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Monday, April 15, 2024

When I Left My Home in Kyiv, 'Stardew Valley' Was a Lifeline

It is now the middle of March. I am sitting in the basement of a country house near Kyiv. Not my house. I haven't been home for three weeks now, maybe more. The calendar has ceased to be of great importance here.

Until a few weeks ago, I was living the average life of the so-called creative class. My content bureau worked on projects for clients. I managed my time poorly and complained that I did not have time to enjoy life. Contrived problems, as usual. In one morning everything changed. It was followed by several nights in the basement of a nearby apartment building. Hastily collected clothes. Moving from place to place. And here I am.

Now my day looks different. All these days—the routine of the average Ukrainian who is not engaged in combat, volunteering or territorial defense—looks similar. Those of us who managed to move a little farther from the epicenters of the shelling became dangerously addicted to our phones.

Like hundreds of thousands of people in my country, now I have to slap my hands to put down the phone and stop reading Twitter feeds and Telegram channels. My iPhone's screen time has grown by several hundred percent in recent weeks. Many of us are no longer shocked by the videos with corpses of Russian soldiers (as opposed to their air strikes on maternity hospitals). Every minute, someone is looking on Twitter and Instagram Stories for those who can help take relatives out of the shelled town. Or volunteers who can escort humanitarian cargo at the border.

In my former life, I loved video games. I've always liked their ability to reinvent my life routine. In Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal wrote that games are distinguished from life by, among other things, the natural motivation to do something well. A well-designed game gives you the feeling that your efforts are not in vain. I don't have to force myself to play the game, unlike, say, writing this text. The desire to play is present by itself.

Whether it's deep space roaming in Elite Dangerous or treasure hunting in Uncharted, games can inspire in their own unique way. When I left my home, I tried not to take a lot of stuff with me. But at the last moment, I still threw the Nintendo Switch into my travel backpack. I know, I know. This is madness. I have several pairs of socks and boxers with me, some spare pants, some medicine, documents, and … a game console on which I collect butterflies in Animal Crossing.

Yesterday, I sent my wife, her mother, and our dog abroad. In recent weeks, I rarely saw her without a phone in her hands. Even at night, her routine consisted of endless doomscrolling. The only thing that managed to distract her from doomscrolling was Stardew Valley, in which you plant potatoes in a village with surprisingly nice neighbors. But, unfortunately, it only worked for about 40 minutes.

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Another phenomenon has come into force, about which McGonigal also wrote: gamer guilt. Gamer guilt makes us feel infantile, frivolous, irresponsible—just because of playing the game. Even despite the fact that the process itself brings us genuine joy.

In Ukraine 2022, the gamer's guilt has evolved into a new form, intertwined with survivor guilt—a condition that can be experienced by a person who goes through a serious illness, catastrophe, natural disaster, terrorist attack, or war. Instead of rejoicing at the opportunity to live their life, play games, and watch movies, many of those left behind self-flagellate and sink into a destructive sense of guilt for being more fortunate than others.

Two weeks after the Russian invasion, a friend of mine tweeted, “Made a decision to take out my Switch.” A few days later, he replied to himself: “Still didn’t turn it on though.” While people go to the front line, lose their homes, and dig mass graves, running a game on a console turns out to be an unexpectedly daunting task. Even writing about it feels unforgivably spoiled, when there are so many real problems around.

Is it OK to do relatively normal things at times like this? Do I have the right to be distracted? Today, many Ukrainians are looking for an answer to this question. Sometimes they find them. Many psychologists offer mental help for free, talking about how important it is to keep at least some parts of a normal life. Officials advise continuing to support local businesses if possible, to keep the economy going. Some people are trying to make art.

If life had continued to run its course, I would now be torn between the obscenely beautiful post-apocalyptic world of Horizon Zero Dawn and the time-consuming Witch Queen expansion for Destiny 2. I would also complain that I do not have enough time for Elden Ring or Gran Turismo. I wish I could go back to the days when time management was a real issue. But now I, like millions around me, will have to relearn simple things. For example, how not to feel guilty taking a console out of your backpack. The good news is that video games have always been able to make learning easier.

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