science of us

The Video Game That Got Me Through My Long-Distance Relationship

Photo: Matjaz Slanic/Getty Images

I first played the video game Stardew Valley during Thanksgiving 2016. My boyfriend and I had just spent a week in what felt like paradise. We were fresh in love, without objectivity, and date nights became our mode of living during my time in L.A. We named the juniper bonsais at the Huntington Library. We waltzed spontaneously at the foot of the European Art gallery. At the Getty Villa, we read a full coffee-table book about Roman statue penises, before spending the evening at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles and spontaneously watched a showing of Arrival. It was a montage of ephemera, the type so often captured in rom-coms.

And then I flew home.

Long distance is a draining, self-flagellating enterprise. A visit, during the honeymoon phase, can feel manic in its intensity. Once that visit ends, the loss feels bodily. During Thanksgiving, I remember staring so hard at my own striped sleeves that my vision blurred. I had just moved to a new city. My employer shifted me to part-time despite the promise of working remote, and I found myself losing money at the exact moment I lacked the energy to job-search. I tried (and failed) to ignore the gnawing feeling of loneliness and panic, despite family, despite excellent food. Anxious, I found a calming, virtual place to roam: Stardew Valley.

The premise is delightfully idyllic: You, a corporate drone for the soulless Joja Corporation, are given the means to restart your life as a farmer. You move to Pelican Town and begin to fill your days with the grueling work of farming, foraging, fishing, mining, and engaging in combat. It is incredibly addicting. Each day passes in a wink — 17 minutes long, just long enough to make it easy to play just one more day. All told, I’ve dedicated more than 200 hours to this game.

Over the next year, Stardew Valley became my scaffolding — when I was struggling to get a hold on my personal life, it gave me a sense of radical optimism in my ability to accomplish small tasks. Eating at regular times. Making a budget to afford rent and groceries from my increasingly emaciated paycheck. Scheduling time with friends, to keep myself from being painfully alone. If I could harvest the crops to cook a meal in Pelican Town, I told myself, I could at least cook myself a meal instead of heating up another frozen tamale. Eventually, it helped me cultivate the motivation to find a full-time job.

I’m not the only one who finds Stardew Valley abnormally addictive and gratifying. Hundreds of gamers have flocked to forums to share their relaxing experiences with the game. Others have told me in person. Brittany Lindstrom, who has played the game for nearly 100 hours, says, “I might be renting and have a three-digit bank account in real life, but in the game I own a home I built myself. As adults, I think we lose opportunities to imagine a better life and I feel like games allow us that breathing space.”

Morgan Riddleberger describes the game as a powerful analgesic: “The day before Christmas Eve there was a lot of unexpected snow, so [my sister] called and told me she could no longer make it. That same time I had gotten bronchitis. I binge-played Stardew Valley for two weeks,” she says. “I woke up, turned it on, and didn’t turn it off until I went to bed with brief breaks to take medicine and eat soup. That game quite literally kept me from being depressed that holiday season.”

Eric Barone, creator of Stardew Valley, tells me, “I never thought this game would be a therapeutic tool for people — I just meant it as a game.” But now he “gets emails every day about it.” He tells me what fans have told him: that Stardew Valley gives them “a sense of motivation, the ability to make a life for yourself that you want — the game just helps you take the first step.”

That’s certainly how it felt for me. I am determined to figure out why.

* * *

Jane McGonigal is the first person to have obtained a Ph.D. in performance studies of gaming. She has designed numerous games and written two books about gaming psychology: Reality Is Broken and SuperBetter. In Reality Is Broken, McGonigal writes, “Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.” At first blush this sounds unusual — working is the opposite of relaxing, and relaxing is a core component of self-care. But what we think of as “relaxation” is often anything but. McGonigal writes:

One of the most common findings of experience sampling methods research is that what we think is ‘fun’ is mildly depressing. By trying to have easy fun … we go from stress and anxiety straight to boredom and depression. We’d be much better off avoiding easy fun and seeking out hard fun, or hard work that we enjoy, instead.

A game is one of the most potent examples of “hard fun.” McGonigal defines games by four characteristic features: rules, a defined goal, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. By this definition, a gaming environment can serve as an antidote to some of the most common negative stressors of adult life: ill-defined or farfetched goals that lack a conceivable roadmap, a dearth of immediate feedback for your work, no correlation between work and outcome, rules that are prejudiced and systemically unfair, and — the most deadening — an inability to choose your work.

Stardew Valley is especially adept at simulating a state of blissful productivity. The rules and feedback system are fairly rigid — comfortingly linear in their presentation of work and reward. Ben Linser, who has played Stardew Valley for nearly 150 hours, tells me, “It’s so satisfying to plan out your crops and make it all beautiful, efficient, and organized. And then you can wander off into town and give a sweet old lady flowers, and maybe she’ll send you some cookies in the mail later. The welcoming vibe of it is a huge part of why it feels therapeutic, but also the satisfaction of planning and executing some grand scheme.”

As an example, here are the multitude of options you have for one of the game’s cheapest crops: Wheat can be purchased from Pierre’s General Store for 10g. It grows from summer through fall and takes four days to mature. The quality of the crop can be enhanced with fertilizer, which will determine its selling price. Alternatively, if you have the materials — which you can choose to manually mine, or purchase from the blacksmith — to craft a keg, you may distill the wheat into beer to sell at a higher price. Or you can build a mill to grind wheat into flour to bake into any number of recipes, which may be consumed to replenish your energy. They may also be given to townspeople to increase your friendship with them. Even learning recipes is a form of in-game labor — recipes may be purchased, picked up from a weekly in-game television show, or received in the mail from friends.

This illustrates a very simple proposition that is core to Stardew Valley’s ethos: We get to decide which tasks we’ll engage within the game’s confines, and how we’ll use them to accomplish in-game goals. “I wanted players to choose their strengths,” Barone says, “and to ultimately feel a sense of completion and satisfaction.”

And the unreality of the game doesn’t mitigate the very real emotions it provokes. As McGonigal writes in her book, “[Games] shift our attention away from depressing goals and train us to be more flexibly optimistic. Today’s best games help us realistically believe in our chances for success.” Games effectively turn us away from the rat race of extrinsic goal-chasing — which has been linked to depressive symptoms — and instead leave us feeling empowered and satisfied.

* * *

Since I recommended it to him, my boyfriend has logged more than 200 hours of Stardew Valley. He has played it with an exacting frenzy, reaching “end-game” at a dizzying pace by creating an “ancient fruit” winery where he manufactures the most profitable product in the game. He has a wife and a child and a few of the game’s most powerful artifacts. I know him — so none of this is surprising to me. I also noticed a meaningful lift in his confidence while he navigated unemployment. He is the best, smartest person I know, and I think Stardew Valley helped him remember it in himself.

It’s also helped us cope through some of the most devastating parts of bi-coastal long distance. When we weren’t able to go on meaningful adventures, our in-game characters acted as a proxy. I unlocked the monoculture achievement — selling 300 eggplants — just so I could send him a Snapchat of a giant eggplant over a video of me shipping an egregious number of eggplants. I did this for … reasons.

McGonigal writes of falling in love while working together with her husband to play Braid, a notoriously difficult puzzle game by Jonathan Blow. In an amusing coincidence, the last time my boyfriend visited we spent the weekend playing The Witness — Jonathan Blow’s mind-meltingly difficult follow-up game — and falling back in love. My boyfriend excels at spatial puzzles and generally has a far superior sense of direction, while I’m more adept at auditory puzzles and picking up on environmental clues. We screamed constantly. I don’t think I have ever been this completely and neatly satisfied with a communal gaming experience.

A much anticipated multiplayer update of Stardew Valley is coming this spring — when, finally, my boyfriend and I will be living in the same place. After using it to sustain us during our time apart, we’ll get to truly play the game together.

Video Games Got Me Through My Long-Distance Relationship