APR '20

How Stardew Valley Gave Me the Perfect, Impossible Virtual Life

Video games offer the ideal fantasy life, but they can't replace the real thing

By Dustin Lowman


Dustin Lowman (MFAW 2020) is the SAIC editor at F Newsmagazine. In 2020, he would like to see a cardigan elected president.

Illustration by Chanina Katz

Video gaming has always been serious business — most so when I was 15, and a potent mixture of introversion and ambition had me sinking dozens of hours into Guitar Hero II, Halo 3, and the like. For someone with heightened sensitivity and a dearth of social grace, video games posed a compelling alternative to parties. Unlike the nebulous criteria guiding human interaction, video games had set, quantifiable standards by which I either advanced or didn’t. More hours meant greater skill, more achievements, and deeper pride. Refreshing.

I was 15 in 2008. YouTube was still a toddler, Twitch was still Justin.tv, first-gen iPhones maxed out at 16 GB of storage. It was a simpler time, technologically speaking, which meant, among other things, that video gaming was ephemeral. The notion of broadcasting — nay, monetizing — my gaming exploits never occurred to me, and probably wouldn’t have been possible if it did. My achievements were private, meaningful only to me and a small group of fellow obsessives.

Then, college; then, early adulthood; video games receded first into the background, then into the past. The private nature of video game achievement, if pride-inducing, had limited utility into these worlds, which were characterized by academic rigor and financial pressure. I learned to sort my life into the categories of Useful and Useless, and gaming, like many childhood activities, landed in the latter group.

What, then, would happen to the hours spent and pride derived from gaming? Would maturation reduce it all to one more sweet — if sad — adolescent survival mechanism?

Like a framed photo, video game pride came to sit on my interior mantle, alongside Little League feats and family vacations. In the past couple years, I’ve watched the occasional Donkey Kong 64 speedrun, played Super Smash Bros. Melee in raucous dorm rooms and barcades, absorbed both by the mechanics of the games and by salad days nostalgia.

Then, COVID-19.

Quarantine Survival Methods

I’ve never lived life like this. Per social distancing mandates, I leave the apartment only when absolutely necessary. As of this writing, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)’s MFA Writing program is in the midst of getting professors up to speed on online pedagogy, and we students are in the midst of a spring break extended from two days to three weeks. Exit concerts, exit readings, exit dinners and drinks. Enter — well, reenter — gaming, gaming, gaming.

Stardew Valley (SV), to be specific. SV is a back-to-the-land role-playing game (RPG), in which the protagonist (I named mine “Dustin”) grows disillusioned with his corporate urban life and takes over his dead grandfather’s farm. From there, Dustin harvests crops, catches fish, mines minerals, cultivates livestock, and befriends locals, completing a broad set of objectives which can even include marriage. SV is a monumentally rich game with no ending, meaning I could develop Dustin into a full-blown rural baron if time and patience allowed.

That’s more or less what I intend to do. Since the onset of the quarantine, I’ve spent more hours on SV than I care to admit, and am proud of what little I’ve accomplished. My inner gamer, having lay dormant for many years, has returned with a vengeance. 

SV Dustin is living his “life” on a maximally productive, steadily uphill trajectory.

But it’s different. Unlike my long first phase of gaming, which lasted essentially from childhood through adolescence, I play now with the double-consciousness of adulthood. I’m both playing and watching myself play, scrutinized by a shadow-self who analyzes and evaluates. Do you know what I mean? My path to adulthood meant developing an abstracted self, an inner observer, always present. I suspect yours did, too.

Where did this shadow-self come from? My theory is that it’s a composite of social expectations, a governor who insists on the social contract. If, in a conversation, I’ve spoken at length about my own life, it creates a tension I dissipate by asking my companion about theirs. If I’ve reached my daily leisure allotment, it creates a tension I dissipate by re-pledging allegiance to the God of Productivity. Where the natural self of childhood speaks for my desires, the shadow-self of adulthood speaks for my responsibilities. In “Gaming, Phase I,” only the natural self was present. In “Gaming, Phase II,” both are.

What I therefore see playing SV today is something at once refreshing and disturbing. In SV, Dustin’s world is measured in days, seasons, and years. He cultivates affluence based on consistent effort, trial and error, and social engagement. He makes mistakes and learns from them. In other words, SV Dustin is living what might be termed “life,” on a maximally productive, steadily uphill trajectory.

But, there’s one major occlusion: Emotion.

A Tale of Two Dustins

IRL Dustin is an ambitious creature. He cares tremendously about writing — songs, poems, journalism, memoir — and has since childhood. However, his advancement has been hampered by overreacting to rejection. A bad audience response or a swath of unpublished poems can cause him to go into literary hibernation, licking his wounds raw.

SV Dustin, of course, feels none of this, or anything else. He milks each hour of the day for maximum utility, and stays chipper even amid ill-advised gifts and crow-eaten crops. He never feels the need to spend the day in bed watching two full seasons of “Shameless.” He’s sort of sociopathic, really, engaging with the community as a method of personal advancement, casually calculating how best to expand his empire.

As a result, while farming, IRL Dustin finds himself at a distance from his emotions. He assumes the qualities of his avatar, conceiving of time as a conduit to cash, free from all pressures and expectations other than the game’s comfortably spaced, clearable hurdles.

This is refreshing on the level that pressures and expectations are the two true boogeymen of adult life, and it’s nice to be free of them for a while. However, this freedom is so seductive that I could see preferring it to less quantifiable, more obstacle-laden real life. That’s what’s disturbing: SV Dustin has gotten an infinitely better deal than IRL Dustin. The SV rabbit hole so resembles a black hole that one could easily fall into and never exit.

Moreover, the ease with which SV Dustin abides by the game’s systems of productivity seems oddly like the fulfillment of the capitalist ideal. Though IRL Dustin would argue spiritedly for the importance of leisure, and that financial gain is not the best that life has to offer, he also feels dislocated and estranged when he spends days unproductively. In an ideal world, IRL Dustin would wake up, work for 16 uninterrupted hours, sleep for eight restorative hours, and do it all again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. Indeed, the more use he gets out of his waking hours, the better he feels. But SV Dustin can actually do this. 

Feeling inadequate: the bug in the IRL system, that no amount of success-framework-fulfillment can eradicate. IRL Dustin will always be dogged by this feeling, whereas SV Dustin will never even be touched by it. 

Stardew Valley and other such games are seductive in this way. Their mediated, human-crafted worlds allow us to live through characters never upheaved by the more entrenched bad feelings of real life, and give us rare opportunities to perfectly realize our ideals — the enviro-capitalist ideal of Stardew Valley, the pugilistic ideal of Call of Duty (not to mention resurrection, and endless second chances), the domestic ideal of The Sims. 

This is what’s disturbing. Assuming my avatar’s emotional qualities, I am tempted away from my own. Abiding by SV’s cut-and-dried, non-destructive success framework, I want to distance myself from modern parameters of success, which, no matter how righteous, seem always to be based on some kind of destruction. Like many, I dream of a world not beset by the bad fruits of human nature. In SV, such a world exists.

Denied Gratification

It occurs to me that this is not so different from other forms of entertainment — sports and film in particular. Sports share video games’ quantifiable-success property, film shares the vicarious-living property, and both share the emotional-sublimation property. However, where video games — and, in particular, RPGs like Stardew Valley — differ is that the gaming experience is infinitely customizable, infinitely repeatable, and chiefly carried out by you.

In my case, me. SV proposes that by turning away from the emotional push-and-pull altogether, I can experience an equilibrium less profound, but more sustainable. The advent of financially viable streaming proposes that if I really get my ducks in a row, I could even turn this equilibrium into livelihood. It would flatten life’s emotional uphill battle into a level, pleasurable plane. Tempting as it is, I have to deny that gratification. Maybe it’s masochistic, but I believe too much in the benefits of pain to accept video games’ endlessly renewable pleasure.

The time-bending glut of leisure provided by COVID-19 has allowed me to look deeply into this phenomenon. I won’t stop playing Stardew Valley, but the emotional sublimation, which on some level I find both disturbing and philosophically incompatible, means I have to keep it at bay. Its modified, linear reality cannot replace the unpredictable cycle of real life. Like those Little League feats and family vacations, I can set video gaming in an interior place of honor, but I cannot make it a shrine. f

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