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Understanding Autism Through Stardew Valley

by Elise Favis on Apr 28, 2016 at 10:30 AM

A sense of relief pours over me as I set my day in motion in Stardew Valley. I wake up from bed at the call of the rooster, tend my crops, and bustle around completing my mental to-do list with a spring in my step. This calmness stems from a comforting, habitual gameplay that rewards me for sticking to a rhythm that I dictate myself. The game has no finish line, no endpoint to race towards. Instead, you follow your own pace and create your own routines. It’s a malleable but repetitious cycle that I’m not accustomed to, but one my brother knows well, especially because he’s on the autistic spectrum.

Chris is 26 years old and high-functioning, which means that in comparison to a lot of others on the spectrum, he has a less severe version of the disability. Symptoms differ from one individual to the next, but certain challenges he faces include social anxiety, difficulty with dexterity, and adapting to changes that affect his day-to-day schedule. This last one is the most significant: having to catch the bus rather than be given his scheduled lift to work can cause panic, and last minute dinner plans might mean he’ll skip out. He’s a stickler for habits, and changes to his schedule, however small, can be difficult for him to adjust to. Because Stardew Valley is a routine-centric game, it’s a way for him to let loose in a comfortable environment that suits him just right. 

My brother and I have bonded through simulation games and RPGs since we were young, including The Sims and the Persona series. These games revolve around routine, such as climbing your way up the career ladder in The Sims, or managing time efficiently in Persona 3 as you go about your daily tasks before entering a dungeon. Progression in Stardew Valley is much slower than these games, and is rooted even deeper in routine. It’s the first game I’ve played where I drew a parallel between gameplay and autism. As I whip my farm into shape, each day is similar to the next without much unpredictability. With a loose sense of success, the game follows my lead as I explore its structured, meticulous world. 

Outside one of the village shops in Pelican Town, a large bulletin board and calendar can be checked daily. Here you can accept quirky quests such as slaying beasts for the secluded wizard who lives in the far off tower. More importantly, the calendar displays the month’s upcoming events and characters’ birthdays with corresponding dates. Those with autism often have difficulty grasping abstract concepts, including envisioning the future, such as where they see themselves in 5 years’ time. The calendar is limited to one season, and gives only a glimpse of what’s to come, adding just enough context while still offering intrigue on what the events entail. With this set-up, you are always aware of near future happenings — something Chris finds both exciting and relieving. 

As you follow your own rhythmic routine, so do the townsfolk. Each villager follows a strict weekly schedule that only changes with the coming of a new season. For example, Elliott can be found pensively staring out at the river south of Leah’s cottage, but only in the summer on specific days. Each character’s whereabouts follow an invisible schedule — one that isn’t just an itinerary of their work hours, but also dictates their personal time. Everything is accounted for, and they abide by these rules without exception, unless rainy weather foils their plans.

This concept, to me, is a remarkable parallel to my brother’s autism. Chris wakes up every morning with an indisputable schedule already planned out in his mind. He’ll never miss an episode of Jeopardy or forget to print out his evening word search, but when his schedule changes outside of his control, he can feel out of whack. When Chris is at his best, he’s fully aware of how his day will pan out. Every morning Stardew Valley asks, “What will you do today?” as if to remind him that he’s in control, and it doesn’t seem odd or different. His reliance on a routine is an asset and helps him succeed in this world. The result couldn't be any more harmonious.

Through my interactions with the game and watching my brother play it, it’s as if a window opened up, allowing for a deeper connection and understanding between us. It’s made me further appreciate my brother, understanding his struggles and his strengths in a new light. He follows the beat of his own drum, and his ability to enjoy life’s little pleasures, just as I do in Stardew Valley, is something I admire. The way I interact with Stardew Valley, with scheduled events and a routine schedule, is much the same way Chris views life — by taking it one day at a time.