Pam lives in the trailer on the edge of town.

She drinks too much. Every night, in fact. Empty cans and six-pack plastic litter her yard. Wearing garish eye makeup and stiff curls, Pam boasts loudly about her cherished adult daughter to anyone who will listen—but, behind closed doors, she berates her and treats her little better than a maid.

Her neighbors have their own problems. Elderly Evelyn and George find themselves raising their grandson after their daughter Clara’s untimely death. The local rancher, Marnie, has taken her alcoholic nephew Shane and her young niece Jas under her wing. A nearby veteran struggles with PTSD, and his wife’s seemingly cheerful endurance threatens to fracture under the strain.

Welcome to Stardew Valley.

Released in 2016 as a farming sim, Eric Barone’s beloved game follows in the warm-hearted tradition of the seminal Harvest Moon series, allowing players to farm, fish, mine, cook, and craft on a property inherited from their late grandfather as they slowly settle into, and earn acceptance from, an insular community.

In the years since, Stardew’s success has resulted in a tabletop game, a cookbook, and a series of concerts. More importantly for players, Barone has continued to update his labor of love free of charge. The latest update, 1.6, was so expansive, detailed, and attentive to the series’ tone and focus that IGN changed the game’s rating to a 10/10 to reflect its depth.

Yet for all of Stardew’s accolades, one of the game’s most profound and overlooked strengths is how it manages to capture, without pity or unnecessary sentimentality, the struggles of underserved rural communities, and the distinct thread of acceptance and regard that binds residents of these communities together in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Although religion does not play a critical role in Stardew Valley . . . the game’s focus on a struggling region, and the way community provides for the residents what nothing else can, serves as a reminder of and a call to what churches can make possible.

On the surface, the Valley serves as a paean to bucolic joys: the promise of what life could be like, if. Returning life to the community through the slow restoration of an abandoned farm is a critical element of the genre. Indeed, the player character flees to the valley to escape a miserable corporate life—one in which people literally die at their desks.

But alongside the characterization of the valley as a place of unique tradition, quirky festivals, and a lot of heart, the game takes pains to sketch out the struggles faced by those who live in such areas. Stardew Valley suffers from all the crises familiar to underserved rural communities: corporations churn out mass-produced garbage that edges out local business, cultural and community centers die from lack of funding, and the local physician struggles to maintain a practice with a small patient base.

That isn’t to say Stardew fully recreates the isolated rural milieu. Existing out of both time and place, the Valley has not seen an opioid epidemic or the collapse of industry. There are no polarizing political divisions (though the elderly and disabled George does spend the bulk of his day in front of a television channel that may or may not be the valley’s version of Fox News).

 Yet the characters nonetheless suffer from the socioeconomic issues ravaging their town.

At least one of the young adults wants out: Sebastian perpetually plans his escape to the alluring Zuzu City. Pierre the local shopkeeper and Willy the fisherman struggle to maintain their livelihood in the face of cheap corporate dreck. Kent, Pam, and Shane struggle with mental illness and addiction issues stemming from or exacerbated by war, job loss, and a general sense of despair.

Of course, because this is an ostensibly lighthearted farming sim, the situation improves. The player character can, if they choose, singlehandedly obliterate the Joja Corporation, satisfy the ancient woodland sprites called Junimo to bring economic and cultural life back to the valley, and improve the villagers’ lives by befriending them.

But Stardew is also a game focused on the journey, not the destination, and it lingers on the deliberate cultivation of community as antidote and resistance to the challenges that threaten to undermine the village’s residents. Unwilling to overlook the flaws and failings of its difficult characters, the game nevertheless places these characters in communities where they are supported and provided for—but where they also must rethink their behaviors and negotiate life lived among others.

Marnie gives Shane a room on her farm when he is at his worst, overwhelmed with depression and addicted to alcohol; she hopes that over time he will work through some of his struggles, and he eventually does. The town’s transient “wild man,” Linus, eschews people and prefers a life close to nature, but the saloon owner Gus looks after him and gives him food. Harvey, the beleaguered physician, gently and patiently encourages George to mind his health, and George—after some considerable rudeness—relents and acknowledges both Harvey’s expertise and his motivations.

In Stardew Valley, community fills the gap where all else fails.

Bob Smietana, national reporter for Religion News Service, posits in his book Reorganized Religion that this is the role churches can play for their local areas as well: Religious institutions “offer more than help in a disaster and providing basics like food and shelter. [They] also offers a sense of belonging and community and a sense that people are not alone in life” (52).

Additionally, he acknowledges that long-lasting congregations persist precisely because they offer two critical benefits: “a sense of community and belonging . . . and a sense of mission to rally around, which is devoted to helping their neighbors” (9).

For Smietana, churches meet critical needs: they provide housing, food, shelter, and care services in areas where such resources remain scarce or inaccessible. But they also provide something else equally as important—acceptance and relationship, a place where people can learn how to be in community with each other, to grow and support each other.

This can be particularly critical in isolated rural areas, where churches sometimes serve as the sole source of practical and emotional support for residents. Congregations repair medical equipment, refit houses to make them accessible, organize transportation to distant chemotherapy treatments, and provide small-scale disaster relief. They give support to grandparents suddenly raising grandchildren in areas where the opioid epidemic has devastated the population; they throw wedding and baby showers; they attend funerals.

Although religion does not play a critical role in Stardew Valley—the town maintains an altar to the god “Yoba” and villagers sometimes visit the altar on Sundays—the game’s focus on a struggling region, and the way community provides for the residents what nothing else can, serves as a reminder of and a call to what churches can make possible.

In an interview, Smietana acknowledges that “congregational governance means people have to talk to each other, which encourages them to be connected to people, to influence them.”  In other words, churches (especially small ones) foster a unique environment that allows congregants to cultivate the relationships and the day-to-day knowledge of local residents and local affairs that permit them to make a difference.   Because of their integration in the local community, they know who is in need, to know who needs a ride to the doctor, to know who is grieving and alone, to know who faces an impossible addiction.

And Stardew demonstrates something similar: the villagers and the player character, linked by intimate relationships and knowledge of their area and each other, resist the forces that threaten to overwhelm them. Indeed, the culmination of the “good” player arc results in the restoration of the village’s community center.

Long neglected and overgrown with vines, the initial community center represents a forced shift in economic and cultural priorities. The player’s quest to reverse this requires a considerable amount of time and effort tending to decay and mending what is broken: a failed mine cart, a greenhouse, a bridge, a bus. But these tasks require more than wood and stone: they encourage the player to tend to individuals, to push past the flaws and the reticence of others to build bonds, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others.

The celebration at the end of the arc pays off: the villagers rejoice together with the player character, enjoy the renewed resources in the community center, and, inspired by the turn of events, commit themselves to carrying on the work of maintaining the town and their relationships with each other.

Such a transformation doesn’t always require a church, at least in Stardew. But the close-knit community of the game, and its flawed, familiar characters, serve as reminders of the needs in underserved rural communities that churches are well-situated to meet. Committed to tending hearts and spirits as much as physical needs, Christians too can engage in the work of community-mending vital to the game: restoring what is neglected, loving those deemed unlovable, fostering communal spaces for joy and grief and affection.

Even without renovating an abandoned farm.


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