The Appeal Of “Virtual Chore” Video Games

I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley again. Starting a new file with my friend reminded me of how enjoyable it is to listen to podcasts and just grind through the early years of a Stardew Valley file. I’ve made it halfway into Year 2, earned almost two million as I’ve efficiently pursued a multi-faceted approach to completion of the original/core content. I’ve moved on to peripheral content, much of which I never got to the first time I played the game, and I’m trying to keep pushing myself forward without burning out or losing interest. It is a difficult line to walk, as I try to make sure I’m getting all of my bases covered during these early years so I can swap to efficient, repeat-yield crops later on that require less attention from me.

Because of this focus on effiency and broad-spectrum achievement hunting, a lot of my days in the game feel the same. Each day starts at 6am (much like my own, coincidentally), and then I go through all of my standard household chores of watering plants, swapping out things in the basement (where they age to increase their value), and checking the various tools at my disposal for predicting the weather and what kind of lucky or unlucky day I’ll have. Once that routine is done, I leave my home and go about pursuing the various tasks that are the bread-and-butter of my current approach to farming. Crop maintenance or collection, checking in on my animals, and attending to the various buildings on my farm that house their own types of production. A lot of time-consuming but not terribly complex work that slowly eats away at my energy until it is time to leave the farm and turn my attention to whatever social or collection-based task I’ve given myself for the in-game day.

One of the common criticism of games like this is that they’re essentially chore simulators, which is a fair criticism since the entirety of the game is focused on a simulated life you’re living. The plot is relatively non-existent aside from whatever small choices you make as you interact with the NPCs around your character, try to guide the development of your community, and how you decide to make your money. Which is fairly easy to do, given that the only way you lose money is by letting crops go to waste without collecting them, by eating your entire yield, or by accidentally throwing something in the trash while you’re trying to exit one of the menus (which I’ve done a fair number of times by accidentally pushing a bunch of buttons on the controller while setting it aside or picking it up). Generally speaking, it’s a difficult game to “fail” given that you can almost always recover from even the worst financial disasters, since you can never run into a situation where your money is being drained by something you can’t stop.

Which is what makes the game entirely unlike my life outside the video game. Outside the video game, it is entirely too easy to lose money. Even if I inherited a massive property like the one your character in Stardew Valley inherits, I’d have to pay various taxes on the inheritance. If I didn’t sell it or put it to use in some productive manner, it could easily drive me further into debt. It would make more sense to sell it off immediately to put an end to my student loans and then figure out something useful to do with whatever I had left afterwards. Of course, then I’m debt free but I’ve got nothing else to my name. In a video game, you don’t need to worry about that stuff. It doesn’t matter what the primary-world ROI is on farming, it’s not trying to be realistic. It doesn’t matter if you mess up since you can just start over by deleting the save file if every possible thing goes wrong. You can finally taste success or safely take risks, try out different modes of living or being without needing to worry about how things might play out down the road. They’re just like other video games, but the fantasies are closer to what we consider our “real” lives.

Even the starting place of the player character in Stardew Valley is a step up from my current situation. To own a home and a large, farmable property outright, to have the support of a distant family, to be welcomed into a community, and to be able to make progress with nothing but my own hard work? If only life worked that way. Essentially, games like this trade on the myth that multiple generations of people like me have been endlessly told: that hard work is all we need. And just like that myth, they ignore that what you really need is a gift of expensive but untaxed property, generational wealth to support you through any misfortunes, a network of people crafted by your parents or grandparents, and readily available natural resources you can exploit for your own personal gain. All hard work does is change how quickly you make your first million when you’ve got that much supporting your future success.

Playing games like this always fill me with a mix of frustration and satisfaction. It feels good to succeed at something, but it feels bad to know that I’m participating in the myth that has so severely misled me in video game format. It’s exhausting, to be honest, but it’s all I’ve got. At this point in my life, I’ll take what I can get. After all, there’s so little joy left in the world at large that any little bit helps.

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