How Do Farming Sims Count As Games?
Great question. When people think of sitting down to play a ‘game’ or even when they describe themselves as ‘gamers’, rarely are they ever referring to farming sims. The genre is often pigeonholed as lazily-designed mobile games at worst, and a slightly more interactive visual novel at best. When trying to judge the gameplay elements of a genre that intentionally avoids all of the most appealing types of gameplay, it’s really easy to focus on what farming sims don’t have. However, I would argue that it’s what farming sims do have that sets them apart from most other genres, and is even the reason that they’ll have more longevity in the face of an ever-changing gaming market.
As a quick, stuffy definition to make me seem like an authority on this subject (which I like to think I am due to the literal months of time I’ve dedicated to playing every farming sim known to man),
Farming Simulator is a farming simulation video game series developed by Giants Software and published by Focus Home Intera —
Wait. No, I’m not talking about the Farming Simulator series, I mean the genre of ‘farming sim’. While this genre is a misnomer, there is a stark difference between a true-to-form farming simulation experience versus an immersive, slice-of-life simulator that teaches the player how to interact with their world by using farming as gameplay. Unfortunately, that doesn’t roll off the tongue very well. The type of game genre I’m referring to is one that
allow[s] players to simulate life… [t]hey are then tasked with controlling everything from job attendance to bathroom breaks. You are there every step of the way along with the characters’ lives.
— The Evolution of Video Game Genres (01/26/20)
This genre is called “Life Sim” by most major game developers, so by a technicality, it counts as a game just as Rainbow 6 Siege counts as a high-stakes team-building simulator. Not quite on the nose, but in essence captures the goal of the game. I want to point out that “Farming Sim” doesn’t quite meet the cut for official video game genres, but I think it’s an important sub-genre that has so much protentional value in shaping their player’s personality and mindset, just as much as any popular MMO will.
Harvest Moon is Basically My Personality Now
It’s not a secret that the media you consume as a child shapes your tastes and preferences, and often times will trickle its way into your personality, if only in trace amounts.
Playing Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life for 9 hours a day for 7 months straight in 5th grade probably wasn’t the best use of my time, I’ll be the first to admit that. But what about that game kept me so engaged for so long as a 10-year-old? The older I get, the more amazed I am at the immersive gameplay mechanics from the aging system (which allows you to start the game as a young character, grow, get married, have a child, and then have an active role in your own child’s life in the town!) to the beautiful graphics of a peaceful town with residents that all have diverse personalities, but at their core, only want the best for Forget-Me-Knot-Valley. When I played, I became a resident too, and I was welcomed into their small little family.
That’s the heart of farming sims. They teach their players how to care about what their doing, while having countless short and long term goals to continue motivating them along the way. It’s not an accident that the longer you continue playing a story line in farming sims, the less physically tangible the goals become and the more emotionally engaging the stakes are. If I started out worrying that my corn won’t grow in time for the festival and I can’t take the first place prize, I’ll spend the entire year in-game working on perfecting my craft. During that year, I make new friends, learn new recipes, and maybe find out the secret to winning the festival harvest contest. Then, by next year, winning the harvest festival means more than it did only a few hours or days ago. This is by design. The “gameplay” mechanic of farming sims, is your own emotional investment.
Why Should I Care About Modern Farming Sims if Harvest Moon is Already Perfection?
I ask myself this every day. But then, I’ll see new advertisements for new sims, all with a different twist on the art that Harvest Moon created. What comes to mind initially is Stardew Valley, with it’s new integration of actual (if limited) combat integrated into the classic life sim on a rural farm. Then, you get subversions of this trope with games like Graveyard Keeper, where the ‘farm’ is replaced with a more macabre graveyard, and your tasks evolve into much more self aware parodies of typical tasks the genre throws at you. Regardless of how these more modern spins change the expectations, these games all bring the player on a similar emotional journey where in order to “win” the game, the player’s emotional investment is absolutely required.
While I have endless appreciation for these games, what I hope to come out of this trend is not more of these copies or parodies. Being able to play any of these games for 100+ hours is not just a quirk they accidentally have in common, it’s a requirement for these genres. That level of personal dedication and self motivation to continue on, even when the players logs on to a slurry of tasks and complicated life management is the point of these games. Quick, auto-generating or efficiency simulators (any coffee capitalist mobile games you can think of, and the like) are useful in their own right for managing anxiety and stress, but only because they encourage your brain to turn off and just go on auto-pilot.
The true-to-form farming sim requires your full presence and attention in order to be effective. In order to feel pride and accomplishment, it only asks you to find the motivation within yourself to keep going, simply because you want to. There’s no cheat or automation that can get you to finish line faster, because the finish line doesn’t exist. The focus is on the friendships, fun lessons, and interesting history you find in your little farm town by divulging in your natural curiosity. Taking a moment to engage in the world around you, and then being rewarded in the form of positive social interaction and growing your relationship with a character based on your own motivation is so, so valuable in modern gaming.
This is Where I Stop Talking Now!
I’ve said my peace on why I love these games and how important I think they are to shaping players’ mindsets and motivations. I would encourage anyone reading this to search the genre and find a game that they think is interesting and just allow yourself to get completely, entirely immersed in the story or the gameplay. The human-ness of these games really starts to show once you allow yourself to take the bait and play along.
I’m including a list of some of the best farming sims that are available now for modern PCs and consoles. I hope that even at least one person tries these out, and maybe finds some value in these stories. I know I did.