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Coziness, control, and crops: Farming simulators are the ultimate escapism

Stardew Valley, a 2016 indie game that places the player into the role of a farmer after they inherit a farm from their grandfather, has become one of the most popular and influential games over the last few years — with that influence impacting the indie space and major companies like Nintendo. Offering players the chance to “create the farm of [their] dreams”, the game’s polished farming system and open-ended story has earned the game a lot of well-earned love. So much so, that as of March 2022, 20 million copies of Stardew Valley have sold across all platforms.

The success of Stardew Valley certainly stands as a great reminder of just how popular farming games can be, and have been, even for titles where farming may just be one aspect of the larger game. And with a number of farming games set to be released in the next few years, including Square Enix’s Harvestella and indie title PuffPals: Island Skies, a question comes to mind in the wake of Stardew Valley’s popularity. What exactly is behind farming games’ continuous staying power?

HARVESTELLA – Announce Trailer

To answer this question, I spoke with a handful of passionate players (and even people in the agriculture space) to get a better understanding of what stands out to them as the major draws of farming games — a genre that lets players take full control over their digital world.

A slower pace of play

From franchises like Farming Simulator that present a very real-world farming experience to titles like Stardew Valley that blend farming gameplay into an RPG story, the gamut of the farming genre is pretty wide and varied in what it can offer to players.

These games offer players the chance to have total control over their own farm, often at a slower pace of play. This includes crop selection, harvesting, animal care, dealing with changing weather patterns, and oftentimes collecting various materials like plants, metals, and more to use in crafting. Depending on the game, there may also be social and adventure elements mixed in too.

A farm in Stardew Valley.

Kermit Ball, community coordinator for Giants Software, shared that its series Farming Simulator offers its large player base a calming and easy-to-get-lost style of gameplay where players are regularly sinking “hundreds and thousands of hours of play” into their game.

“You can relax and chat with friends while playing, but you can also never run out of tasks,” Ball tells Digital Trends. “So many people talk about the calming nature of just working away at your fields. It’s a game you can truly get lost in. You start playing and working on your fields while listening to the sounds of farm equipment and nature combined and it kind of chills you out, then hours pass by without you even noticing.”

Farming games lend themselves more to the player finding their own definition of success than any other genre.

The slower pace of play stood out among my conversations as being an important draw, both for serving as initial interest in a game and as a factor that kept players coming back. For Peter (who preferred not to share his last name), a former Twitch streamer, the slower pace in farming games is a big draw for him on an individual level.

“The pace is a lot slower than combat-oriented games, which I find makes the gameplay focus more on learning and exploration,” Peter tells Digital Trends. “There’s more of an opportunity to focus on aesthetics over functionality, if that’s your thing, and less of a pressure to rush to become the most powerful, or richest, or whatever the measurement for “end game success” is, without preventing speed runners or players who like that gameplay from choosing that route. In fact, I think farming games lend themselves more to the player finding their own definition of success than any other genre, which in turn makes them excellent for unwinding from day-to-day stress.”

Non-violence and simpler goals

Video games in general are often described as a form of escapism — from everyday life, stress, work, and everything in between. That escapism looks different across video games, easily found in the stories players experience to the different types of gameplay mechanics that one enjoys the most.

The escapism of the non-violence is a joy.

For Leigh (who preferred not to share their last name), a player from Indiana, the non-violent gameplay and simple goals to be found in most farming games go hand-in-hand for them.

“The escapism of the non-violence is a joy,” Leigh tells Digital Trends. “I spend all day reading the news and it’s nothing but death and terror and outright violence so it’s nice to escape to my tiny little farm that I can make look however I want or produce whatever I want and not have to worry about gathering bullets or something. (Not to say that there isn’t a battle aspect to Stardew Valley but it’s never the main focus of the game, just something ancillary.).”

Non-violent gameplay has certainly seen its fair share of the spotlight in recent years, with 33% of games that were shown at E3 and Summer Game Fest in 2021 being combat-free. Talk of non-violent games continuously pops up online as well, including in entire Reddit threads dedicated to the discussion and recommendation of such titles. Non-violent games, like many of the farming titles out there, often gel nicely with simpler goals that players find within farming games.

Farming Simulator 20

Easily achievable goals, such as watering crops, taking care of livestock, and even interacting with NPC characters in-game, also keep Leigh and other players coming back to games like Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, and even The Sims 4 expansion pack Cottage Living.

“A friend of mine and I have a farm on Stardew Valley with over 100 hours on it and he and I discuss this aspect [easily achievable goals] a lot while playing,” Leigh says. “You can decide, ‘Right, today on the farm, I want to pet all of the cows and I want to check on my preserve jars and I want to water my crops.’ And just like that, you have a to-do list that is achievable, which when dealing with unending piles of work and chores in real life, it’s nice to be able to sit down and actually accomplish something.”

Achievability paired with non-violent gameplay makes for a simplistic and idyllic experience in many farming games. Compared to faster-paced titles where you may be faced with a sprawling open world, numerous missions, and a more focused storyline, farming games certainly have much to offer to players who are looking for a slower style of play — even the chance to have control over what basic tasks they want to take on.

In Stardew Valley, for example, you might base your daily tasks around the different weather. If it’s raining, you don’t have to worry about watering any of your crops that day which leaves you with more time and energy to devote to other tasks like taking care of your livestock, going mining, planting, or even interacting with the town residents. But if it’s a sunny day out, you can take the time to water and care for your crops before moving on to other things you want to get done that day.

“These games allow players to have creative freedom over mundane aspects of life, which, during a pandemic where your life feels completely out of control no matter what you do, it’s comforting to be able to control something even if it is just a pixel-farmer petting his sheep,” Leigh says.

The creative control of farming

There was one group that I was especially interested in speaking with as I dug into farming games: those who actually work within the real-world agricultural space. And through a conversation I had with Chip Carter, producer and host of Where The Food Comes From, one last key ingredient of the farming genre came to be a little clearer — the creative control that players have over their ideal farm, from the crops they want to grow all the way to the ability to ensure that a harvest is successful.

Crops appear in a farm in Harvestella.

“Even farmers who play farming games I think do so because they can eliminate all of the real world imperfections,” Carter tells Digital Trends. “So we all have this mental picture of Farmer Brown on a tractor, and he has some peas over here, and some carrots next to that, and some potatoes across the row — in the real world, that literally never happens. Occasionally we run across a true family farm where they’re growing a little bit of everything. But the reality is, as you travel, you start to see what grows best in any particular area, and realize that commercially, that’s all that’s grown there. There are spots in the Everglades where you will come upon hundreds of acres of farms growing nothing but bell peppers. Twenty miles down the road, they’re growing nothing but squash.”

“Farming games speak to our sense of the past, and the comfort we take from that — Farmer Brown is on his farm, the crop’s all planted, he’s sitting on the porch having a cool drink and taking it all in. It’s not that way, really, but that’s the mythos, and we’re all comfortable buying into it.”

That creative control that allows players to do away with real-world obstacles and imperfections that farmers face (such as a change in seasons, drought, or an underperforming crop) lays out a blank canvas of sorts to approach farming in whatever way they’d like to. Tie that in with the slower pace of play and non-violent mechanics that players also find so engaging and it’s easy to see why farming games have such widespread appeal, whether the farming mechanics are highly realistic or more fantastical in nature.

Every farming game I’ve played and enjoyed has started with that same familiar loop that feels like putting on a pair of fuzzy slippers on a cold winter day.

Even just a cursory search of farming simulators on Steam reveals 157 titles (as of July 27, 2022) as upcoming, all with a farming element of some sort that lets players pursue their own goals in the virtual fields. Farming, which can be considered an imperfect art in a real-world setting, lends itself to a unique style of gameplay that blends all the elements players enjoy into a creative experience. It’s almost like a zen garden of sorts, as Carter put it, ripe for creating the perfect farm.

The perfect farm that players can aim for and the overall creativity to be found in these titles really stands at the core of what players find appealing — even as they dive into titles that have differences in the farming mechanics themselves.

And as Peter said best, those differences still leave him and others with a sense of familiarity. “The farming aspects are definitely core to the enjoyment for me, yes. Different titles have different spins on them, and some have unique elements that work a little better than others, but pretty much every farming game I’ve played and enjoyed has started with that same familiar loop that feels like putting on a pair of fuzzy slippers on a cold winter day.”

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