Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Stardew Valley is a lot like my life. I wake up, work a little bit, spend the rest of the day wandering around aimlessly, then go to sleep because I have no friends. So I decided to change that (in Stardew Valley, not in real life) and I forced myself to be the friendliest farmer in town. A lot of Stardew Valley‘s appeal is about developing happy relationships with your fellow villagers, but video games still have a lot of problems with relationships and I’m not sure that Stardew Valley solves them.
First, I want to confess to a lie. This essay isn’t actually about Stardew Valley. It’s an essay about the gamification of human relationships, and Stardew Valley is the perfect example of everything right and wrong about it. I’m not going to talk so much about Stardew Valley specifically as I am going to talk about the general mechanics that it and many other games use. But it’s important to remember that below all of the feel-good fluff, there are some real problems with turning friends into numbers and perks.
“Gamification” has become a pretty dirty word over the past few years, and in a way, it should be. There are many things that gamification can greatly enhance, and there are many things that it can completely ruin. But whether you like it or hate it, it always shares one common goal: to make you do a task that you wouldn’t normally want to do.
And that’s pretty much what Stardew Valley is: a collection of things that you wouldn’t normally want to do. Nothing in this game is intrinsically fun. There is no skill involved with the singular action of cutting grass, or feeding animals, or mining rocks. It’s all done by clicking and waiting. This itself is not necessarily a problem, but it’s something we have to consider.
I was chopping down a tree the other day and sometimes, my axe would swing faster than normal. Was it because I was chopping on a regular rhythm, and if I timed it right I would swing faster? That would be a skill mechanic that you can learn and master, and that would make it intrinsically fun. But no: there is no rhythm to the axe. Sometimes it swings faster and sometimes it doesn’t. You don’t swing the axe because it’s fun, you swing the axe because you want the rewards for doing so.
In fact, one of the only skill-based tasks in the game is fishing, and guess what? One of the most popular mods makes fishing easier. Go figure. There’s also an argument to be made that the combat is skill-based, but considering how shallow the system actually is, combat is really just a matter of upgrading equipment.
When it comes to menial chores around the farm, a little bit of gamification makes sense. People generally don’t want to work on farms. It’s sweaty and dirty and exhausting. All simulators implement some amount of gamification to spice things up. On the extreme end, you get your infamous F2P Farmville games, but as long as Stardew Valley isn’t draining people’s life savings, it’s okay to use extrinsic rewards rather than fun gameplay. The problem happens when they take this one step further.
In Stardew Valley, gamification extends to the social aspects as well as farming chores. Mechanically, there is nothing intrinsically fun about talking to other villagers. Narratively, there is plenty of fun, and I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it ended there. But Stardew Valley adds mechanical incentives to socializing, and this is dangerous territory.
No matter what, there is always the carrot on a stick dangling in front of you every time you interact with someone. There is always something for you to gain. And as long as that exists, there is always a way for you to min-max your profits.
Each villager has a “happiness” meter that fills up when you do certain actions. Talking to them or giving them gifts increases their happiness, but ignoring them will lower it. Once their happiness reaches certain thresholds, they give you gifts, some of which can’t be obtained any other way.
Players have already cracked the secrets to maximizing every villager’s happiness. They know every NPC’s likes and dislikes. They know every NPC’s daily schedule so you never have to go a day without interacting with your target. If you looked at a villager’s profile on the Stardew Valley wiki and you didn’t know it was a game, you’d think you were looking at a page from a stalker’s journal. “On Wednesdays in spring, Abigail can be found in the museum from noon to 6 PM.” How creepy is that?
The people in Stardew Valley eventually stop being people. They become obstacles that you have to overcome in order to get what you want. If you invest time and money into your relationships, you will get rewards. When you treat someone well, you deserve to receive something from them in return.
This is a miserable way to see a relationship. Human beings are not resources for you to farm materials from. They are independent entities with their own thoughts and goals and emotions. Stardew Valley, like most similar games, tries to implement their individuality through narrative rather than through mechanics, and this doesn’t stop the problem. You can say that you don’t think about the rewards, and in a way you would be right. But gamification is subtle and invasive, and it affects your actions even if you don’t realize it.
Back To Reality
Remember Elliot Rodgers? Guy who shot up a university because no girls liked him? He did it because he saw his relationships in real life the same way one would see relationships in games like Stardew Valley. When he did things for other people, he expected rewards in return, and when he didn’t get those rewards, he broke.
Even though that’s an extreme case, there are plenty of other scenarios that involve gamifying relationships. Sucking up to a professor. Buying someone a drink at the bar. Ignoring people beneath you. We all have ulterior motives hidden deep within ourselves.
Gamification feels good because it makes us think that we have control over our lives. Sometimes, we feel lost and helpless and aimless, and we think that our actions don’t matter. When you’re arguing with a loved one, sometimes you wish you could see their “happiness meter,” and you wish you could go to their wiki page and look up what to do. Everything would be so much simpler if we could just follow a guide that leads to marriage or friendship or whatever else we desire from our fellow humans.
The purpose of a relationship is that we do not know how we work. We fight, and we struggle, and sometimes we get frustrated at how difficult it is to understand someone else, but that’s all an essential part of the human experience. That’s how we grow and mature as people.
But I want to get off my high horse. I’m a game designer, not a philosopher. Ignoring all of my grand sweeping claims about moral destruction and the collapse of society, how could we solve this problem from the ground up? How could a game portray a relationship in such a way that it is intrinsically fulfilling, both from a narrative perspective and a mechanical one? What needs to be done to break the idea that NPCs in games are just another resource to be farmed?
And the answer is, I don’t know. If ConcernedApe couldn’t figure it out, I probably can’t either. But I’m not going to solve it with armchair philosophy.
So I quit Stardew Valley, and I’m probably not coming back. I’d rather have no friends in real life than have fake friends in a game.