“I’m going to the mines!” says a voice through my laptop.
It’s my partner, Joel – albeit a pixelated version of him. I see him move swiftly out of the screen as I go back to my task of chopping down an oak tree, searching for wood and sap.
It’s an ordinary mid-pandemic night and Joel and I are both tucked into bed at our respective Sydney share-houses. In truth, neither of us is anywhere near a rare minerals mine and I doubt I have the strength to hack down a tree – even if I wanted to.
But we’re not talking about real life; we’re talking about virtual reality in Stardew Valley – a multi-player farming simulation game that’s sold over 10 million copies, and become our guilty pleasure since physical distancing and lockdowns began.
In this world, we’re co-owners of a thriving farm filled with crops and livestock. Unlike real life, where we don’t share assets, earnings or a house, in Stardew Valley, we’re living a life of cohabitation. We’ve replaced inner-city living with a wooden cabin, created computer-generated friendships based off random gift giving, and exchanged careers in media for specialisations in mining and foraging.
In the Valley, we have a joint income, and we’re constantly discussing when and what we want to spend it on. We plan to renovate our cabin to include a kitchen; we want to upgrade our tools, so we can work more efficiently in our respective fields and we’re constantly weighing up how much we can afford to indulge in novelty hats and accessories just to spice up our wardrobes.
In real life shared decision-making has shared consequences, and so does life in Stardew Valley. If Joel finds himself on zero health after a long day in the mines, we lose 10% of our money. Similarly, if I spent the day foraging, oblivious to my energy levels, I’d find myself passed out with a hefty medical bill taken straight from our joint account.
The life we’re leading in Stardew Valley is milestones ahead of the relationship we have in real-life – even with four years of dating under our belts.
In the real world, our incomes are completely separate and our personal spending habits vary. I’m more of a Googles-promo-code-before-buying kind of person, while Joel will happily spend money on an indulgent meal or experience without a second thought. The largest financial decision we’ve had to make together is what cut of meat we’re going to share at a restaurant, or what present we’re going to give a friend for their birthday. But that’s not to say this won’t change some day.
Creating a virtual life together has taught us some important lessons for the future. We’re learning that shared financial decisions are a balance of personal and shared priorities. We’re being reminded that relationships, in all their forms, require teamwork.
The other day, when we saw each other in real life, our Stardew Valley selves came out. We were deciding whether to a) cook ourselves or b) get delivery. We both wanted to share a meal, but I was having a hard time justifying spending money when I knew there was perfectly good produce in the fridge. Joel, on the other hand, was desperately trying to satisfy a craving for chicken shish kebabs. In the end, we struck a happy medium: I cooked up some vegetables as sides, Joel ordered up our mains, and we both played a part in creating a dinner to share together.
Of course, not all decisions in life are going to be as easy as “What’s for dinner?”, and they’re certainly not going to be as simple as whether or not we can afford to upgrade an imaginary pick-axe in a videogame.
But with open and frank discussions (both virtually and in real life), we’re preparing ourselves for the future – a future where the questions are not about arbitrary items or imaginary professions, but are about shared spaces, shared assets and a shared livelihood together.
And, if real life is anything like life in the Valley, I can’t wait.