Gaming trends

China’s disaffected urban youth find meaning by chopping wood, growing vegetables on a video game

Nostalgic Stardew Valley has struck a chord with the young people in China’s metropolises.

People today seem to have nostalgia for villages that no longer exist, as ever increasing numbers of us move to cities. The release of the American, indie, farming game Stardew Valley (recently released in Chinese) shows that sentiment expressed in computerised form.

In this virtual setting, the protagonist quits the bustle of the city for a simple life on the farm. It’s an idea that strikes a chord with young people in China’s metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Urban focus

As a form of media, video games have tended to overlook rural life. There are few that are set in villages and when they are featured, it is usually as a flimsy backdrop, with any cultural significance hollowed out.

The language of games is urban. The stories they tell are set in cities and are based around the jobs, relationships and lifestyles of people living in them. Villages are seen as subordinate and either ignored altogether or made into battlefields, ruins or extensions of the city.

Villages then are seen as unimportant, unsafe and as places to flee, whereas cities are flourishing hubs that offer safety and hope.

Stardew Valley manages to rebel against this city-centricity of the video game industry. Set on a dilapidated farm taken once owned by the player’s grandfather, it challenges the assumption that urban life means “progress”; and rejects it for its association with exploitation, alienation, and oppression. Meanwhile village life is affirmed as humane, warm, and nurturing of the individual. The downshifting protagonist tills his fields, plants seeds, and harvests happiness.

Rural life idealised

The game’s opening portrays you, the player, as an average urban worker, monitored by the powerful and spending your time either in a state of work or rest.

As one small cog in a huge machine you come to realise the true nature of urban living and working, which is characterised by alienation. But one day you inherit your grandfather’s farm and decide to end your suffering and go in search of joy.

You quit the city for a small home by the sea, where you farm, fell wood, mine, fish, raise livestock and trade, allocating your labour as you see necessary. And as you do so, you discover the warmth you lacked for so long. Your neighbours are friendly and help you settle into your new life and occasionally present you with gifts of their own produce. Over time your soul heals and you decide to settle, start a family and enjoy a happy rural life.

A letter from your grandfather explains the Stardew Valley philosophy: when modern life is suffocating you, find the real meaning of life in the village. This is the alternative mode of living that the game presents, painting a warm, romantic portrait of rural life.

But reality is not that simple. In The Country and the City in the Modern Novel, author Raymond Henry Williams points out that literature tends to beautify pastoral life. But the picturesque villages are themselves products of romanticism and nostalgia, betraying the overly simplistic thinking of society. In reality, powerful interested and capital have always roamed at will between city and village.

The game’s developer is acutely aware of the potential crises facing modern villages and communicates this to the player. Urban capitalists, such as the “Joja Company”, are at work in the village threatening the way of life.

Two different ideologies are at war, and we must choose between them. An urbanised village means an easier life, but is also one that pollutes the environment and the locals’ souls. A bucolic farming community means back-breaking toil but also contentment.

Interestingly, Stardew Valley’s development was itself a reaction against corporate efficiency-driven methods of working in favour of artisanship. The game was designed, programmed, drawn and scored by a young Seattle man, Eric Barone, who worked on it for over ten hours a day for four years. And what appears on your screen is not dazzling 3D effects but low-resolution graphics more redolent of an 8-bit Nintendo.

More than a game

Stardew Valley’s narrative clearly reflects the author’s own thinking. Barone, a programmer working in the city, took his views about urban life and designed a game around these to communicate his ideas to others.

We can infer that the author reflected his views of the relationship between city and country into the game as an attempt to imbue it with a social function. During the game players must make choices, turning the developer’s cues into action. The fundamental question is how to take that understanding and turn it into a set of real-life actions.

Games are a virtual extension of ourselves, in which the player moves and achieves some goal in a virtual world. Meanwhile we are unconscious of our actual bodies which are, arguably, less under our control.

Stardew Valley provides what might be an imaginary rural experience that lacks the complexity of reality. Such inadequately “real” experiences could be dangerous.

Playing a game doesn’t mean you really understand rural life or what that experience entails. Perhaps all it does is create or strengthen a lack of coordination between mind and body, the perceived and the physical.

Barone set out to design a game and raise issues. Perhaps Stardew Valley’s real significance comes when the game finishes; and the player turns off the power and walks into the countryside to accept what nature has to offer, taking real action to combat capitalism’s attempts to separate us from it. Perhaps that is the real significance of Stardew Valley.

This article first appeared on The ThirdPole.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.