I’ve never really considered myself a “video game person.” We never had them at home when I was a kid, and now that I’m in my twenties, I’ve never really had an occasion (or the time) to pick up the hobby. I also didn’t quite see a point to video games: it seemed like a lot of time spent for not a lot of gain.
About a month ago, though, I was spending two weeks in quarantine, and had quite a lot of time to kill. I needed something that would while away my time without giving rise to manic energy, and after a little bit of research, I surfaced a little farming role-play game (RPG) called Stardew Valley. The art was nothing to write home about—it looked old-timey and pixelated—and I couldn’t quite see what was so addictive about a game mechanic that seemed to lean heavily on planting parsnips. But the two objectives of the game—improve a farm and make friends with the villagers—answered so well to the two things that I missed most in quarantine—doing real things outside and talking to people in real life—that I downloaded it.
Two weeks and more game hours than I care to admit later, I was obsessed. The game unfolds and unfolds, always with one more goal to reach or secret to discover. Most satisfying for me were the multifaceted friendships with the non-player “villagers” in Stardew Valley, who gradually revealed their personalities as my farmer won them over with gifts. The game fired up my imagination and kept me entertained for quarantine and beyond, but it was only once I left quarantine and started settling into life in a new small town that I realized I had learned some things about real life from this fanciful video game.
1. Friendship takes consistency.
In Stardew Valley, it often takes weeks and weeks of giving villagers little “gifts” (something you grew on your farm, purchased, “made” from various game items, or found in the town), to develop even a few friendship points. When you first arrive in town, the dialogue with the villagers is generic and bland, but as your friendships with them deepen, you learn about town dramas, deep dark secrets, and personal ambitions. Each person reveals herself as interesting and unique, with a carefully-crafted backstory.
As I embarked on my new friendships out in the real world, I found that my expectations were set a little more realistically; I wasn’t expecting my new friends to be my best friends after our first meeting, and instead I’ve thought about building friendships out of incremental acts of generosity. I also didn’t get discouraged if I didn’t get a chance to see new acquaintances all the time, or if I felt like we didn’t hit it off at a first or second meeting. One of the funnier (and more shocking!) things about Stardew Valley gifting is that if you give a villager a gift that they dislike or hate, they won’t hesitate to let you know, in no uncertain terms! After a few mishaps giving people in the game the wrong gifts, I realized it really helped to remember what people actually enjoy. One of the things that makes a gift precious is not simply its objective or monetary value, but that it signifies how well we know and notice our friends’ tastes and needs—a lesson that carries over directly to building friendships in real life.
2. Take your time.
ConcernedApe, the developer of Stardew Valley, intentionally made the game to be played at whatever speed you want. The game “years” go on, season after season, and though there are always goals to be worked on, they almost never need to be attained at a particular time. It isn’t an idle game; only game-time counts, but it winds through day after day, season after season, with changing soundtracks, scenery, and lighting, endlessly. Even though you might feel enthusiastic about trying to obtain all your goals right away, that’s intentionally impossible. The game forces you to take your time, let mysteries reveal themselves, and develop relationships while pursuing your goals. In real life, these are lessons to live by—as I’m realizing while settling into a new town and finding new hobbies to pursue, there’s plenty of time to learn everything you need to learn, but it’s impossible to do it all at once.
3. Not everyone will like you.
Some of the villagers are friendly right away, and others aren’t at all interested in making friends. You can win them all over eventually, though. This has changed how I think about people I meet: while it’s always nice to be welcomed right away, it’s good to remember that not everyone always makes a good first impression. And there are some villagers I’ve never developed relationships with, even after multiple in-game years, because there are lots of people to befriend and not everyone was interesting to me. The game helped me realize that not everyone gets off on the right foot at first, and it’s okay if some people never become close friends even if you see them all the time.
4. Greet your neighbors when you meet them on the street.
I got into this habit from Stardew Valley and started applying it in real life. In the game, those precious friendship points go up every time you talk to someone, and you never know when you might meet a villager going about their daily business—so there’s no time like the present! The other day, I saw an acquaintance of mine across the street, and while in the past I might have chosen to keep running my own errand, I stopped, went over to her, and had a nice chat. It brightened both of our days, and I’ve learned not to pass up the opportunity to build relationships when the occasion arises.
5. You can work within external limitations.
In Stardew Valley, almost every village “store” closes at least one day a week, and especially at the beginning it can be frustrating to show up in need of essential farming supplies only to find the business is closed! Additionally, certain challenges require objects that can only be obtained during a certain season, or from a particular hard-to-find person. In the game, you have to let go of the fact that though you might really want a pumpkin now, you have to wait until the fall to grow one. Especially as I explored a new town partially closed down due to COVID, it helped me have patience with the limitations that daily life always involves. Stores close and hours change, but with patience, you can get everything you need.
6. Keep your eyes open.
In Stardew Valley, foraging is a big part of the game—it means finding seasonal items that are just lying around for the taking and are often very valuable. If you’re not looking, though, you miss out on these great opportunities. While I rarely find blackberries the size of my head or gold-star-marked chestnuts on the side of the street in my new town, I do find little treasures—from seashells to independent bookstores—every day, if I keep my eyes open.
7. Appreciate what you have.
The game naturally unfolds as a series of goals—get married, have a family, build a barn, repair a greenhouse. The goals are so engrossing that I realized one day, deep into the game, that I hadn’t fully appreciated how far I’d come; my farm was humming along, my new Stardew baby was in the house, and my barn was full of happy farm animals. There are no penalties whatsoever in Stardew for letting time pass by, so I let my character stand in the field and look around at everything she accomplished until the sun went down.
It’s even easier in real life to forget how many of our cherished dreams we might be living right now. I’m often guilty of incorporating previous accomplishments into my “baseline,” while always thinking about the next achievement I’m pursuing or challenge in my way. Sometimes, we just need to take a day and look back with gratitude at all we’ve done.
I still wouldn’t call myself a video game convert, but Stardew Valley did open my eyes to a fun and meaningful angle on the world. If you need me, I’ll be back at the farm, planting parsnips—or out on the street, talking to my real-life neighbors.