Until recently, I never played farming-themed video games. The closest I ever came to it was basically growing berries in Pokemon. Ever since I began to play the 2014 Story of Seasons for the 3DS (previously known as Harvest Moon), however, I think I’ve come to understand the appeal of farming simulators, and to whom they hold the greatest attraction.
The first thing I noticed is how much there is to keep track of. You’re quickly told about different plants, traders arriving on certain dates, certain items being more valuable in different seasons, birthdays, all while trying to make sure you’re watering your crops and feeding your livestock. Thankfully, the game is not based on a real clock and therefore does not require you to perform chores based on time in the real world—something that was a pain in some Pokemon entries. What’s more, balancing the crops you eat to survive vs. the crops you sell seems tricky, and makes me wonder how actual farmers find that sweet spot.
Being as successful as possible requires not only intimate knowledge of the game’s farming mechanics, but also diligence and the ability to plan far in advance. In other words, farming as a game is ideal for people who thrive on creating and maintaining a schedule, and excel in efficiency. While the farming setting is fairly laid back and I’m not sure it’s possible to squeeze every last second for all it’s worth, proper planning is the domain of virtual agriculture.
The topic of farming games brings to mind the deadly specter that is the dubious “king” of the genre, Farmville. As once the most notorious of the Facebook social games out there, Farmville has been criticized harshly for basically exploiting its player base by both getting them addicted to the constant need to pay attention to the game, and for bilking them of their money by making the experience one that relies on negative reinforcement. However, I think that this does not necessarily apply to all farming-themed games, and a comparison to Story of Seasons shows the difference between a game where managing the ins and outs of a farm can be a positive and enriching experience, and one that leads down a long, dark path.
In Story of Seasons, as you get better at the game, you are not only able to do more, but there’s a greater sense of efficiency. By playing as best as you can, you spend the least amount of time necessary on a given task. Alternatively, you spend as much time as is enjoyable for you. In Farmville, however, the main function of the gameplay is to be a “time waster,” not just in the sense that it’s something you do in your free time, but that the game keeps its players glued to the screen for as many hours as possible. One rewards you for playing more by allowing you to do more, the other punishes you for not putting in as many hours as everyone else.
The Farmvilles of the world can go to hell, for they show how the fun of a genre can be corrupted, but perhaps they can lead people back to less exploitative examples. I get the charm of farming games as a kind of stress relief by way of meticulous micromanagement. I feel a simple joy in seeing my turnips fully grown and ready to be picked, and thinking about how to best use them is its own interesting strategy. There are elements that I wish were more automated, but even that brings its own strange catharsis. It’s as if stress and relaxation are balanced on a knife’s edge, a feeling I imagine might also come from a real farm.
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