When lockdown began over a year ago (pause for impact), and we all turned to video games for a healthy dose of distraction, one genre in particular got its hooks into a lot of players: farming sims. By being able to lose oneself in consistent routines and the constant sense of accomplishment that comes just from smashing rocks in Stardew Valley, many of us were able to reconcile a sense of purpose during this purposeless time. For most, this artifice of purpose was a pleasant distraction and a means of approximating connection to each other.
For me, these games actually simulated a connection with my younger self. I grew up on a family farm in Belton, South Carolina, which is about forty-five minutes away from Greenville for those familiar with South Carolina geography, and about two hours from Charlotte, North Carolina for those who aren’t. The family’s farmland wasn’t our main source of income, as both my parents were high school teachers. Instead, the garden and the various animals were more like a passion project of my dad’s, as he’d grown up right next door and cared for a much larger operation during his own childhood.
I never much enjoyed helping my family with the daily tasks of running it. My siblings and I got used to long days in the muggy South Carolina summer humidity, and random interruptions into whatever else we were doing to chase down an animal that had gotten loose or mend a busted gate. Chores that could never be predicted or scheduled — animals are impulsive like that.
Dad presented this to us as just a thing that had to be done. No reason to pretend it was a fun game or anything — farm work is farm work, plain and simple. It didn’t matter if you enjoyed it or not, so long as it got done. I realize that might sound like complaining, and my younger self definitely complained their fair share. But here in the present, I don’t mean it as a complaint, just as a statement of fact: Farming was a hurdle we just had to clear, nothing more nor less. What good would getting emotionally worked up do when the rabbits are loose and it’s pouring rain?
Growing up, I didn’t have quite the same affection for mellow, crafting and community focused games like Harvest Moon. Early Animal Crossing games had a certain cartoony appeal, and my brother and I sunk calendar weeks into cultivating our little Gamecube town, to our father’s befuddlement, but on the whole, I liked more action-packed and fast-paced video games, like Mario Kart or the Castlevania games I would discreetly save up for because their cover art looked too sacrilegious for my parents to buy them for me.
This digital hobby was not something that meshed well with the spontaneity of farm work. Many were the times that I got in a shouting match with a parent about how you can’t “pause” in the middle of a Pokémon battle just because a goat had her head stuck in the fence. Still, balance was found. The farm work was never a punishment, even though it might have felt like one sometimes.
For my dad, though, the farm was his center. Up earlier than everyone every morning, even on weekends. A tough day at work? He’d be in the pasture tending the cows, enjoying some peace and quiet for himself. The pasture was his neutralizing place, as the TV screen and the GameCube was mine and my brother’s.
Time passed, as it does, and high school and college pulled me further away from video games in general (having my own money meant not wanting to spend it as much), and away from the farm. That is, until the Switch came out in 2017 and I felt something in me collapse a little bit, just enough for $300 to slip through. I deserved it, after all — I was about to move across the country, to California.
I went to Los Angeles for grad school. I arrived a month before classes started (oops), knowing no one (also oops), and with very little money — especially for Los Angeles, where there was basically a currency exchange of East to West Coast dollars (a very very big oops). So I didn’t have much to fill my days — but one thing I did have, it turned out, was a game called Stardew Valley. Suddenly, there was always something to do: crops to plant, animals to raise, construction projects to plan. I had found a new neutralizing zone, a little pixel-art farm where I could find peace when in desperate need to still the whirlpool of stress between my ears.
Now obviously, farming is a lot easier in games. No one has managed to program the searing heat of metal in the middle of a Carolinian summer, nor has anyone recaptured the feeling of picking splinters out of your fingers or nursing the bruise from where an animal struck you, like when my brother was briefly hospitalized for getting hit by a horse (in the horse’s defense, my brother struck it first). Stardew Valley, Harvest Moon, and their kin all present an idealized, distant version of their experience. You never have to sweat or strain yourself physically, all you have to do is demonstrate a modicum of patience and commitment to a routine.
The penalties for failure are softer on the virtual farm, too. When animals died at the wrong time on our farm, it was a dark day indeed. There, my dad’s stoicism spoke volumes. Helping him dig a hole to bury a goat or calf that had gotten sick, he’d rarely say a word. There was nothing to distract us from what we were doing. I don’t think it was ever actually our fault when a larger animal died, but when a rabbit got out and got picked up by a dog before we could save them, our dad’s silence read like condemnation. See what you’ve done, the loss of a life, and remember the weight. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Stardew Valley. The worst you get is your cow not producing any milk and a speech bubble full of static to show their frustration.
Those first few months in Los Angeles, cocooned in isolation, have an uncanny similarity to my final few months in Los Angeles during, as you can likely guess, the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic. I started and finished my time in LA afraid of the world around me (albeit with a lot more justification the second time around). Yet again, a video game gave me the illusion of structure. Animal Crossing: New Horizons brought me back to the same Stardew Valley sense of manufactured purpose. Have something to do. Keep those hands busy, keep that brain full. Do not let yourself sit with the weight of the current moment.
I get what my Dad was going for now, in the pasture, after school.
As a kid, I have never had any sense of connection to the labor I was performing. Whether we mended the fence today or not, I wanted to go back inside. Now that I’ve had to sweat on my own, I get the value of making something for oneself. Idle hands and idle minds are ripe ground to plant doubt and anxiety. It’s better to do something with those hands and flush the trouble away with perspiration and bruises. Standing on the tallest mountain on my Animal Crossing island, looking at the digital stars in the sky, I feel a similar quiet to what I assume dad feels. The sense of being distant from the ceaseless tide of the world, afloat on my own little corner of self.
I’m not saying I want to go back to the farm, raise a barn, and chase down another cow in the middle of a thunderstorm. I’m just saying that now I get the value of long, busy days, of a pleasantly full to-do list, and of a leisurely pace. A farm is never finished — there is always something that needs your attention. Some might call that tedious, but others might call it a sense of purpose. A place where you’re always needed and always occupied. And if we can’t have that place in the real world, as choked and tangled as it is now, then making our own will have to do.