Dr Yemaya Halbrook
Farming simulators: An idyllic escape from our otherwise chaotic lives
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Farming simulator games have been popular for decades with games such as Harvest Moon having their first release in 1996 for the SNES. Since then, this industry has grown exponentially for AAA companies and indie developers alike. Let’s be honest, Stardew Valley is one of the best farming simulator games ever made and it was developed entirely by one person! Thank you Eric Barone (@ConcernedApe) for all the time and dedication you’ve put into this game. I could go on and on about the fabulousness that is Stardew Valley, but there are already loads of articles on that. Here we’re going to talk about the psychology behind these types of games and why people feel they lessen their anxiety.
There are many different psychological reasons why these types of games are so calming. I wrote about the self-determination theory a couple of weeks ago in regard to social games, but I’ll do a brief recap here. The self-determination theory states that individuals need to satisfy three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) in order to achieve happiness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This can also be applied to video game research insofar as these needs can be satisfied by the video game itself (Ryan et al., 2006). For autonomy, the player feels they have complete control over their actions in a game. Competence, on the other hand, is when a gamer feels like they are meeting new challenges that are increasing in difficulty. Lastly, relatedness is how connected a player feels to both other gamers and non-player characters (NPCs) programmed into the game. Satisfying these needs in a video game can not only elicit positive well-being (based on my PhD research) but can also increase levels of enjoyment of the game itself (Tamborini et al., 2010). Video games in general can satisfy these needs, but there is something special about farming simulators.
I conducted a survey of gamers who play these types of games and of the over 500 people who took the survey (thanks Reddit!), nearly all of them stated they play/have played Stardew. This isn’t really surprising as it is 100% the best farming simulator out there. I asked these players what they like and don’t like about farming games but most importantly and what I’ll discuss today is if these games help relax them/calm their anxiety. The answer to this question was a resounding yes with a few overall themes as to why. Also, can I just say that I cannot believe I am continuing to voluntarily collect qualitative data? I think my days as a statistician are numbered! (pun unintended—happy writing coincidence)
The first major theme, and the most applicable to the current unfortunate world situation, is players feel relaxed because they have control in the game. Over the past year and still now for some, we’ve all had very little control over our own lives. Obviously, some have more control than others, but for those of us who lost our daily routines when this all started, having simple and actually attainable goals in a game is huge. This builds off of that satisfaction of autonomy—a farming simulator is something we can control entirely. Sure, we could say this about pretty much all video games, but there is something unique about farming games that can satisfy autonomy even more so. Two examples from the survey:
“I feel in control of something for once, without any kind of significant stress. No high stakes, no need to keep your wits about you - these games are made to be enjoyed, not difficult.”
“I find it nice to just chill out and play a simple game that is straight forward. I like that you can set little goals for yourself and achieve them. Kinda like life, except it’s much easier to achieve the goal and things typically always work out. I think it helps to de-stress when your own life goals may not be turning out the way you want.”
There is little pressure for the majority of aspects in the game. Some people stated in the survey that they put certain goals on themselves, like completing the bundles in the community centre for Stardew, but even that has a measure of complete control. You don’t have to complete things in a certain period of time. You want to focus this season on growing crops and making money? Go ahead. You’ve loads of money and want to progress through the villager’s heart events and storylines? Awesome, go do that. Spend an entire day fishing and then the next, mining, literally whatever you want to do. I know I definitely do this myself. I’ve been playing Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town and I’m near Winter of year 1, but I’ve made virtually no progress with the townsfolk as of yet. I’ve spent my time organising my farm and making money because there is something so calming in being able to control that. The only consequence of this is it’ll take me longer to have the heart events and get married in the game, which isn’t really a consequence at all. You can play all of these games at your ‘own pace,’ a specific phrase mentioned many times in the survey answers.
Another common theme across the survey is a feeling of progression which can satisfy the need for competence. Like I mentioned, the stakes for farming simulators are low and you can complete the tasks in really whatever order you want to. That said, when you are completing these tasks, they then unlock something new for you to strive towards. Every farming game has their own reward/progression system, but for the most part, you strive to upgrade crops, unlock new areas and animals, get married, help the town, etc. Let’s say you purchase the next barn upgrade for your animals. Now you’re working towards having enough money to purchase the new animals you’ve unlocked. Then you upgrade your tools. Now you can go deeper into the mine and get the next type of ore you need. With every new thing you unlock, there’s something else you can then work towards. Getting that sense of accomplishment in a video game can then help you feel like you’ve achieved something in real-life. I know that I’m super stoked when I finally unlock the Skull Cavern in Stardew and can get more iridium ore (I never have enough luck to get the meteorites). From there, I can finally upgrade to the iridium tools or make the best sprinklers. Regardless of what it is, I’ve accomplished something and now I get to work towards something else.
The last basic psychological need to discuss is relatedness. In the social games article, I discussed relatedness in terms of connecting to other real-world players. Here, however, relatedness is discussed in terms of how connected you feel to the NPCs in the game. Several players in the survey mentioned they have social anxiety with one person commenting:
"I have a good amount of social anxiety around communicating with people and in the game is generally pretty hard to make someone hate you.”
It can be difficult for many to interact with people in the real-world and there is something so satisfying about getting those NPC heart events. One person even mentioned that their therapist recommended farming games to help with their social anxiety. Having conversations with video game characters, even with their pre-programmed responses, allows for a safe space to practise communication skills. Gamers can then progress to playing with others or discussing the game in a safe space with other individuals who share the same interests. These in-game interactions can be step 1 in the process of overall communication skills.
Although these above findings are about what I expected with my research area being the self-determination theory in video games, some other interesting themes emerged in the survey. I know already that video games can be beneficial to all sorts of mental disorders, such as anxiety like discussed above, but I never thought about how they could help with individuals who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD):
“I also have ADHD and I think farming games let me practice time and project management, and feel like I've made progress and accomplished things, all of which are things that are difficult for me in the real world.”
“As someone with ADHD they give me a nice mental break juxtaposed with necessary stimulation.”
“[T]hey help with my ADHD by giving me repetitive and simple tasks to complete within a timeframe I determine.”
These responses touch on the autonomy and competence needs I’ve already discussed, but they bring in a new element of application for ADHD that I honestly never really considered. Many other players indicated they love farming simulators because of the repetition and ability to ‘zone out’ when playing. It makes sense when you think about it that having these types of tasks in a video game can aid in focusing on one thing at a time. When you’re focussed on one particular thing, upgrading your watering can for example, there isn’t much room to think about daily anxieties.
The responses also indicated that these games allow for an overall escape from a chaotic life that allows you to immerse yourself into an idyllic world. Even the beginning of most of these games start out with you inheriting a farm and leaving your old life behind. That sounds pretty nice right about now. Escapism as a whole has been considered in most video games literature as being inherently negative (e.g. Kaczmarek & Drazkowski, 2014), but research is needed on positive types of escapism. Why is it considered bad for us if we want to spend some time in a simple and aesthetically pleasing game to ignore some daily anxieties? Sure, it’s bad for you if you only ever immerse yourself into these worlds and ignore everything forever, but you can say that about really anything. Even hobbies that are universally considered ‘healthy’ can be done too much. Take reading for example. Someone who reads to escape into a new world so that they don’t have to think about something stressful for a while is considered a ‘good’ coping mechanism, but playing a video game is not? How does that even make sense? I like reading fantasy books sometimes because things like magic don’t exist in the real-world. That said, I will fully admit that I think magic exists somewhere which probably stems from my love of Harry Potter and shows like The Magicians. Why is me reading a fantasy novel an OK escape, but interacting in a magical realm of a video game is not? My point here is that there are positives and negatives of literally anything someone could choose to use as a brief escape and video games are no different. That, however, is a topic for a different article and a different time.
Overall, farming simulators elicit a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere that can be beneficial to all sorts of mental health issues. They can lessen anxiety, focus attention for those with ADHD, and allow for a brief escape from this otherwise chaotic world. You don’t feel like your work is valued in your job? Well, your townsfolk sure appreciate you fixing up their town. You find it difficult to talk with people in the real-world? Don’t worry, you can’t really make any townsfolk hate you. You’re completely broke and are living off of PB&J sandwiches? (been there, it’s rough). Plant some crops and make that money. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be someone else for a while, even if this means you’re voluntarily doing things like pulling weeds and milking cows. We all need an escape sometimes, so why not find it in an idyllic small town? Grow your own crops, befriend some villagers, and get them animals to love you.
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Kaczmarek, L. D., & Drazkowski, D. (2014). MMORPG escapism predicts decreased well- being: Examination of gaming time, game realism beliefs, and online social support for offline problems [Article]. Cyberpsychology Behavior and Social Networking, 17(5), 298-302. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2013.0595
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68
Ryan, R., Rigby, C., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30(4), 344-360. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-006-9051-8
Tamborini, R., Bowman, N. D., Eden, A., Grizzard, M., & Organ, A. (2010). Defining media enjoyment as the satisfaction of intrinsic needs. Journal of Communication, 60(4), 758-777. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2010.01513.x