Games, Lifestyle

Taking a break from reality with Stardew Valley

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have felt a powerful desire to run away from the chaos surrounding me. It feels like every day, there are new guidelines, new safety measures and new systems to learn and operate within. While they are vital for public health, the constant bombardment of COVID-19-related media can become overwhelming very quickly.

To combat this, I turn to idle hobbies and fun ways to waste time amid the turmoil of the world around me. Whether it is knitting a blanket, crocheting cup-holders or binge watching mindless television, I have become a master of passing time.

Yet another addition to my list of hobbies is “Stardew Valley”, a video game offered on almost every digital platform. In short, Stardew Valley is a simulation game in which the player leaves their dull corporate job in favor of their late grandfather’s farm plot in the quaint town of Pelican Town in Stardew Valley.

While Stardew Valley may outwardly seem like a straightforward farming simulator, it is actually a rich game packed with features that keeps the player engaged and constantly returning to complete any number of activities. You can farm, fish, forage, craft items, mine, form relationships with the townspeople and discover the secrets and mysteries of the town itself. 

Perhaps it is a bit on-the-nose, but Stardew Valley came into my life at the exact right moment. I often dream of escaping the chaos of the world and this game literally features a character running away to start an idyllic, pastoral life. Perfect!

escapism and stardew valley video game
The main menu of the video game Stardew Valley. Sam Thomas writes about his latest escape from everyday stress and how the simulation game lets him forget about the real world for a bit. TAYLOR COESTER/DFP STAFF

I immediately got pulled in, planting seeds and harvesting crops, while the stress and anxiety that had been pressing down on me for so long disappeared or, at the very least, abated. My character, who I lovingly named “Sammy” after myself, ran around his newfound home as I racked up over 100 hours of gameplay in a few weeks. 

Stardew Valley capitalizes on escapism, a tantalizing and elusive concept that has a strong hold on many, now more than ever. Escapism is a tendency to turn to imagination or distractions in order to get away from reality. This can include daydreams, social media, television, games or pretty much anything that distracts someone.

With the rise of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, many previously rolled-back restrictions are returning, such as mask mandates and limited indoor activities. It may feel like the world is going backwards, because, in some ways, it is. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

I get exhausted and beaten down from what feels like a constant bombardment of negative news. When I power on my Nintendo Switch and open Stardew Valley, the only thing I need to worry about is what to do with my in-game day, which lasts approximately 14 real-world minutes. Will I mine? Talk to townspeople? Plant some seeds? So many choices and none has any bearing on my real life. What more can you want?

During winter break, my brother tested positive for COVID-19 on Christmas Day, leading my family to quarantine for the following week. Then, a few days after the new year, I got very sick with what I assumed to be the flu, due to two negative COVID-19 tests. Throughout this time, I was stuck at home, unable to go to work or see hometown friends. Being alone for that long was difficult and I wanted, or rather needed, a way to distract myself.

As the sun rises and sets in Pelican Town, I leave behind the real-world anxieties I carry. Is it a healthy coping mechanism? That remains uncertain. All I know is that Stardew Valley, and really any game of its kind, offers an unparalleled opportunity to take a break from your own life in favor of a fresh, fun escape.

Now, I need to finish some harvesting before the semester really gets going.

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