Call for Comments: The Rhetoric of Digital Farming, Anti-Capitalism, and Talking Jellybeans

From Katya: Eric Barone and Chucklefish recently released the popular farm simulator, Stardew Valley, to iOS. The game draws heavily on Harvest Moon, allowing players to grow crops, care for animals, fish, befriend and even marry townsfolk. Having missed the farm sim. craze train (multiple times, in fact), and coming down with a nasty flu the week of the release, I forked over my $8 and— pleasing my inner Transcendentalist— started Walden Farm.

Again, having missed the farming train (or tractor?) I was surprised by the corporatization subplot which, apparently, is a common theme in the genre. The game is framed by the player character fleeing their corporate,–presumably urban– job a Joja Co. for the agrarian life of the farm, a literal return to the past enabled by the your digital grandfather leaving you a plot
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Sample farm

of land. Joja Co. doesn’t disappear, however, instead they operate on the outskirts of town, undercutting the local market, stealing customers, and slowly sapping at the life of the community. If the player buys a membership to the Joja shop, the local community center is condemned and turned into a warehouse allowing players to pay large sums of money to unlock new areas of the game.

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Community center pre-revitalization and a Junimo, tiny gumdrop forest spirit)

If the player, however, rejects the Joja route they are able to unlock all the same perks by completing various bundles of items— including farmed goods, minerals, fish, and other objects from the surrounding area— and offering them to little forest spirits (who look like small candies with limbs and are unsurprisingly my favorite. Who doesn’t want an anti-capitalist sentient jelly bean in their lives?) Completing bundles eventually returns the community center to its former glory and edges Joja out of the town.

Barone isn’t shy about the fact that he wanted to include social messages in his game and many of his design choices reflect his desire to improve upon the messaging in Harvest Moon and similar games. For example, though the seasons change and years pass there is no time limit on how long you can work your farm like other games. Players can go about the various quests or collections— or not— at their leisure rather than being pressured toward efficiency in the name of completion. Animals also don’t die if you forget to feed them (or run out of hay), they just stop producing, and you can’t slaughter them at all. In fact, it appears that the entire town is pescatarian.
This is an example of what digital media scholar Ian Bogost calls procedural rhetoric. In “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” Bogost writes that “Procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes.” It entails both persuasion, changing an opinion or action, and expression, the effective communication of ideas. It’s “arguments” are made through rules— not images as in film or words as in literature— which determine behavior. For Bogost, this goes to the very hardware and code supporting digital texts like video games. In short, procedural rhetoric uses rules to shape user action in ways that are expressive and persuasive. Another way to think of it is action itself as rhetoric or argument.
The corporate subplot of Stardew Valley, for instance allows players to experience in a simplified way the impact of big business on local communities. If the player supports Joja, the town isn’t destroyed, per se, but its community identity, symbolized by the community center, is converted into a tool of capital: a warehouse. That the community center is revitalized by the forest spirits as a reward for tending the land suggests a correlation between caring for the environment and the community while the accumulation of wealth or pursuit of inexpensive goods comes at a substantial cost.
Ian Bogost actually introduces the concept of procedural rhetoric using a very similar game,  Animal Crossing (another of Barone’s inspirations.) He writes that the game, in addition to letting you befriend cute cartoon Animals, is also a critique of modern consumer capitalism for many of the same reasons as Stardew Valley. He writes,
Animal Crossing simulates the social dynamics of a small town, complete with the material demands of keeping up with the Joneses. As such, the game serves as a sandbox for experimenting with the ways one can recombine personal wealth… Animal Crossing is also a game about long-term debt. It is a game about the repetition of mundane work necessary to support contemporary material property ideals. It is a game about the bittersweet consequences of acquiring goods and keeping up with the Joneses. Animal Crossing accomplishes this feat not through moralistic regulation, but by creating a model of commerce and debt in which the player can experience and discover such consequences. In its model, the game simplifies the real world in order to draw attention to relevant aspects of that world.”
Now, I am on board with the general premise of procedural rhetoric and we’ve talked around the idea on the show multiple times but I’m skeptical of its accessibility, or at least its inevitability. In his analysis of Animal Crossing, Bogost claims that his 5 year old is getting the critique of capitalism as he plays the game. I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment. We definitely get messages from media, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, regardless of our age however, in order to get to the critique of capitalism from Animal Crossing Bogost deploys a lot of rather sophisticated analysis that isn’t necessarily the inclination of the average player— or the average five year old.
While I definitely want to geek out on some farm sims. and their weird agrarian appeal despite being in very non-agrarian media form (please someone ask me to wax poetic nerdery about Walden, a game) I’m also interested in this more general questions of the transmission of messages through entertainment. When we’re watching a film or playing a game for fun (and when the “we” in questions isn’t a giant nerd-scholar) are we likely to get these underlying meanings? Are they being considered subconsciously? At all? Do we recognize their depth of meaning— particularly texts we encounter as children— only in retrospect after we’ve been taught to think of texts in a critical way?

2 Replies to “Call for Comments: The Rhetoric of Digital Farming, Anti-Capitalism, and Talking Jellybeans”

  1. Animal Crossing is interesting to me, because Tom Nook has really taken this evolution over the years of being this like… “Tom Nook is going to send someone over to break your legs if you miss a loan payment” type mobster to more of this like… nice grandpa kind of figure? At least in the fandom circles. Maybe it’s because he switched to that dapper looking sweater or because his nephews work at his store and it’s more like family owned ma & pa shop now (even though it eventually becomes a department store in most games.)

    It’s definitely a game about keeping up with the Joneses, but what’s neat is that this is all player driven… everyone is just showing off their homes and decorations and such via the Internet but the game itself gives you a vast amount of freedom on what you could be doing. You could just live in a little shack the entire time and focus your efforts on gardening or digging up fossils and fishing/bug catching or whatever floats your boat entirely ignoring the “accumulate debt and build a fancy house with expensive furniture” aspects of the game.

    As for Stardew Valley, I’m not sure if your average player would pick up on those things, and I think a large part of that has to do with game mechanics. Bioshock is an example I may have brought up in the comments in the past. It enforces that “are you good or bad” morality/karma system based off whether you harvest ADAM from the little sisters. Harvesting grants instant gratification/reward, saving them results in larger rewards and exclusive gifts as the game goes on. There’s not a strong argument, game mechanics wise, for harvesting the sisters and so any real “moral dilemma” ceases to exist. That kind of feels like what you’re saying with Stardew Valley. If you can get all the same rewards by just putting in a little elbow grease as you would just allowing the corporation to take an influence over your town, then is there really a reason to allow them to do so? Is that the intended message of the game’s narrative or the gameplay trying to appease people who want to do “the right thing” and not lock them out of content.

    I’m not sure what the answer is. I’ve been toying with a game story/design myself, which will probably never get off the ground that had a similar moral quandary. I’d really like to see games approach this stuff more, and present players with choices that have a greater impact. But, either way, I think a LOT of players (even knowing the choices present and the story) may only focus on the gameplay aspects and ignore all the trappings around them.

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