your crops. On your first day, you are cutting down trees, smashing stones, removing grass and weeds. It goes quickly — much like your energy — if you go hammer and tongs with your tools too early, too fast. As you chop, smash and collect items your backpack will start to fill with goodies.
It was already helping me forget what was happening in my life. It helped me focus for the first time in weeks. I learned from Dr Jennifer Hazel, Founder and Director of CheckPoint, that escapism comes in two forms. First, there is self-suppression. This is not the good one. This is where you hide from your problems instead of dealing with them. Then there’s self-expansion.
Self-expansion is the form of escapism that nourishes your mind, knowing you will go back to the problem in a healthier way.
At the rooster’s crow in Stardew Valley, you are up and out of bed. It’s a new day. Start again. While the routine of my life slipped away, I found the routine and repetition of the game comforting. It feels ridiculous to say, but getting my farm organised, walking around learning where everything was, and meeting people helped me feel a sense of control when I otherwise thought I had none.
The social element of the game is vital as to how the game will go for you. Like in real life, don’t be a dickhead and you will go ok. And they are an eclectic bunch in Stardew Valley.
Emily is fond of a psychedelic dance party in her room. Pam is an alcoholic doing her best. Don’t be a jerk and you two will get along great. Linus lives in a tent on the outskirts of town and is considered the outcast. Hot gossip of the valley is that one of the townsfolk, Marnie, is having an affair with Mayor Lewis who won’t commit. Real talk: Lewis is a fuckboi. But Fuckbois aside, there is a beautiful kindness to this game that’s joyful and gentle.
The in-game tasks helped me break down my real-life tasks into doable parts. Like in the game, it was just a matter of doing one thing at a time. So that’s what I started doing. While your journal fills up with tasks, you are free to go about them at your own pace. It’s a little bit choose-your-own-adventure. Want to wander around foraging for the day? So be it! Feel like fishing? Cool. Want to explore the mines, collect treasure and bat away wild looking dragon thingies that fly at you? You’re on. It’s all on your terms.
These small wins helped me feel a sense of accomplishment and joy again. Dr Hazel says control and small victories can be linked to self-determination theory, where the pleasure and motivation from an activity are connected with competence (how good you are at it), autonomy (how much control you have over it) and relatedness (how you identify with it on a social level).
“We’ve seen time and again that games are clearly useful in managing mild to moderate depression in a variety of age groups and demographics” – Dr Hazel
Dr Andrew Campbell, Psychologist and Chair of the Cyberpsychology (the intersection between technology and human behaviour) Research Group at the University of Sydney confirmed doing repetitious things in a calming environment gives your brain a rest. In real life and virtual life. So, you can take that walk outside or tend to your farm in Stardew Valley. You do you. Both are a great break for your mind.
While I’m now managing my depression with medication, I still take regular visits to Stardew Valley. Every time I hear the calming intro music, I take a deep, relaxing breath.
Kelly Morton is a pug mum, Beatlemaniac and loud laugher. She is also a freelance writer and Digital Marketing specialist at Looking Glass Creative based in Sydney. You can tweet her at @punkyboozter