Modern Game, Ancient Message
How Ancient Aristotelian Values are portrayed in farming-sim Stardew Valley
The Ancients, understandably, had a unique understanding and value set associated with farming and agriculture. One such ancient to comment on agriculture was Cato the Elder, a 2nd Century BC Roman Statesman and orator. Cato wrote that “it is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected, their livelihood is most assured and is looked on with the least hostility, and those who are engaged in that pursuit are least inclined to be disaffected”(p3). In fact, Cato wrote an entire book, De Agricultura (On Agriculture), where he outlines the benefits of farming life as well as how to choose a farm to purchase, how to plant, how to take care of livestock, and more. These values even live today in what we call agrarianism or, as defined by Britannica, the belief that:
“When individuals attach themselves to farming and a rural way of life, the required labour enhances their existence. Family and locale are rooted, allowing stable associations to develop that enable people to experience, in a nonacquisitive way, the goods of a grounded community, including leisure, friendship, love, art, and religion”.
Aristotle, an Ancient Greek philosopher of the 4th century BC, wrote about agriculture, politics, happiness as well as many other topics. His ideas of “the good life” and happiness are some of the key influences behind agrarianism. He even writes in Politics, as highlighted by John S. Marshall, that while the ideal life would be one in perfect harmony with nature, living off of the surplus of nature and devoting one’s self to productive “leisure”; in actual life, farming is the closest one can get to the ideal, so long as the focus “after toil” is on the pursuit of Aristotelian happiness (p.350–352). But what exactly is Aristotelian happiness, and how is it utilized in the hit farming video game Stardew Valley?
Professor Edith Hall, of King’s College London, writes in her book Aristotle’s Way that:
“Evil abounds in the world. We all know, or hear about, people and groups who do seem to be addicted, or at least habituated, to committing bad acts and hurting others. But most of us remain passably convinced that a substantial proportion of human beings, if given sufficient basic resources not to be forced to be selfish in order to survive, enjoy being benevolent and socially interconnected. They feel good when they help people. Living cooperatively in association with other people, in families and communities, seems to be the natural desire and state of the human being. The hallmarks of an Aristotelian thinker are living in these social groups, thinking rationally, making moral choices, using wholesome pleasure as a guide to what is good, and fostering happiness in self and others.” (p.11)
This quote is critical to understanding Hall’s main argument as she works through Aristotle’s philosophy of happiness. Looking to the first part of this quote, what both Aristotle and Hall are arguing is that happiness and the “good life”, if you will, is chosen. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he writes extensively about this idea of choice when it comes to happiness, or in Aristotle’s terms “Virtue”. He claims that virtue, and thus happiness, is not something that one can glean from simply reading or learning, rather that it comes from choosing to act virtuously and that overtime, by habituation, one will become virtuous, or, to Hall, obtain a state of eudaimonia or “happiness of the soul”(p.25). This last part of Hall’s quote is where we see the actual actions to Aristotlian happiness, where Hall spends most of her time, and where we begin to see exactly what Stardew Valley is advocating.
“You’ve inherited your grandfather’s old farm plot in Stardew Valley. Armed with hand-me-down tools and a few coins, you set out to begin your new life. Can you learn to live off the land and turn these overgrown fields into a thriving home? It won’t be easy. Ever since Joja Corporation came to town, the old ways of life have all but disappeared. The community center, once the town’s most vibrant hub of activity, now lies in shambles. But the valley seems full of opportunity. With a little dedication, you might just be the one to restore Stardew Valley to greatness!”
Reads the official description of Stardew Valley, an Indie developed farming simulator with a pixelated, ‘retro’ vibe created by lone developer Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone. After 4 years of production, it was released on Steam (PC) in 2016. Since then it has sold more than 10 million copies world wide, even beating some AAA titles such as Battlefield V which only sold 7.3 million copies as of February 2019. But what is it about this game that made it so massively successful? Barone himself, in an interview with Jeffery Klaehn on blog site boingboing.com, when asked about how “the good life” is represented within Stardew Valley, states that “a good life involves self-actualization (finding [your] own purpose and fulfilling it), contributing positively to others (family, friends, community), and [being] a part of something… bigger than [yourself]”. This strikes exactly at the heart of Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia. Aristotle believes that the goal of human life is to obtain happiness which means “finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself”. He believes that “you are your own moral agent, but act in an interconnected world where partnerships with other people are of great significance” (Hall 23). Here there is an exact parallel between Barone and Aristotle’s values. Both focus on Purpose, Community, and Nature. This is why this game resonates to such a large audience (myself included). It is what people seek the most… happiness.
From the first cut-scene of the game Aristotle’s values are on display. After creating your avatar, you are taken to your dying grandfather who is lying in bed. He speaks to you and tells you he has a special gift for you, an envelope, but he urges you to have patience. He says that “there will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life… and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness. When that happens, my dear, you’ll be ready for this gift.” You are then shown working in a “Joja” office where the work never stops. You are indeed feeling crushed by modern life (as evident by the presence of a skeleton in the desk in front of you). You open the letter which reads that Grandpa has left the deed to his old farm in Stardew Valley where he escaped to when he lost sight of “what mattered most”: connections to others and to nature. We are once again back to Aristotle, the idea that community is a part of happiness and the ideal life of farming being a connection to nature. In fact, Grandpa doesn’t even refer to the farm as a farm, but rather a place. This idea of place is reiterated three times and draws further the idea that Stardew Valley is about community and the valley as a whole rather than solely your new farm. You see Stardew Valley is not just a game about farming. The game play itself utilizes farming as only a part of the game, but encourages exploration, building friendships with the community members (though it is through a point system, of which the problematic implications are explored in other works), and overall bettering yourself (through learning new skills and achieving the in-game goals you set for yourself). What I find particularly compelling however, is the freedom of choice that Stardew Valley allows the player to have.
In Stardew Valley you, the player, come across multiple dialogue options with various NPCs (non-player characters) in which you can choose what you want to “say” to these characters. These options, however, are not without consequence. Generally you have four options available with one response that the NPC likes, one they don’t, and two that have little effect one way or another. You also have the choice to repair the Community Center,“once the town’s most vibrant hub of activity”, or help out Joja Mart who then buys the old community center and converts it into a warehouse. You have the choice of what gifts to give NPCs and if you want to help fulfill any “Help Wanted” quests to help out anyone in dire need of that carp you caught (the requests from the community members can be quite hilarious). But the key is you get to make your own choices in regardless of morality. This idea of choice is crucial to Aristotle’s argument for happiness. Aristotle claims that if you want to be happy, you have to take responsibility not only for your actions but for your “failures to act” (Hall p.67). He also argues that “both goodness and badness are voluntary” therefore by choosing to do the morally right thing we can become habituated to doing right and therefore, thinking back to the original hall quote, think rationally and act morally to “foster happiness in our self and others”(p.11). Thus, it is key that you have choice in this game. In fact, if so desired, you could give all the characters the items they hate and never gain any relationships. You can help out Joja Mart, the monopoly-esque corporation that brought you to the valley in the first place, that is threatening the local small business owners in the name of progress. You can even choose to skip town interaction all together and create a farming empire that thrives off of ‘ancient fruit wine’. Yet, this is not a very satisfying way to play the game (I may have done a play through where I did just this😬), you loose the deep connections and story of the inhabits of Pelican town. You don’t get the satisfaction of working for each of those pesky community center bundles, and overall you loose out on the entire purpose for moving to Stardew Valley in the first place!
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself “I get it, Stardew Valley embodies Aristotle’s values of nature, community, and happiness… so what?” and I get it, Stardew Valley is just a video game…right? Well, as a rhetoric student I would be inclined to say no. As stated, Stardew Valley was, and still is, a massively successful video game with over 10 million copies sold to a worldwide audience. Stardew Valley has reached an enormous audience and with that it is important to think about how platforms advocate for, and, in the case of video games, persuade players of certain values and ideologies. I think it is especially important when considering the constant backlash that games such as GTA:V and the Call of Duty franchise have received in the past. Yet, with as much attention drawn to these two games (along with many other ‘violent’ games’) there is little thought put into how games like Stardew Valley, which are considered ‘good’ games still have a deep persuasive power over players. I found myself (after far more hours than I would like to admit) wanting to put down the controller and follow the advocated Aristotelian values. It is also important to understand where these values come from, as they have been deeply rooted into our society since ancient times.
I love Stardew Valley and agree with much of its philosophy, especially in a world plagued by pollution, deforestation, and lack of interpersonal relationships (amplified in recent years by social media, mental health, and the recent pandemic). But what is even more powerful to me, is how ancient values, such as Aristotle’s, are still relevant today and how new mediums, such as video games, invite us to engage with these values and ideas.