I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley lately. The pixel-graphics farm RPG has enjoyed a one-year anniversary this past Feb. 26, but mostly I’ve found the game to be a bit of an escape as Syracuse’s nickel grey March and school’s looming deadlines deepen a seasonal depression.
For those of you who have not played Stardew Valley, the plot is simple. Inheriting your grandfather’s rustic farm in the bucolic Stardew Valley, you start with some lose coins and tools and gradually nurture the farm back to health, interacting with the community and the surrounding countryside–from mysterious woods, to mines, to the ocean–as you plant and harvest seeds, forage, mine, and care for animals. Like any RPG, you level up your skills, from crafting and combat, and build relationships with NPCs by giving gifts and completing small quests. The player can eventually get married and raise a family.
The game has some overlap with the Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing series, placing the player as a caretaker enmeshed in a community. The simple music, pixel graphics, and winsome, quirky cut-scenes have their charm, and while the mechanics can get a bit grind-inducing (depending on one’s style and goals), the rhythm of rising, getting set for the day, working, and heading to sleep is a calming metronome that structures your daily actions, whether attending a community celebration, fighting “Slimes” in the mine, or simply fishing away a few hours.
More deeply, though, I kept coming back to what Stardew Valley teaches about Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), especially his notion of sorge, or “caring,” as it’s often translated.
Heidegger and Sorge
Heidegger saw human beings as inevitably entangled and situated in the world of language, material, and fellow people, a state translated as “being-in-the-world-with-others.” As the philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, there is no “view from nowhere,” but we must always understand our being in terms of the ever-situated, enworlded way that it takes place.
Here, sorge, or “care,” comes in. As rhetorician Thomas Rickert writes in Ambient Rhetoric, “for Heidegger, to have a world is also to be invested in that world, to have a full range of interests, cares and concerns emerging with our encounters.” (13). “The world,” more a series of relations than a place, informs and drives our day-to-day and grounds our basic concepts. We do not exist in a world, but are part of it, caught up with our concern for the relations that comprise it. This, though somewhat simplified, is Sorge. As Heidegger writes, “Being-in-the-world has always dispersed itself or even split itself up into definite ways of Being-in. The multiplicity of these is indicated by the following examples: having to do with something, producing something, attending to something and looking after it, making use of something, giving something up and letting it go” (H 56).
In other words, our being-in-the-world is largely defined by how we interact with the world, “producing something” or “attending to something” just being some ways that we do this. Here, we see why the existentialists drew from Heidegger, as our actions are central to our being. But I think Heidegger’s focus is on a different direction, and it’s what Stardew Valley helps one understand: our relationship to the world.
Sorge and Stardew Valley
At its most basic, Heidegger forces us to look at our individual being in terms of its permeability and interconnected nature. On the one hand, we shape our being through our care or concern with the world, and on the other, we are shaped by how this world interacts with us.
Heidegger and those influenced by his thought recognize that though we may feel like individuals, we are not. We are always in relation with others.
In Stardew Valley, the mechanics reflect this. Early on, one must get to know the town, and their own happiness becomes central to your own concerns. One can either help restore the dilapidated Community Center, for example, rebuffing the corporate encroachment of JoJaMart, or join JoJaMart and aid its takeover. Your choices affect the population as you cultivate the town through your friendships, your donations, your aid, your decision to rebuild the Center, etc.
Later Heidegger often comes back to increasingly rural metaphors, arguing that we must “cultivate” or “shepherd” Being and not try to “enframe” it through a sort of despotism. On the one hand, this shows his pastoral sensibilities, but it also highlights the ideal approach to how we ought to care and inhabit our world.
Similarly, in Stardew Valley, We are not meant to impose our will as some rugged individual, which so many games idolize. We are meant to make a home, literally and in a larger sense, cultivating our farm and our community. Even the combat is often framed as an ethical responsibility, with the Mayor thanking you for keeping the town safe. One is not without ambition in Stardew Valley, though. Like The Sims, the joy of getting a better homestead is strong, but such “progress” is always in relation to the town.
Furthermore, in Stardew, your being-in-the-world involves weather, seasons, and what the earth delivers. You’re not only entangled with the people of Stardew; you are also entangled with the valley itself, its land and moods. Later Heidegger especially stresses the role of “sky” and “earth” in our own being.
As Stardew Valley shows, recognizing how our being aligns with others and the world does not minimize our sense of self, but it sees that self as a nest of cares and hopes, both our own and others’, dispersed and entangled through interrelation. In a world increasingly centered on the individual, where we may feel alienated from our immediate community, our country, our landscapes, our cultures, and more–Stardew Valley reminds us that, as John Donne put it, “No man is an Island.”