I recently read thousands of reviews for the game Stardew Valley. I was trying to relive a feeling that I’ve been chasing since the game came out. The game gives you a rich sense of nostalgia, and amidst the quaint and simplistic life of a homesteader, you find yourself being ultra-productive.

Reading through the reviews helped me to better conceptualize the number of people who have benefited from playing Stardew Valley. It definitely earned its ‘overwhelmingly positive’ review score, and I can absolutely understand why over 160,000 people have taken the time to write it a Steam review. Many people praise the game as a fun, wholesome and therapeutic experience. I think this idea of the game being therapeutic really resonates with me, because it certainly helped me during a difficult stage of my Ph.D.

For context, I’m a games user researcher with a Ph.D. in Computer-Human Interaction – I don’t generally read thousands of Stardew Valley reviews for fun (well, I do, but don’t tell anyone or they might stop paying me). A big part of my future research programme is looking at the psychological benefits of commercial video games. 

The Benefits of Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley seems perfectly poised as a game that could have benefits. Anecdotally, the game is extremely efficient at helping people shift into a more relaxed mood. While games often allow you to blow off steam by letting you break societal norms (often violently), Stardew Valley takes a very different approach. The game very deliberately promotes feelings of calm and nostalgia. Compared to action-packed games, Stardew Valley takes the foot off the gas pedal and slows things down in a way that lets you appreciate them.

“I want when you’re playing it to be full of joy and wonder, and to bring you back to the kind of magic that you may have felt when you were a kid when you first played video games.” – Eric ‘Concerned Ape’ Barone

This decision seems to help the game shift many players into a ‘flow state’, where they lose track of time. The idea that you’re flittering away hours in a video game is alarming to some people but flow-states are highly regarded as an optimal state of being in a lot of positive psychology literature. If you’re experiencing flow, it likely means that you’re getting a lot of mental health benefits. The game can also foster feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness – each of which is associated with increased psychological wellbeing through Self-Determination Theory. Stardew Valley has even been name-dropped by Iacovides and Mekler’s research looking at people who play games to cope with difficult life events.  

While Stardew Valley seems like it has some psychological benefits, it also helps with shifting you into a more positive mindset. One of the key reasons that the game was a huge commercial success is its thematic exploration of an alternate lifestyle. The idea of moving to the country and starting a small farm is an idea that deeply resonates with a lot of people. The game pulls you into a simpler life, and within that simplicity, you find an idealized version of yourself. Work in real life often feels pointless, but work in Stardew Valley is honest and meaningful. You are constantly productive, designing your farm, integrating yourself into the community, and exposing yourself to your community-first values through the game’s moral decisions. We’re willing to take steps in the game that we might not be ready to take in real life.

When you play Stardew Valley, you’re not just frivolously picking blueberries and seducing villagers. This game is a meaningful experience, and some of that meaning transcends the game itself. 

Sowing Seeds for Growth

After playing Stardew Valley, I realized that I can be extremely productive in the game, and I wanted some of that productivity to bleed over into real life. I scoured through Reddit, YouTube, books and journal articles, consuming all the motivation and productivity-related content that I could find. While that space is filled with fake gurus trying to capitalize on your insecurities, some of the content was like a prismatic shard in the rough. Those few gems represent actionable advice backed up by evidence and literature – stuff that has been proven to work. These tactics and strategies would be particularly useful for gamers who often feel adrift. For whatever reason, many gamers find themselves struggling with issues related to productivity and living meaningfully.

But, there remains a problem. This content seemed to throw stones at video games. I don’t see video games as an addictive thing that needs to be cast out of my life – I see them as something bordering on an inherent good. Unfortunately, the people in the self-help community don’t seem to see things that way. Instead, I feel that the message was that if you play and enjoy video games, you can’t be productive. They consider gaming a waste of time, the bane of productivity, or at best a reward that you can trick yourself with once you’ve done something that “actually matters”.

I can understand where that mentality comes from. I’ve fallen victim to some fairly unhealthy playing patterns in the past. While I’m on the other side of that now, games still play an important role in my life. For myself, and surely a lot of other people, gaming is an experience that provides a lot of meaning and value. I feel that I would be a worse version of myself if I weren’t doing something that I loved. As corny as this sounds, asking me to stop playing games is like asking me to give up art, asking me to be less playful, or telling me that there’s no value in taking care of your mental health.

So, rather than telling you that you need to give up gaming – I want to explore how you can live a productive, healthy life as a gamer. I asked myself – how would my idealized self in Stardew Valley approach this problem?

And the answer I came up with was surprisingly simple. Sow seeds today in the hope that they may grow tomorrow. Build the community that you want to be a part of.

So here I am, writing my first article – the first seed of many in what I hope to grow into a catalogue of resources. I hope to build a community of people who want to discuss and explore the role that games play in a healthy and productive lifestyle. A community that exists to serve gamers who want to improve their lives. The idea behind SelfRespec is a simple one. You can be a healthy and productive person and you can play video games – those identities aren’t mutually exclusive. We can use games as the soil for growth.

The conversation around games needs to change, and I hope you join me on this journey. After all, Stardew is great as a single-player game, but everything’s way more fun to play co-op.