The psychology of why video game farming is so satisfying

In the game Stardew Valley, you clear fields overgrown with weeds. You smash stones and chop down trees. You till the soil. You plant and water crops. You harvest. You build new additions to the homestead. You care for animals. Day in and day out. Sure, these responsibilities are punctuated with the levity of fishing, town festivals, cave explorations, courtship, marriage, and raising a child, but this never-ending cycle of digital labor is the beating heart of Stardew Valley. While it certainly doesn’t compare to the difficulties of actual farming, the rote gameplay can still be very chore-like. So why do hundreds of thousands of people want to spend their real-world leisure time working?

Psychologist Jamie Madigan, writing for his website The Psychology of Gaming, believes it all comes down to personal choice. Actual work may be stressful, but imaginary work like the kind in Stardew Valley is much more satisfying, Dr. Madigan argues, because it removes “the worst of the uncertainty, helplessness, ambiguity, and consequences for failure that come with those real-world jobs” from the equation.

“There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness. When that happens, my dear, you’ll be ready for this gift.”

Grandfather in Stardew Valley

“Because they specifically can’t offer you a paycheck,” Dr. Madigan posits, “video games have to rely on the kinds of experiences that every employee longs for and every enlightened manager wishes she could provide: engagement and internal motivators. Why does a gamer slay that giant, radioactive scorpion? Why does he keep trying until he can beat his friend’s best time on a race track? Why does she keep mining materials so he can eventually upgrade her spaceship’s hyperdrive? Because he wants to. Because she has chosen to.”

Put simply, video games provide “clear goals, unambiguous feedback, winnable challenges, and predictable rewards.” When was the last time you got that kind of fulfillment from a 9-to-5?

Stardew Valley allows you to catch dozens of varieties of fish at specific times and locations. Credit: ConcernedApe

First released in February 2016 by independent developer Eric Barone, this farm life simulator is currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts thanks to the March 20 launch of the long-awaited 1.6 patch–a series. The update includes a massive list of new opportunities ranging from major and game-changing (e.g. new events, mechanics, dialogue, etc.) to minor and silly (e.g. the ability to drink mayonnaise). Since the patch’s arrival last week, the record number of folks playing Stardew Valley on the game streaming platform Steam spiked at over 230,000, further entrenching Stardew Valley as one of the most popular farming games of all time. So what makes it so special?

Stardew Valley opens with you visiting your ailing grandfather as a child. After the old man says his goodbyes, he pulls you aside and hands you a wax-sealed envelope, but asks you not to open it yet.

“There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life,” he says, “and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness. When that happens, my dear, you’ll be ready for this gift.”

More than a decade later, your grandfather’s prophecy is fulfilled. You’re sitting in an office building, unhappy and confined to a monitored cubicle, when you finally reach for the mysterious envelope. Inside, you find the deed to your grandfather’s farm and one final message from the family patriarch encouraging you to follow in his footsteps. You immediately quit your job and set off to do just that, trading your life as an unimportant cog in the corporate machine for more peaceful, pastoral pursuits.

“Because he wants to. Because she has chosen to.”

– Psychologist Jamie Madigan

The therapeutic benefits of this fantasy bear out in direct feedback from consumers. During a study of Steam reviews published in October 2021, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada found substantial evidence of players extolling the benefits of Stardew Valley and other games like it with regards to relaxation and the management of mental health issues. Much like the main character moving to the country to escape the stressors of modern life, Stardew Valley reviews paint the picture of a userbase finding a reliable safety valve to blow off steam in its work-like gameplay loops.

Not all chores, Stardew Valley also offers a yearly night market. Credit: ConcernedApe
Not all chores, Stardew Valley also offers a yearly night market. Credit: ConcernedApe

“[Stardew Valley] allows the player a relatively large degree of freedom over what they build, or what path they take,” the paper reads, echoing Dr. Madigan’s observations on player choice. “Since there is no fixed solution for creative challenges, players can spend as much or as little time on optimizations as they choose. With the player focused on designing and developing their farm for a large number of in-game hours, players have many opportunities to become emotionally invested in their farm.”

The study further cites a report published in the Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in which several respondents interviewed by researchers from the University of York, UK and the University of Basel, Switzerland specifically named Stardew Valley as helping them cope with “considerable emotional turmoil.” These negative experiences included various mental health issues, family and relationship problems, bereavement, dysphoria, and job loss.

Escapism is a powerful thing. While detaching from the real world isn’t a permanent solution for a stressful situation, it’s clear video games can be a useful tool for those in search of positive feedback they aren’t getting elsewhere, especially if they’re already predisposed to gaming as a pastime. And while the popularity of Stardew Valley, as well as contemporaries Animal Crossing, House Flipper, and Farming Simulator, may appear on the surface like folks trading real chores for digital ones, the difference perhaps lies with the simple fact players are choosing to perform them rather than being forced through necessity. Combined, these two factors create a perfect storm of gratification that gives players both the ability to push the worries of life to the back of their minds for a few hours and feel accomplished for doing so at the same time.