video games

The Rhythms of Limitation: Learning about Self-Care in “Stardew Valley”

It’s six in the morning, on the dot, and Pabu wakes like a cuckoo, leaping out of bed, suspenders already clipped on, to face the day. It’s windy outside. Leaves of orange, red, and yellow are dense in the air and Pabu makes his way from his modest front porch to the neighboring coop, almost as big as his own home though it houses only a few chickens. Their names are Lady, Sweetie, and Mama; they each laid one egg in the overnight. The brown egg is enormous – double the size almost of the others. Pabu greets each chicken like a friend. The chickens regard him affectionately and seem happy. He leaves the coop, opens the chicken sized door beside the human-sized one, and heads out into the rest of the day, maybe to dig in the mines, maybe to fish on the coast, maybe to check in on his friend Leah who he has come to hope thinks of him when she makes her charming, if provincial, paintings.

Pabu has lived in a hidden away corner of the world called Stardew Valley, just outside the small fishing village of Pelican Town for almost a year. Fall is winding down, and despite his recent arrival, his spread of crops, jams, and gems from the mine took second place at the Harvest Festival, just behind Pierre the local shop owner who struggles to stay afloat in the face of a new mega-chain grocery in town. Not long ago Pabu worked a futureless office job, cliched in its anonymity and deadening effect on the soul. Desperate for an out Pabu reached for envelope from his grandfather, like a lapsed Baptist reaching for a disused Bible, and found therein the deed to a dilapidated farm. Feeling himself sinking in the malaise of American corporate rhythms, Pabu took hold of his grandfather’s lifeline and departed for the old, out of shape farm that was his birthright.

Pabu is a character in Stardew Valley, a video game made by a single developer that released almost exactly a year ago. More to the point, Pabu is a character in my game of Stardew Valley, no one else’s. I chose his swoopy hair, gave him and his dog, Naga, names from my favorite TV show, and dressed him in suspenders that he never, ever takes off. Details on Pabu are sketchy. At the outset of the game I knew nothing about him other than his dissatisfaction with life in the big city and his relative inexperience with agrarian work. Like many, many other games character customization helped forge a slim bond between myself and Pabu, but the rich inner life that I have come to know in Pabu comes from sharing in his pastoral rhythms for dozens of hours. These rhythms are mundane and restrictive and yet evoke a broad sense of possibility with each new sunrise. Stardew Valley transforms restriction into freedom, such that despite its limited scope – there are no cataclysms to stop, no world ending villains to defeat – it can feel daunting in its openness.

This is because the only hard limits Stardew Valley puts on you, the player, are in the form of time and exertion. While you can play Stardew Valley forever, continuing to develop your farm and your relationships to the people of Pelican Town for decades, each day lasts only a certain amount of time. No matter what, Pabu always wakes up at 6 am. The latest Pabu can go to bed is 2 am at which point if I haven’t gotten him back to bed he’ll simply pass out where he stands. Ideally, I try to get Pabu to bed between 11 and midnight so he has enough sleep to get him through the next day. This sleep schedule means that each day only has a limited number of hours with which to work. Alongside those limited hours Pabu is further constrained by his own limited reserves of energy. Almost every action in Stardew Valley uses up your character’s energy, such that no matter how quickly I move from place to place, there is a hard limit on how much Pabu can accomplish. Sleep replenishes that energy, but it only fills back up if enough sleep has been had. If Pabu works too hard, he’ll collapse of exhaustion and wake up sheepishly in his own bed the next morning with a letter of admonishment from a kind passerby who got him home.

These hard limitations are part of what gives Stardew Valley its profound sense of rhythm. The passage of time and the depletion of energy operationalize in clear, unambiguous terms our own limits as people, laborers, and friends. If I push Pabu too hard the game simply says “stop.” Because of this I know Pabu’s limits exactly. I know when it is ok to dig down just one more level in the mine and when to call it a day and head to the saloon. Stardew Valley trains you to be attentive to the needs of your character, to remember their humanity, and to filter your own relationship to the farm and Pelican Town through your character’s capacities instead of your own. Simple though they may be, the daily structure and limited energy of Stardew Valley are profoundly humane game mechanics that force us to recognize the people for whom farms, food, and labor are for. What, after all, is the point of abandoning the coprorate world if the pastoral is unable to bring any peace?

Self-care has become a somewhat contentious buzzword in the year that Stardew Valley has been available. Self-care is a way to talk about how to make sure that in the midst of your work, your relationships, and your politics you do not forget the borders of your own body. Some have argued that self-care is nothing more than the indulgent entitlement of millennials who don’t want to work as hard as their forbears. Stardew Valley teaches us otherwise. When Pabu wakes up in the morning after a fresh seven hours, energy meter replenished, watering can in hand, the day stretches before us in all its rich possibility. I know that though we can’t do everything today, we can do some things, and those things will be good and worthwhile. They are worthy because I have chosen to do them. Among many other options I have chosen to fish, or to talk, or to wander and forage instead of something else. Knowing Pabu’s limitations as I do means that every choice is consciously made. Even the decision to do not much, to, for instance on a rainy day, simply pay Leah a visit and maybe give her a flower from Pabu’s garden, is an attentive one. And if the day slides by without any tangible production, Stardew Valley refuses to punish you. It simply says, “go to sleep, and see what the new day brings.” For Pabu, there is always work to be done, but none of the work exhausts because it is all work that he knows he can do, he knows he has time for, and he knows he has chosen for himself.

For sure, parts of Stardew Valley are escapist in their nostalgia. At first glance it seems to long for a bygone nowhere of rural America and its retro pixel art aesthetic evokes an innocent time for video games when we were children yelling at each other for a turn on the controller, not doxxing feminists on Twitter. But Stardew Valley is careful to puncture those nostalgic tableaus. Not all is well here. Penny must bear with her verbally abusive alcoholic mother, living conspicuously in the only trailer in town. Harvey, the town doctor, worries constantly about his own job security and his inability to integrate socially with his peers. Clint the blacksmith sometimes stays in the Saloon until 1 am, sitting by himself, because he both cannot bear to talk to Emily who he loves and cannot bear to not talk. Pastoral though it may be, Stardew Valley refuses to offer the farm life as the panacea to postmodern ennui, and instead points to carefully cultivated, humane attention to the needs of people, whatever they may be. This is what self-care means, and this is why, I suspect, Stardew Valley has been so well received in a year where everyone has found themselves exhausted and exasperated by their world. The rhythms of Stardew Valley are not really about crops or livestock. They are about staging a “revolt against the homilies of this world.”[1] They are about breathing, listening, and what it means to live another day.

[1] “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

Sharing Space: “Proteus” and the Personal

It seems like academia (or any professional forum, for that matter) encourages us to keep our feelings out of things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed out passages of student essays this month for being “off topic” or “too praisy,” for bringing in “irrelevant” value judgments on the film they’re writing about. And that’s fine: we’re trying to teach them the conventions of textual analysis, not ranting movie reviews. But every time my red pen scratches out the words “I think” or “I feel” or “the best part,” a little part of me dies. It sometimes feels like I’m getting rid of the human element somehow – an often unsophisticated and inexperienced expression of the human element that doesn’t logically support an argument, but the human element nonetheless. It’s numbing to cut that out.

This censoring isn’t just for undergrads, either. I have found very few opportunities in academic writing where you are free to wear your love on your sleeve. I understand the usefulness of the genre, but it’s refreshing to have a forum where we can get more emotionally expressive. This renewed interest in personal within academia (one way to think of the so-called “affective turn”) is part of the impetus behind the virtual space that is this blog, after all: it gives us a chance to feel as well as think, and reach our communities as well as our peers.

All this is a roundabout way of introducing the fact that I haven’t been okay recently. There have been days where I have found myself in negative mental spaces without a clear path out, and there are nights where my dreams have taken me back to places haunted by bad memories. I could point out a number of reasons why this might be – the grad student workload, lack of good sleep, anxieties about the future, homesickness – but a diagnosis only goes so far when most of those things are unavoidable at this point in my life. Other contributors to this blog have taken on mental health before, so I think I’ll leave the specifics aside for now. Instead, I would like to spend this post doing one of the things I like best – taking a walk with someone I care about. I want to show you a place that I go when I’m feeling down: a little virtual island called Proteus.

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Proteus is a short game created by independent designers Ed Key and David Kanaga in 2011. To call it a “game” is a bit of a misnomer. There are no rules, there are no enemies, there are no apparent goals. The only controls are the arrow keys to move, the mouse to look around, and the space bar (which makes your avatar appear to sit down). The game is pure spatiality: all the player is encouraged to do is explore and experience.

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You emerge from the main menu and find yourself floating above a tranquil sea, with only the soft sound of the waves below you. As you look across the shimmering water, you might be able to see the faint outline of land beckoning you closer. Recognizable shapes begin to emerge from the fog as you approach: a blocky beach, a few twisted pixelated trees crowned in pink or green, maybe even the swell of a mountain to vary the landscape. As soon as you make landfall, the island erupts into the simulated sounds of spring: the warbles, tweets, and crooning of synthetic birdsong; the rustling static and base-toned murmuring of unseen electronic creatures; and through it all soft strings and the tinkling of a chiptune keyboard invoking the sound of a pleasant breeze and gently falling cherry blossoms. Despite being technologically generated, the sounds that engulf you are the sounds of life, and they ebb and flow as you wander around the island.

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What you’ll actually see as you meander among the trees is unclear. Like Minecraft, Proteus is procedurally generated; the island’s topography, flora, and fauna are completely dependent upon algorithms over which you have no control. But though you will never see the same island twice, certain landmarks remain constant through multiple playthroughs. There is always a cabin nestled in the trees, there is always a circle of mysterious totems, there is always a lonely headstone at the top of the highest peak. What this creates for the player is a familiarity which retains the mystic wonder of discovery. I can feel intimately close to this virtual space, but I can never own it; I can know what to expect, but it will always surprise me. Few places, virtual or otherwise, are truly like that in the way Proteus is.

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When night falls, something magical starts to happen. The stars – the only rounded figures in the pixelated world – start to float down to earth, swirling around a particular spot on the island. The curious explorer who approaches the circle of stardust is wrapped up in a flurry of motion and sound as time accelerates. The sun rises and sets, rainclouds race across the sky, wind whips through the leaves on the trees. Standing in the center of the circle brings all this chaos to a crescendo, and after your vision fades to white you find yourself no longer in spring, but in summer.

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Every season brings a change in the island’s landscape and soundscape – summer brings its blooming flowers and buzzing flies, autumn its orange leaves and somber tones, winter its stark silent white – changing the tone of your exploration from joyful wonder to thoughtful reflection as you come to know the lay of the land. As the days get quieter and more familiar, the nights become increasingly fantastic with fireflies, shooting stars, and even the aurora borealis – a sight that even in its polygonal form fills me with the joy of home.

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Though you can spend all your time exploring these little wonders (I never went past summer the first time I played), the game does have an ending. I won’t say what happens on that final winter’s night, but it never ceases to move me. For all its joy and wonder, Proteus teaches you that all things that change, even a sense of place, must come to an end. When you close your eyes on that first island, you will never see it again. All that will remain are the echoes of your emotional experience. That impermanence, for me, is beautiful.

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The description I’ve given here hardly does it justice – Proteus really needs to be experienced to be understood. But I also find it’s best when experienced together. If you’re around where I happen to be, go ahead and ask. I’d love to play it with you, if only to see the look on your face when you first set foot on land. If you happen to get it and I’m not around, well…go up to the totem circle on the first night of autumn and just wait for the moon to rise. Maybe it’ll make you think of me. In any case, I think it’s a place worth sharing.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

 

Appreciating Space: “Minecraft” and Empowerment

For the last two summers, I’ve worked as an instructor for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Kid College program, which is basically a mix between a summer camp and course series about technology for kids aged 9-14. Most of the classes I taught were about game design, and the most popular courses by far were the ones about Minecraft. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, it might be described as an infinitely large, semi-randomly-generated world made up of multiple types of blocks that players can use to build structures, craft items, and fight off monsters. I tended to describe it to parents or adults as “digital Legos with fighting and exploration mixed in.” (Avid players might say it is a bit more complicated than that, but let’s work with that for now.)

In the course of teaching, I have occasionally had parents voice the concern that their child has been “spending too much time on Minecraft” and ask me for some advice on how to change that. Now, those sort of parental decisions are above my paygrade at this point in my life, and how one ought to approach limitations on computer activity depends too much on parenting styles and a child’s personality for me to say anything useful in that regard. But the way they phrased the question points to a bit of a misunderstanding of what the game really is: kids are not on Minecraft, they are in Minecraft.

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Like many contemporary games, Minecraft is as much of a space as it is a system of rules. Each time they make a new world, players are dropped into the middle of a sprawling landscape which is constantly generated based on a set of algorithms (an operation known as procedural generation, in game terms). Grasslands and deserts, mountains and jungles, cave systems and mushroom-filled islands, even villages and abandoned temples have a chance of appearing every time a player reaches the edge of the known map. And this process never ends: the world only gets bigger and bigger as the player explores. With no mini-map to aid them initially, players are forced to make meaning out of the environment – taking note of landmarks, following the curve of riverbeds, getting to higher ground – as they seek out shelter before nightfall.

Besides being infinitely vast, the worlds of Minecraft are also infinitely transformable. Players can harvest, collect, or mine just about every type of block in the game and use them for their own creations, whether that’s smelting iron to make a sword or placing wooden planks down for the walls of a house. In this way, players are constantly leaving their mark on the environment and making it their own. Every hastily-made shelter, every empty mine shaft, every scar in the mountain or crater in the earth becomes imbued with meaning as sites of the player’s failures and accomplishments. But these structures and stories do not remain confined to the game world: they are shared by players across every medium available to them, whether through screenshots, videos, or merely word of mouth. Every voxel has a ballad, and every player becomes a bard, expanding the space of the virtual world even further into the material one.

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That may have gone a bit too far into the poetic, but there is a sort of magic to a game space that (for many people) doesn’t make the transition to the real world. This is especially true for kids in my hometown of Anchorage, a city which has long winters, not insignificant criminal and animal dangers, and long distances between destinations – not to mention the general lack of a safe “third place” for youth to gather and play of their own accord. Yet Minecraft is a place that is infinitely traversable, a place children can exercise their agency and reveal their intelligence, a place that they can make their own without the help of adults and where they can play with their friends on top of it all. Is it any wonder why this is the place kids decide to spend their days?

I understand the danger in gaming compulsion – it is very addicting to find such a place of empowerment. I also understand the necessity of getting outside – you can’t grow up in Alaska without getting at least some taste of that lesson! – but there is so much more to Minecraft and similar games than sitting in front of a TV or killing time with YouTube videos. The only way to truly understand that fact is to take the game for what it is: a place of empowerment as well as play.

Minecraft 5.pngMy reaction to the parents who are skeptical about the value of games or who think their child is playing too much is to first ask them much they know about Minecraft. Some have watched their children play the game or even have an account themselves, but more often than not they have only heard their child speak about it ad nauseum while having very little familiarity beyond the confusing jumble of jargon and technical language that is frankly hard to keep straight unless you have seen it in action.

And that is exactly my piece of advice to these parents: let your child show you their space. Treat the experience as if you were a tourist trying to get an understanding of a different country. Ask questions, try out the language, pick up the controls and let your guide coach you if need be, but give them a chance to show you what this virtual space means to them. Only after understanding what it means to exist in this space can you truly understand what it would mean for them to lose it. Perhaps you can show them what they love about the space can be found elsewhere as well.

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The same advice can really be said of almost any game and almost any social relationship: if you want to know someone’s feelings, let them show you the places they like to go. In the spirit of that mindset, I want to show you a place I like to go when things are not particularly bright. But that is a task for next week.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.