by Laken Brooks
When I first began playing Stardew Valley, I expected the game to be a fun pastime. But when I grew a virtual potato, I realized that this simulator isn’t just entertaining; it teaches the public important lessons about food and farming.
Stardew Valley became more than my hobby; it became my case study for digital, land-based literacies. I played as a fed-up office worker who inherits a farm. Without previous farming experience, the character must clear the overgrown property, care for crops, and deliver potatoes to neighbors.
On the surface, the game is straightforward. You plant seeds, water them, and watch plants grow. The design adds to this seeming simplicity: retro graphics instead of a Thomas Cole landscape. Nonetheless, the game holds deeper messages about farming and community. While some people think that video games distract children from getting outside or enjoying nature, we can use these simulators to teach others about the traditions of farming and the origins of their food.
Before I explain why Stardew Valley and farming simulators are valuable educational tools, I should first define land-based literacies and explain why these literacies matter. Land-based literacies are specialized skills related to farming, gardening, or other activities in nature.
Many indigenous scholars, like Dr. Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, describe how the land carries stories. Dr. Gabriela Ríos has argued that migrant farm workers are highly educated and technically skilled because they can read the land. For example, these farmers know exactly which varieties of soil are best for different types of potatoes and how to dissuade pests that love the starchy root just as much as humans do. Such land-based literacies encourage us to humanize farmers, to appreciate the hands and the generations of knowledge that help grow the potatoes for our tater tots.
When I first began playing Stardew Valley, I admittedly was more preoccupied with growing a virtual potato than the farmers who help bring actual potatoes to my plate. But the game helps players make this connection. After I cleared the weeds and brush from my virtual plot of land, one of my first tasks was to grow a patch of potatoes. I chose seeds, planted them in tidy virtual rows of dirt, and then waited.
Watching the screen, a childhood memory came to mind. I remembered the coarse weight of the burlap sacks I dragged behind me while my grandfather dumped potatoes from his garden, one by one, into the bag. Admittedly, real potatoes take months to grow, but waiting for several minutes reminded me of how my grandmother would tick off the weeks on her Farmer’s Almanac calendar as she anticipated harvest time. Stardew Valley doesn’t advertise itself as a farmer’s manual, but the simulation refreshed my own lived experiences helping my grandparents hoe rows in the rocky Appalachian soil. It was therapeutic to feel like I had grown something new, a pixelated brown lump of a potato, even though I was sitting at my computer and I haven’t lived on a farm in years.
Games like Stardew Valley are marketed to a general audience, but they contain threads of this land-based literacy. Farmers can make the most of these popular simulation games to raise public awareness about nature and stewardship. Such games can make nature more accessible to those living in urban areas or those who are not within reach of a local garden.
While planting a virtual potato may seem like a far cry from farming expertise, farming simulators help children recognize the origins of their food. In the UK, 19% of children do not know that potatoes grow underground. Other children could not differentiate between potatoes and tomatoes. When children lack this basic land-based literacy, they may not have the knowledge they need to make healthy food choices and to conserve natural resources.
While we may be shocked at the number of people who do not know where their food comes from, we can find some comfort in the fact that millions of people are downloading farming simulators. Stardew Valley alone has 10 million downloads, not including the dozens of other farming games on the market. Most of those players are not going to adopt full-time sustenance farming. Nonetheless, these simulators can correct some misunderstandings as players learn the basics of growing vegetables: that plants come from seeds, that uncontrollable environmental factors can prevent plants from growing, that potatoes and tomatoes are distinctly different (both on a computer screen and in real life).
The game also introduces players to farmers’ labor. Like in real life, a harvest isn’t guaranteed in Stardew Valley. When players fail to water their seeds or weed their gardens, their crops suffer. Likewise, hoeing and digging the (virtual) garden is hard work that depletes the player’s energy bar. If players exert too much energy without resting, their character will collapse. These bodily considerations emphasize that virtual and real-world farming require a physical relationship with the land, and each potato requires care and sacrifice.
Furthermore, these games show how farming is, first and foremost, a collaborative effort that builds community. As we play, we gain more appreciation for the departed grandfather who once tended to this land, and our character searches for advice from other characters: experienced farmers and caretakers who can teach us about how the grandfather used to navigate the property. Much like in real life, farming in Stardew Valley is a community effort as our character learns more, despite never having lived on a farm before. As our character grows in skill, we can share or sell our produce with virtual community members and make new relationships. The game emphasizes that farming isn’t just about feeding people–it’s about connecting people. Farming isn’t always intuitive, but it’s an essential and technical practice that has woven communities of people together for millennia.
Even if farmers have never played video games, they can use several gaming technologies to make an even bigger impact in their community. You may want to share your knowledge of farming or show people a glimpse into everyday life on a farm. One way to communicate with the public is to create a virtual version of your own farm in Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing is a cult-favorite game where players grow their own flowers and forage on their own islands. However, the game is also popular because it allows users to share their “friend codes” with one another, or meet one another in the game and visit one another’s islands. Farmers can invite community members to their virtual island farms for a virtual field trip, where they can compare their video game garden to the plants they grow in real life.
Another possibility for digital outreach is to host a gardening demonstration on Minecraft. Minecraft lets players build environments, block-by-block, like a living Lego set. Farmers may want to create their own garden plot in Minecraft to demonstrate how different crops need to be planted at certain distances apart. Tech-savvy farmers may turn to Discord, a popular chat app for gamers, to host a seed share group.
These gaming technologies can help bridge the distance between farmers and the general public by empowering people to practice land stewardship, even if they live miles away from the nearest farm. And with these farming simulators, we can encourage people to look at a bag of grocery store potatoes in a brand new way.
photo credit: Crystal and Ronan Sands