I have never been one for hobbies. I grew up glamorizing grind culture and believing that any activity I couldn’t put on a college application or resume was a waste of time. That changed when I came down with a virus at the age of 19, just three months after starting college. Now 23, I have developed several chronic illnesses that cause severe fatigue, pain, and cognitive dysfunction. Although I was able to finish my college degree, I have never been well enough to have a full-time job. While my peers have moved to big cities to launch their careers, I have watched via Facebook while laying in bed with my heating pad.
I’m not alone — in the US, only 19.1 percent of disabled people are employed, compared to 63.7 percent of non disabled people. We often don’t get to enjoy age-related milestones like college graduation, marriage, or the start of our careers like our non-chronically ill peers. Games like Stardew Valley can help fill that void.
“For those with chronic illness, we are limited in what we can do each day,” says Lucy, a 20 year old in Fort Worth, Texas. Lucy has been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory bowel condition. Although her disease is in remission thanks to medication, she still experiences nausea, abdominal pain, joint pain and fatigue. “Merely brushing our teeth, taking a shower, or other basic hygienic tasks can wear us out. In Stardew Valley, you have energy and can do all the physical tasks you can’t in real life. You have so many things to do and can expend all the energy you want with no real repercussions.”
Stardew provides a variety of goals and thus a sense of accomplishment, especially for chronically ill players. Short-term goals include completing community board requests, purchasing buildings like a barn or coop and upgrading your tools, while long-term goals include completing the community center, marrying an NPC and achieving the in-game defined perfection.
Each of these goals requires an array of laid back and high stakes tasks like farming, foraging, fishing, mining, combat, and befriending villagers. The player also has the opportunity to decorate their farm and farmhouse. Not only do these tasks offer a little bit of everything for everyone, but they also allow chronically ill players to choose tasks based on how they’re feeling that day. If I’m having a good day, I might take on skull caverns, but if I’m having a bad day, I might focus on decorating my farm instead.
“[Stardew] gives a feeling of normality as most have had to put things on hold in their lives, especially in the early days of diagnosis,” says Hani, a 21 year old in Cornwall, UK who has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism and B12 deficiency. Due to her health, she has had to take a year off from college and has limited employment opportunities.
Stardew also allows the player to be independent – something chronically ill people often don’t have the luxury of. In reality, tasks like getting out of bed, preparing meals or walking to the supermarket may be difficult or impossible for some chronically ill people. I have to depend on my husband to do the household chores, help care for our dog and go to the post office. But in Stardew, I can jump out of bed at 6 AM, water my crops and feed my animals, then spend my day in the mines collecting gems and slaying monsters. Even if I pass out from overexertion, I can reset the day and it will be as if it never happened. If I overexert myself in real life, I will be in an agonizing flare for days or weeks after.
“In real life, I sometimes feel like a burden to others by having limited energy and not being able to help out in the ‘typical ways’,” Lucy says. “Inside Stardew, I don’t have to depend on others and can do things all on my own.”
Even for chronically ill folks who don’t have the ability to play Stardew themselves, there is a vibrant online community of Stardew streamers and content creators like Fuzzireno, Therm and Wickedy. Viewers get the opportunity to watch others take on challenges or rival world record speed runs without having to worry about the energy drain and stress of doing so themselves.
Hani says, “It's like living a life within a game, and I think that can be so beneficial for so many people.” For chronically ill people, Stardew Valley is more than a source of entertainment. It’s a sense of normalcy.
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