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Farming away the blues: How Stardew Valley helps to deal with mental illness

Adam Hilario investigates how the latest edition to the genre of tranquil games can promote mental health.

For many, video games and other media forms have acted as a refuge when coping with stress. However, with the increasing number of indie games and the ease of access to both making and playing video games, we are seeing the development of games that cater more towards specific interests, rather than titles that appeal to a broader audience and sell well. This is where games like the indie darling Stardew Valley have been able to flourish in its depiction as a calming life simulator.

Much like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon before it, Stardew Valley has been dubbed as a “slice of life” game, in which the gameplay focuses on a character that is new in town. These games are set in a vibrant, robust community, and the character starts off with little more than a bed. Over time, the player can develop their town and community and are allowed to do as they please. There may be some minor goals, but for the most part, none of these objectives are essential. It is this style of relaxed gameplay that has made these titles an unexpected form of therapy for those experiencing a mental illness, especially anxiety or depression.

These games are optimal for finding solace, unlike traditional games. As there aren’t any necessary tasks, failure is not an option. Yet at the same time completing the most menial tasks, like meeting everyone in town, feels rewarding. The lack of concrete expectations can be a relief to many people with anxiety. Furthermore, many of the actions that the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) recommends to do when coping with these issues are core mechanics of the game or are an offshoot of it: help the community (check), talk to someone (check), take a timeout (you’re already playing a game, aren’t you?), and do your best (check).

As there aren’t any necessary tasks, failure is not an option.

For many people, the first step to dealing with their mental illness is to recognise that they are not alone. According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people struggle with a form of depression globally, but the stigma surrounding mental health can make this fact difficult to believe. In Stardew Valley, there is an NPC called Sebastian, who has many traits consistent with functioning depression: he is reclusive, rebellious, and cynical. Characters like Sebastian are important because they offer representation, and may even allow players to reflect on their own mental health.

The recent popularity surrounding “slice of life” games begs a number of questions. Do we live in a society full of gamers dealing with a mental illness? Is this due to stereotypes regarding gamers as isolated, lonely, or antisocial? The truth is that depictions of mental illness are becoming increasingly common in all aspects of media, not just in video games. If anything, the realm of gaming is unique because there are such large and loyal communities readily available.

The truth is that depictions of mental illness are becoming increasingly common in all aspects of media, not just in video games.

Instead, this trend points to society becoming more aware and removing the taboo of mental illness. The more we as a society recognise that mental health is a serious issue, the more likely we are to seek help for it. Stardew Valley is still immensely enjoyable to those without a mental illness, but the important thing is that someone who is silently struggling could recognise themselves in Sebastian, or realise how much they were craving a bit of relaxation.

Games should not in any way replace therapy. But they can certainly help to make life with a mental illness easier. The more one plays Stardew Valley, the more they feel attached to the NPCs and that these pixels are genuinely their friends. It is a really powerful notion that loading up a game can ease your mind and validate your struggles.

It is a really powerful notion that loading up a game can ease your mind and validate your struggles.

Video games have often been given the reputation of causing aggression. This is not hard to believe when many of the most popular titles on the market will cause you to yell at other players and possibly even “rage quit”. Although small amount of stress can be fun, games like Stardew Valley show us that self-care can be fun too.