Stardew Valley: Food Production and Surplus Labour

So by now we’re pretty familiar with the notion of games that simulate jobs. There’s Euro Truck Simulator, where you pretend to be a long-haul driver, there’s Farm Manager and Farming Simulator – I’ve recently been playing Rover Mechanic Simulator, which I might write about soon – there’s a whole stack of them, and they all focus on this calm, repetitive rhythm, where you can just keep doing the same relatively basic thing ad infinitum.

And there’s a special place in that genre for Stardew Valley. Where other games have you simulate a range of different jobs (janitors, drivers, Mars rover technicians), Stardew brings you back to the job that’s arguably the most important: agriculture. Obviously the thing with Stardew is that it’s about a return to nature, where the simplicity of rural farm life is cast against the gray monotony of the big city. At the start of the game, you’re working an unfulfilling cubicle job, just one of a bunch of drones. You eventually ditch that life and take up residence on your grandfather’s farm. You can read that as a contrast between nature and civilization, between the rural and the urban, or between the authentic desired life and the slave-life of capitalism. You can also read it as a contrast between the agricultural foundations of civilization and the surplus that’s built on top of it.

In James Suzman’s Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, Suzman makes the point that our society is built on the labour that is surplus or not required for food production. You can’t have lawyers or stockbrokers or astronauts if there’s not enough food to go round, right. You start with everyone working the farms, and then once you’ve got enough labourers to make all the food you need – that’s when you can afford to have people going off and doing other things. In that sense, every achievement of the human race, every milestone of global civilization – it’s all predicated on having available labour beyond what we need for food production. In many ways, surplus labour is really important. It gives us our scientific discoveries and technological advances, it gives us art and music, education, entertainment, sports, the news ecosystem, the entire hospitality sector – just about everything is founded on the fact that we’ve got enough labourers in food production to allow people to do other things. But there are also obviously some issues with this surplus labour. Some people end up doing bullshit jobs. Some people get herded into poor, unsatisfying working conditions, where they make money for economic oligarchs and try and scrape a measly living. The worst excesses of capitalism feel like they stem from the fact of surplus labour. If Jeff Bezos was working in a field, we wouldn’t have to worry about the labour conditions of Amazon employees.

In Stardew Valley, then, the player isn’t just moving from the city to the country. They’re also moving away from surplus labour and into a more vital, meaningful industry, one that allows civilization to continue to exist. This relationship between food production and surplus labour puts a bit of a spin on our typical readings of Stardew – sometimes in ways that are predictable, and sometimes maybe less so. For example, one of the running jokes about Stardew is that it’s a video game about being out in nature. It’s all about how corporate city-life is bad and living naturally in the woods is great, and yet its players are whiling away hundreds of hours staring at their computer screen, sitting in their artificially lit apartments enjoying a simulacra of nature rather than going to the fucking beach. We can see the same basic tension in terms of food production and surplus labour. As a game, as an entertainment product, Stardew was created by people whose labour was surplus to our food production needs. And yet it expresses these themes of displeasure with being surplus. It’s a game made by surplus labour about the frustrations of being surplus labour and the desire to return to the more meaningful role of food production.

However – this is the curious part – Stardew also positions your food production as itself a type of surplus labour, refusing to attribute any consequences to your farming work and disconnecting you from the people who consume your produce. When you put your food in the box at the end of the day, it vanishes into a black hole. You can assume people are eating it, but you’ll never see them, and if you refuse or fail to produce food there are no negative consequences. Nobody starves or dies. Your labour isn’t important: it’s still just surplus. To some extent that’s the point: the game is a fantasy. You don’t want to be important, you want to relax and pretend to do some farming. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se – but it does offer us a different perspective on Joja Corp.

Joja Corporation is the game’s stand-in for the soulless corporate sector. You’re working for them at the start of the game, and after you quit and move to Pelican Town, you find they have a presence with their supermarket chain, JojaMart. Within the context of the fantasy, they represent everything you hate about your actual job. They’re evil and bad, and you have to kick them out of town before they ruin everything. Fight off the dirty corporates, defend local businesses, and enjoy your beautiful farm. However, from the perspective of food production and surplus labour, supermarkets on the whole are pretty beneficial. They make the consumer-end of food production cheap and accessible, and have a relatively low labour requirement. For example, having food pre-packaged and sitting on the shelf means you can just walk in and grab it, rather than needing a shop assistant to bag you up your two hundred grams of spaghetti. Supermarkets lower the amount of labour needed to produce and distribute food, creating more surplus labour within society, which in turn (at least in theory) can be used for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that Joja Corp are secretly good. The point is that in Stardew Valley, both JojaMart and Pierre’s General Store are important to the actual structure of Pelican Town’s food production, and you’re not. It’s easy to hate JojaMart as the evil corporate baddies, but the tension of Stardew Valley is that your easy, consequence-free food production fantasy, your status as surplus farm LARPer, depends on the very efficient functioning of companies like Joja. You can hate them all you like, but they create the conditions for the fantasy you’re enjoying – both within the fiction and without. They’re the reason why you’re not responsible for food production, why you’re not out working on a farm with actual lives at stake – again, both inside the fiction and out of it.

And again, none of this is to say that Stardew is bad, or that corporations are magically good or above criticism. It’s just acknowledging the tension of spending hundreds of hours with an entertainment product where you pretend to be involved in this crucial, core part of civilization, all the while slagging off companies that actually do the thing you’re pretending to do, and who, by their actions, create the environment whereby it’s possible for you to spend hundreds of hours with that game in the first place. I want to be really clear: this is not a pro-capitalist argument. The conflict that Stardew depicts, between corporate soul-sucking office work and meaningful, satisfying labour, is important. But it’s hard to have a criticism that exists outside of the system it’s criticizing. Stardew is aspirational, in that it encourages players to reach for an experience that it ultimately can’t deliver. It points towards something utopian, towards something hopeful and good, even though it’s so bogged down in the conditions of its own production as to seriously endanger the integrity of the vision that it’s trying to articulate. It’s a fantasy, and that fantasy has some hard limits, even as it inspires us to dream.

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