What a time to be alive! Farming Simulator has released its eighth installment, you too can discover the mysterious and glamorous life of a slice of bread, and someone has released a game about grass and it’s not even the interesting kind of grass. Walking simulators, have you heard of those? Games like Gone Home, Serena, The Beginner’s Guide, in which you walk around a world and stuff happens at you? Yup, all available for you, here and now. No need to wait.
Why are games like this popular? Why do people sink hours and hours of their short and apparently incredibly boring lives into literally driving an 18-wheeler from one location to another, delivering cargo without the slightest hint of an explosion or enemy in sight? You can do that in real life, people. It’s called long haul trucking, and people actually make a living doing it. But why would you sit down after a long day’s work, boot up your computer, and, in the case of Farming Simulator, watch wheat grow?
I’ve recently been playing a lot of Stardew Valley. This is a game in which you, among other things, plant and harvest crops on your farm. I quite like it. As I was playing one night my wife looked over at my avatar, merrily swinging his scythe and reaping what he had sewn, and uttered the following blasphemous words: “That reminds me of FarmVille.”
Her argument continued. “All you are doing is clicking on things. You click to get your corn, you click to plant more corn. It’s FarmVille. You made fun of me for playing FarmVille.”
First off, I did not make fun of her for playing FarmVille. I merely… illustrated the pointlessness of FarmVille’s “gameplay.” There’s no challenge, you are just ticking off boxes on a never-ending checklist. It was, in my opinion, exactly the same as work. You show up, do what you are supposed to do, and are rewarded with crops which you sell for money. In the game I mean. Not in real life. I mean, I guess if you are an actual farmer, it would be that way with YOUR work. But that’s not my work. Regardless.
But as I thought about it, she was a bit right, wasn’t she? (Hint: she usually is.) Stardew Valley IS indeed about ticking off boxes, making numbers go up, and yes, watching plants grow. And I love that game. I love that game for the same reasons that my wife loved FarmVille, for the same reasons that so many people have purchased the various iterations of Farming Simulator, and for the same reasons that people can sink so many aching, grinding hours in games that, to those outside looking in, seem tedious, boring, even monotonous.
These games can look like work from the outside, because when you dilute them to their most primal form, they ARE work. I buy my seeds, I till my soil, I fertilize my soil, I plant my zzzzzzzzzzzz… I’m falling asleep just typing it. The differing factor is that is work I choose to do. Though I enjoy it, my day job is done out of necessity. I need money to feed my family, to pay for my Batsuit, etc. So I am forced to do this work. The work I do in Stardew Valley is my choice. And it might seem like a small difference, but I think it is important. Because it is something that I am choosing to do I get more enjoyment from it. So it is NOT work. It is the epitome of joy: doing something because I legitimately desire to do so.
So I choose to play a game that seems like work because it is a form of work I choose. But equally important is how much control I have over the work I am doing. When I am at my day job, I am told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. I have very little control in my work. That won’t always be the case. Hopefully one day I’ll be promoted from Stormtrooper to Stormcaptain, then Grand Moff Turduckin and after that I’ll finally be in control of my own fully armed and operational battlestation, but until that day comes I have to do what I am told. But when I’m playing my working games, I am the master of my domain. And so are you.
Nobody tells you what to do, or if they do it is more a request to be done at your leisure. You want to spend your entire fortune on wheat seeds? You do you. You want to pass the time fishing, an activity more easily done in real life than farming? Great! You are free to go about your “work” however and to whatever extent that you choose.
The world around you is based on computer code. If you do X then Y will happen. You have more control over what happens in those gaming worlds than what happens in your world. It’s no wonder that people will sink hundreds of hours into games that let them live a different life than the one they are currently living: because they are able to control their circumstances to a much finer degree. Don’t like the state of your in game home? A few hours of play and you will have earned that sweet new Oak Furniture Set for your living room. Real life doesn’t work that way; you have curveballs thrown at you, and they have real life consequences.
Lastly, our gaming “work” is more easily quantifiable. You spend a day fishing? You’ve earned 1500 gold pieces. Last time I went fishing all I scored was a nod of approval from my grandfather and a bad case of poison ivy. You just planted 20 acres of wheat? That’ll yield such and such bushels (bundles?) of wheat that you can sell for so and so dollars, and the Mayor of Wheatville will like you +1 more likeableness. Our success can be expressed in ticking off those boxes, in watching those numbers go up: how big your farm is, how many crops you are bringing in. Success is more difficult to quantify in everyday life.
How much will the wife like those chocolates I gave her? In the game, that’d be +5 Mood… but I just saw her smile dwindle a quick second… does that mean these chocolates weren’t the best quality chocolates? Did I only gain +2 Mood? When I blow up the planet Alderaan like the good little trooper that I am, and my Darth does not Force Choke the daylights out of me, does that move me up 5 or 10 spaces on the Career Advancement track?
Basically, these kind of monotonous, do-real-stuff-but-in-a-game entertainments are real life on easy mode. And while these game worlds cannot replace the real one, obviously, it can be nice to escape to a safe little place that you chose, where you can do whatever you want, that you have control over, and where you can know (more or less) exactly what you need to do to achieve your goals. So yes, my wife had found her little patch of controllable heaven in Farmville. And I found mine.
Let me know in the comments what game you boot up when you want to accomplish some mindless “work” in a game!
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