A graduate school simulator
How playing Stardew Valley prepared me to move to MIT
Stardew Valley, the hit indie farm simulator, consumed much of my senior spring. While writing my thesis and finishing my coursework, I needed an opportunity to relax and focus on ANYTHING other than my mounting deadlines. The game, playable across multiple consoles, is a staple recommendation of the “cozy game” genre, occupying a similar niche to Animal Crossing. You play as a dissatisfied corporate employee who inherits their grandfather’s farm and leaves their dead-end job to become a farmer in quaint Pelican Town. Through tending the farm, befriending (and romancing) the townsfolk, and adventuring in the local mines, I found a wonderful way to spend my free time. Towards the end of the summer—and a couple hundred hours of gameplay later—I had become a very successful farmer, hitting many of the key achievements of the game. My farm was humming along, I’d renovated the community center, and was now exploring neighboring Ginger Island. I decided to start a new save file- mess with some of my settings, choosing new farming strategies, romancing different townsfolk. In short, despite my achievements, I started the game over from scratch. This fresh start coincided with my preparations for moving to Cambridge and starting grad school at MIT, and I could not help but notice some parallels.
Quests: plot-driven assignments that progress you through the game
The first few days of your life in Pelican Town are a bit overwhelming. You’ve been given a farm, but it’s gone entirely to seed, and it’ll take a lot of work to make it suitable for use. You also receive letters from your neighbors mixing warm welcomes with tasks, often with time limits or seasonal restrictions. These quests drive the plot of the video game, allowing you to level up and refurbish the town you live in. Cambridge life and preparing for MIT can also be seen through the lens of a quest. Most days when I wake up, there are emails in my inbox from my future neighbors and colleagues asking me to accomplish quests. In Pelican Town, these quests involve finding missing fruit baskets or learning to grow vegetables and delivering them to endearing townsfolk. My MIT tasks were more along the lines of gathering my medical records and submitting transcripts; these tasks, while important, were significantly more stressful and less charming.
The quests kept coming in. In addition to quests that further the gameplay, I now had a list of side quests–quests that do not necessarily further the story line, but enhance your experience of the game. While playing the video game, you can claim these optional quests by answering “help wanted” ads posted by villagers for small rewards, including increased friendship. I’ve been running around Cambridge, following a new and confusing map, registering to vote, getting a library card, and finding the best coffee. These tasks are not going to make or break my PhD. However, they help to situate me in the Cambridge and MIT communities, just as their equivalents in Stardew Valley do for Pelican Town.
Getting to know your neighbors
One of the first quests in Stardew Valley is introducing yourself to every character in town. It’s a bewildering process, guided by a map that is more about aesthetic than function, an imprecise understanding of business hours and schedules, and a fair amount of blind luck. Through several days of persistent effort, even a beginner can meet all of the faces in their new community. So far, the characters I’ve met at MIT are equally as welcoming as the average denizen of Pelican Town, if less pixelated. A list of names and website headshots have slowly transformed into roommates, administrative assistants, professors, and classmates. Some people have been harder to find than others, spending long hours in labs or preferring a different email address, just as some characters in Stardew Valley live in isolated areas or keep odd hours. As I become more familiar with some MIT characters, they’ll give me tips on making connections, suggesting I visit specific offices or introducing me to useful people. Through meeting people and making friends, I become more integrated into the community of both MIT and Pelican Town.
Leveling up: Getting good at the game and making longer-term choices
Initially, you’re pretty bad at farming. You start off with hand-me-down tools that require a significant amount of energy, a game mechanic that regulates how many actions you can take in a day. However, as you harvest crops and care for your farm animals, you gain points which eventually allow you to gain skill levels. Each skill level reduces the energy needed to complete any given action, but also gives you access to new items and eventually the option to advance your talents in particular areas. Will you focus on animals, and choose the rancher profession that boosts the value of your animal products? Will you make your processed goods worth more, or increase the speed at which your crops grow? Similar benefits and decisions appear for every skill in the game, ranging from fishing to combat. These choices are not restrictive (nothing stops a cheese specialist from growing vegetables), and can be changed even late in the game.
At MIT, as we settle into research groups and labs, we will learn skills and eventually commit to specializations. Our daily activities will become simpler with practice, and we will prioritize certain skills over others. As in the game, it is possible to change things down the line, move research groups, redirect thesis projects. The choices we make early in our degrees do not necessarily dictate a single path for success in graduate school, but they do influence the routes we take.
To a certain extent, the similarities between starting graduate school and starting a role playing video game are unavoidable. A video game about a major life change? Helping contextualize a real-world major life change? Revolutionary. However, Stardew Valley is clearly something you can improve at with time. The first few times I tried to engage in combat or plow an entire field, my character passed out almost immediately, but with time (and helpful research on the Stardew wiki) I could master it. With patience and effort, hopefully my PhD will be the same.
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