Note: This post is the second of two blog posts. The first is available here.
In my first post about Stardew Valley, I wrote about the romanticization of agriculture and rural life, dumpster diving, as well as what kind of gameplay the game encourages in its players. In this post I'll expand on some of that, as well as explore the game's treatment of labour and the land.
Procedural rhetoric is perhaps a little overused in videogames theory, but I found the term useful in order to dissect certain rhetorical and moral arguments that Stardew Valley could be making. Procedural rhetoric, according to the term's creator Ian Bogost, is the manner in which games persuade the player of something, by allowing/forcing the player to perform sets of actions that manipulate symbols in the game. Stardew Valley is a highly repetitive game, much like Minecraft, one in which the player learns to navigate a system of years, seasons, weekdays, weather patterns, harvest times, harvest methodologies, social economies, community, etc.
Examining those systems—each system like a thread criss-crossing other system-threads within a tapestry—can yield interesting insights, but what is more interesting is examining how the game teaches players how to navigate its own systems. How games teach us to play games, how systems teach us to navigate systems, becomes part of the argument those games make on a literary, political, or philosophical level.
After completing my second year in Stardew Valley, and embarking upon my third, I've noticed certain things about the way the game encourages the taming, working, reclaiming, and settling of the land. While my first year (especially my first summer) in the game was characterized by learning to manage the player character's exhaustion and lack of resources, in the second year the style of my play settles into a much more refined and tested economy of labour; that is, the management of my resources, centred around the amount of labour the player character can partake in during a single day of gameplay. Because I want to be able to do more than one kind of an activity during any given game day, usually the watering of three dozen crops or so, I need to maximize the amount of income I make during the day while minimizing the exertion the player character feels. This is an interesting subversion of what Emilie Reed has called:
One of the utopic notions of new media, especially videogames, is that it allows us to exceed the physical limitations of a single human body. —Emily Reed, Eidolon
Having to consider physical exertion and the hard limits of the player character's body arguably was done to emphasize a kind of realism within the world of Stardew Valley.
As a player who has to consider hard limits such as days and exertion, I start to prioritize certain kinds of crops, as well as certain kinds of farming practices. The most successful crops are the kinds I can turn into jellies or pickles, or those I can turn into juice or wine. The game favours, through having to balance considerations such as energy expenditure, seed costs, time, processing (pickling pumpkins, for instance) and profit, the production of star-rated products over larger numbers of "unrated" products. I learn that investing in animals is pretty necessary—chickens and ducks especially produce eggs (which can be turned into some very profitable mayonnaise)—and take a minimum of effort to care for. I don't bother building fences for the chickens, since wasting wood on structures that decay within a season doesn't seem like a good investment, and the chickens remember to go back into the coop every night at 6pm, which is exceedingly convenient to plan around. The chickens are free-range, and produce large eggs that make some very fancy gold star-rated mayonnaise. I don't even bother buying the fertilizer at Pierre's store, because it cuts into my razor-thin profits, so I use materials foraged on my farm (chiefly tree sap) to craft my own fertilizer in order to maximize the chance of harvesting higher quality produce. The gold-star designation on my vegetables, jellies, and mayonnaise isn't exactly a "fair trade", "local", or "organic" designation, but the metaphor makes sense.
The game encourages a play style that favours manual methods of farming, but these manual methods are simplified and given an artisanal, gentrified flair—not just through the game's procedural rhetoric, but also by omission, through those things that the game's systems do not deal with at all, or gloss over. There is no automation—apart from the expensive, "end-game" sprinklers, or the shipping box—everything must be planted, watered, harvested, logged, mined, pickled or fermented by hand. There are no tractors, there isn't even a lawnmower. Grass-cutting in this game is done with a scythe.
Just in case that last didn't bit didn't sink in: grass-cutting in this game is done with a scythe.
Without tractors, there is no need for gasoline. Power, of the electrical or petrol kind, is not a concern, except in some minor convenient ways. Inside the farmhouse there is a television that presumably runs on electricity, but dealing with powering the farm (any of it) is not really a part of the game. Apart from power, other rather major ecological aspect of agriculture omitted from Stardew Valley are the material realities of waste. The benefit is that this simplifies the gameplay: you never have to clean out the barn of cow poop in Stardew Valley. But dealing with waste, and especially other kinds of agricultural pollution, is a huge part of agriculture, especially as it has metastasized into a massive industrial economy. Pesticides, modern fertilization methods, irrigation contamination, as well as realities of industrialized animal-keeping just do not manifest within this game. It's even discouraged to mistreat the animals, as they become far less profitable. Mistreatment in Stardew Valley consists of locking up animals in-doors year-round, feeding them poorly (with only dry hay) or not at all, and showing them no affection or attention. In both its omissions and in the way the game teaches players how to play it, Stardew Valley makes some interesting arguments about what kind of farming and agriculture it's promoting. Compare this to Minecraft, where the feelings and wellbeing of farm animals aren't important, and where a path to industrialization is built into the game.
The explosive event of industrialization was dependent on new forms of energy; coal, oil, and gas became main drives replacing the reliance on wind, water, plants, trees, and animals as energy sources. —Jussi Parikka The Geology of Media
The player's reliance on mechanized technology is downplayed quite a big as well—the player eventually buys more efficient pickaxes and watering cans, but nothing mechanized. I am still not certain if the more efficient tools save labour or multiply labour—the larger the surface area of the area which is being farmed, the longer you, the sole labourer on the farm, have to go and plough everything. That process can take days, if not weeks in-game. Speaking of technologies that save/multiply labour: when it comes to transportation (buying, selling, trading), the game embraces long walks, and you don't even need a truck to move around your crops or livestock. There is never an option to buy a car in Stardew Valley. Eventually, as the player uncovers and unlocks more of the map, there are ways to unlock a horse (and, eventually, a minecart network as well as a public bus) that allow the player to not have to walk everywhere, saving valuable daylight hours. There's a shipping box next to the farmhouse that Pelican Town's mayor Lewis helpfully empties every night, and livestock sales are handled automatically. Outside of Stardew Valley, transportation of crops and livestock is one of the most costly processes of agriculture, especially in terms of resources and power consumed. Stardew Valley opts to pare down this process to an idyllic bare minimum.
Mechanization and industrialization, however, while absent from the gameplay, are not absent from Stardew Valley's universe. The game's prologue opens within one of the many offices of the Joja Corporation, the "Walmart" of this game world. There are several hints that the Joja Corporation operates similarly to the way multinational manufacturing and resource-extraction corporations do. Subtle hints of this are everywhere: a truly unlimited amount of pop cans of "Joja Cola" can be fished out of tiny ponds, rivers, and the ocean. The game earmarks those pop cans as trash, no matter if they were fished out of a pond or bought at the Joja Mart. The local Joja Mart in Pelican Town uses predatory tactics and is actively trying to put the locally-run and locally-owned grocery store out of business. The Joja Mart is also trying to convince Mayor Lewis to sell the community centre off to the Joja Corporation so that they can turn it into a warehouse for their goods. Should the player choose to buy a Joja Mart membership, they get (an initial but temporary) modest discount on food prices compared to Pierre's store. As you're playing as a farmer, however, one of your main needs from the stores in Pelican Town are more seeds to grow more food. Buying seeds from Joja Mart is nothing short of self-sabotage as the Joja Corporation sells the seeds at exorbitant prices, presumably to discourage non-Joja Corporation farmers from growing food in large quantities!
In all the positions the game takes, from factory farms to the encroachment of corporations on small communities, it creates a game that encourages the simplest and less-mechanized technologies: gameplay that favours wildcrafting, hand-raising animals, horse riding, town harvest fairs, and a close-knit community economy. Mattie Brice, comparing her first year in Stardew Valley to other farming games such as Harvest Moon (which I have never played) has an interesting point to make with regards to what playing this game feels like:
It also doesn’t help that the circumstances around the same are fantastical, though it seems to be a genre convention. There’s always a dead rich relative that has a plot of land and magical spirits that will restore the land if you just try hard enough. The real fantasy isn’t even a pastoral one, but of magical affluence, or even some sort of ‘practical affluence,’ where you can extract yourself easily to ‘live rough’ and contribute to a community, but you’re not really invested in the village, you’re a step away from varied interests in restoring the function of the town. Ultimately, in all these sorts of games, that I love, am I just a gentrifier? Sitting on it more, Stardew Valley feels like a gentrification fantasy, where you can make your own beers and artisan jams, take a day off in the spa up in the mountains or fish all day. I bribe people for their love and loyalty, though really, all of their repeated NPC lines feel so distant, like a Disney World attraction, where the characters are pleasant to my face but curse my name the moment I leave the room. —Mattie Brice, My First Year in Stardew Valley
The different layers of belonging to the small rural community in Stardew Valley matter just as much as the question of belonging to the land—do I as a player belong in Pelican Town, does my playable character belong in Pelican Town—notions of kinship (the player character inherits the farm through their grandfather) and community ties are not revolutionized nor addressed very differently in Stardew Valley from most other RPGs. The NPCs that stroll about Pelican Town, going to work or to the tavern, are much like harvest times and seasons in that they can be clocked, measured, and quantified. The gift-giving portion of the game does feel like bribing: in that as long as you give gifts on the character's birthdays, the community will start to warm up to you in a measurable and easily quantified way.
Going back to what Emily Reed wrote with regards to the realism within videogames, I find her writing on empathy-generation in games particularly à propos in order to define why Stardew Valley, like many RPGs, still strikes a false note at trying to emulate community dynamics and belonging to the land:
High-gloss production and gameplay systems and mechanics concerned with flow and “immersion” create an experience in which the player is the central actor. [...] However, the issue with this approach to empathy games goes further than just being overly simplistic, and serving an already privileged demographic. When I argue that the simulation and immersion prioritized by certain “empathy games” fosters selfish forms knowledge, I am also arguing that this form of knowledge is antithetical to the type of knowledge that comes from listening and observing, and thus is devalued, weakened and neglected by such
Stewardship of the land is a collective responsibility—and that responsibility is assumed by belonging to and working with the community that lives on that land. Stardew Valley, like all RPGs really, centres the player character's ability to forage, dumpster dive, clear-cut, mine, and fish without repercussions and hard limits in either the environment or within the community. By putting the player character first, similar to many open-world games, Stardew Valley opts for a realism that is also inherently fantastical. In my first post on Stardew Valley I wrote a little bit about dumpster diving etiquette and the value of sharing resources—but the fact remains that in Stardew Valley, even though I can bribe villagers with gifts of foods or other treasures, I am still turning the farm into a commercial, capitalist enterprise where at the end of the day I'm not trying to take care of my community but am trying to make "a living" from it. Just because I chose to sell my artisanal and gentrified pickled pumpkins to Pierre instead of Joja Mart does not mean that I am actually bolstering the community economy. While some NPCs within the game acknowledge that they are near or within financial ruin (the town doctor, Harvey, is often at a loss of how to make ends meet, and if you get to know Penny, Leah or Elliott a little more, you discover that they too have to contend with financial insecurity) it's pretty clear, especially with the town community centre having fallen into ruin, that the town has entered some hard times. Even if you do chose to restore the community centre, you do so as a lone agent of change "investing" in the centre in exchange for gifts and perks, and there is little or nothing that is community-building or grassroots about the process.
Stardew Valley is fantastical in the ways that aggressive farming, foraging, fishing, or mining practices do not alter and damage the landscape irreparably, nor does this exploitation really affect the townspeople who call Pelican Town their home. I know I am far from the only one using the resources of the land and waters, but never does the game punish the player in a tangible way for selfishly mining the land and sea for profits. The mines eventually refill with stone, quartz, iron and copper, while trees and vegetation above ground grow back with a vengeance. I never have to worry about over-picking wild fruits, vegetables, or mushroooms, because the bounty seems never ending. And as I plunder the earth and the forests (and sometimes garbage cans in town) in order to sell back to the village what I harvest in order to afford new iridium sprinklers that tip the scales of capitalist profit in my favour, Stardew Valley is happy to let me do so at the expense of the land and its people, penalty-free.
- Mattie Brice. My First Year in Stardew Valley. Alternate Ending. 29 April 2016.
- Ian Bogost. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. MIT Press 2010.
- Jussi Parika. A Geology of Media. University of Minnesota Press 2015.
- Emily Reed. Eidolon. Arcade Review. Issue 5. 2015.
I've tried to find out if tree sap actually does have uses as an ingredient in a fertilizer. Nothing seems to indicate that it has ever been used historically as a fertilizer. ↩︎
I find it interesting and amusing that the only person in town with a car is Mayor Lewis, who parks a pick-up truck next to his house in Pelican Town. This also makes sense within the game world, as Mayor Lewis is in charge of picking up materials and produce from your pick-up box every night in order to sell. ↩︎
Community centres are usually not-for-profits which have a long history of offering free, cheap, or subsidized programs to offset marginalization and poverty, or to build community ties and relationships. They are sometimes run by the state, but they are also often community-run. They usually do not operate under the rules of having to generate profit, putting the community centre in Pelican Town at odds with the Joja Corporations designs to demolish it and put a Joja warehouse in its place. Even if at the start of the game, the community centre is abandoned, resurrecting a non-capitalist or non-commercial community centre which caters to the needs of the community does not make sense to the Joja Corporations designs of profit
and world dominationfor faraway shareholders. ↩︎
According to Wikipédia, wildcrafting is "the practice of harvesting plants from their natural, or "wild" habitat, for food or medicinal purposes. It applies to uncultivated plants wherever they may be found, and is not necessarily limited to wilderness areas. Ethical considerations are often involved, such as protecting endangered species." ↩︎
There's some pretty good evidence that community farms in urban or suffering areas contribute to gentrification and displacement of marginalized communities. Read Evolution or gentrification: Do urban farms lead to higher rents?. ↩︎