"You mean you just grow crops, pretty much?"
I remember turning to my parents with an incredulous look on my face as they unveiled the latest Game Boy title I'd be glued to for the next few weeks. After hours of The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons, it was such a staggering departure from what I was used to that I couldn't quite wrap my head around the concept of becoming a virtual farmer.
"Yeah, basically. It looks pretty fun. It's called Harvest Moon. Looks like it has those anime characters you like in it." As I slid the black cartridge into my classic Game Boy I remember, even at that age, being filled with incredulity and curiosity about a game (and eventual genre) I had yet to experience. Up until then it had all been about the gentle platforming of Kirby, the adventure of Zelda, and the rage quitting of Super Mario Land: Six Golden Coins. I ended up taking to Harvest Moon like a duck to water.
Harvest Moon's life began on the Super Nintendo, where it was known as Bokujō Monogatari, which roughly translates to "Ranch Life." It was a novelty then as it is now: a game where you spend your days taking care of cows and harvesting crops as the seasons gently roll through spring, summer, fall, and winter. The goal, ultimately, is to build a house, woo a girl (it was always a girl in the early days), and settle down into a peaceful, pastoral existence.
The series has since continued through the Game Boy, the Nintendo 64, the Game Boy Advance, and ultimately, the Nintendo 3DS. Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town served as an entry point for many into the series, introducing the basics of the series through charming 16-bit graphics. Harvest Moon's star has faded a bit since then—a large number of mostly mediocre entries will do that—but the basic charm of being a farmer still remains.
Most of us would likely never consider farming as a desirable career choice, considering the long, grueling hours one must put into fields, crops, and tending to animals in order to see even the smallest results. Who would have ever imagined gamers would ever let themselves become so acquainted with farming sims? Surprisingly, the series and its spinoffs are a substantial success – titles such as Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing really bring in the sales. And when I took the plunge, I discovered a secret love for doing all of those things as well. Who’d have thought?
But I never could have expected the additional benefits that I'd run into after tidying my humble little plot of land and learning to make a meager living for myself: acquiring the fine skill of multitasking.
Things weren't always so crystal clear to me, however. The benefits of working with and sticking to a plan in Harvest Moon didn't crop up (pun totally intended) until one evening when, my father offered to help tend to my farm and perform some duties for me, and couldn't keep up with everything I had going at once.
"How are you getting all of this work done?" My father, incredulous, set down the pan containing delicious fried potatoes and removed the Game Boy from its AC power to sit in his recliner. My character had arisen in the morning on a rainy, depressing day at an ungodly hour like usual, and with a farm that encompassed the entire map full of crops to be harvested and taken to the dropoff box and other work to be completed, my dad had to hurry if he wanted it all done before the next day.
"Just pick up all the crops you can and take them to the box, make that a priority. Then make sure you remove all the weeds. All of the work that needs to be done is at the bottom of the screen," I directed him. I'll never forget how he made an attempt at following my directions, and then shoved the Game Boy back in my hands in frustration.
"I can't do it, I don't even know what you've got going on here." I took the system back and, without any effort at all, ensured that everything was taken care of as I explained to my father the type of farm I was running. I even went on to complain about the worm light I was using at the time to play in the dark, completing all the work and getting my farmer into bed for another difficult day out in the fields.It was then I realized how automatic and robotic my actions were, and I was running everything as if it were second nature. Concentrating as if my life depended on it, without any effort at all. I came to the realization that playing this game had sharpened these skills I felt were non-existent, and I was improving myself without even realizing it, simply by trying to get everything done at once.
And it was a beautiful moment.
As an adult I've found myself struggling with attention problems, undiagnosed and unmedicated, accomplishing what I have simply through sheer force of will. It can be a monumental task to sit in one place for even thirty minutes and complete a task as my mind wanders from topic to topic, but I find solace and strength in games like Harvest Moon and other simulation and time management endeavors, and always have. When I need to find a center, I return to Harvest Moon to refresh, rebalance, and sharpen my skills once again so that I can return to the tasks that need my time and attention. Through simulators I learn to juggle a shocking amount of jobs and responsibilities at once, so when I find that I'm faltering, I can apply those same principles to everyday situations that need correcting.
There's a simplistic kind of charm to removing weeds, rocks, and debris from a vast expanse of farmland in order to make a living. Interestingly enough, there's also a time limit, leaving few spare moments to stand around and play with your farming tools or run laps around the perimeter. Once you dawdle, you leave no time left to plant or water your crops, collect your bounty, or put them out for pickup so you can get paid for your hard work the next morning.
In a way, it's a lot like my freelance life. I've got a time limit in the form of deadlines, and taking on as much work as I can to make a comfortable living (as well as my full-time day job for insurance and basic rent) takes up every spare moment I've got. My personal "farming tools" are my laptop, pen and paper, and resources. And if I dawdle, there's no time left to make sure my assignments arrive on time. I never get paid the next morning, but it's the same sort of process. When I need to center myself, I turn to these games for a calming reminder that I can do it, even when the work piles up and I find myself scrambling to pay rent when the cash isn't flowing in as readily as it should be.
Only as an adult do I realize how these simple little farming games (and honestly, other time management sims) can have such a profound effect on my mental health and state of mind when I find myself tangled up in the difficult webs I weave during my daily life. And while it’s probably important that I seek out professional medical help in the future for the obvious concentration issues I've developed, I sincerely believe that playing these games has helped to sharpen my awareness and attention span, at least temporarily, and shaped my ability to perform multiple tasks at once when it comes to working on a computer, helping me to procure the skills needed to function at a higher level than normal.
I realize that medication and other methods are the usual modifications needed to curb these types of issues, but I know for a fact that these games specifically were integral (and still are) to my ability to focus and pay attention to the task at hand. It’s important, especially with the games as art debate and the many nuanced arguments for gaming as a therapeutic tool or even tools to act as relief from the symptoms and problems so many experience on a daily basis, be it mental or physical, to spotlight areas like these so that others might be able to see the same type of improvement.
Because I’m not quite ready to sell my farm and get married just yet, but I know I’m well on my way thanks to the multitude of self-improvement tools and lessons imparted to me from simple games of Harvest Moon.