“Maintaining law and order: The timeless attraction of mowing virtual lawns in video games.”
On Tuesdays, Jessica used to join for tea and her main activity was mowing the lawn. Each week, we would insert the small disc of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker into my GameCube and she would prepare her sword. Due to her younger age, she was unable to defeat enemies like ChuChus or Bokoblins without getting defeated herself. As a result, she would spend hours virtually chopping at grass.
Initially, I was slightly bothered by it. But looking back, I now realize that Jessica was just following the traditions of our predecessors. Grass-cutting has been a prominent feature in video games for many years. From the lawnmower simulation game Hover Bovver in 1983 to Minecraft in 2009, there have been countless games that have encouraged us to mow the virtual lawns, and we can’t seem to resist. What is the reason behind this commonly used mechanic?
Eric Barone, the developer of the popular game Stardew Valley, finds satisfaction in organizing and tidying up chaotic things. His game draws inspiration from Harvest Moon, a farming simulator from 1996 that allows players to gather hay by cutting grass and remove weeds. As a child, Barone also enjoyed mowing the grass in Secret of Mana from 1993, as it sparkled in the virtual wind and produced a pleasing sound when cut.
One year prior, the game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past started giving players rewards for cutting grass – they could find rupees, the in-game currency, by attacking the ground. This feature of being able to exchange grass for money continued in Zelda games until Breath of the Wild in 2017, when it appeared that Hylians had fixed the holes in their pockets and no longer dropped money everywhere. However, the two most recent Zelda games still promote grass-cutting as insects, rice bundles, frogs, and fairies can frequently be discovered hiding in the grass.
During the late 20th century, grass was a common feature in video games, with titles like Crusader of Centy (which some compared to Zelda) incorporating hidden coins in their green landscapes. The popular game Animal Crossing, released in 2001, also included the task of pulling out weeds as a daily gameplay element. The trend seemed to reach its peak with the release of The Legend of Kusakari in 2016, a game that humorously pays tribute to Zelda and boasts 50 levels filled with grass-related challenges. I’ll make sure to inform Jessica about it.
According to Andrew Shouldice, the creator of the upcoming game Tunic, having grass that can be cut is a staple in the gaming world and is now expected by players. He explains, “As a hero in the typical action-adventure setting of grasslands, you would naturally come across Sword #1. As a game developer, it’s almost a requirement to make that grass able to be cut.”
The topic that divides gamers is whether mowing grass is a task or something to admire. According to Barone, “I prefer being able to use a tool or weapon to cut multiple patches of grass at once, instead of doing it one by one.” In his game Stardew Valley, he purposely made the grass-cutting ability generous for players, allowing them to effortlessly slice through multiple blades without using any energy. However, Barone did not enjoy the grass-cutting aspect in the 2013 survival game 7 Days to Die. He explains, “You can only hit one blade at a time, and you often mistakenly hit them with your large swings, causing your tool to miss the intended target and deplete your stamina.” This was a disappointment for him.
Jason Ort, on the other hand, has a strong preference for cutting grass – at least during his college years. Currently a 32-year-old IT administrator in New Jersey, Ort and his roommates would spend a full eight hours mowing grass in Wind Waker as students. “As we were all huge nerds, we had calculated and located the patch of grass that yielded the highest amount of rupees on average,” he explains. They would then proceed to cut the grass, collect their earnings, enter a cave, and emerge to find a new patch of freshly grown grass. This routine was repeated multiple times.
“After four hours, it becomes humorous. After six hours, we start to feel like crazy people. By the time eight hours have passed, we have accumulated enough in-game currency to purchase all the necessary items,” stated Ort.
But aside from receiving resources as a reward, Ort believes that mowing virtual grass is also therapeutic, a sentiment shared by his fiancee. As a child, he enjoyed swinging his sword at anything he could, but now he finds it calming. This mechanic has also taught him to search for hidden secrets in seemingly mundane places while playing other games.
Many people seem to share this sentiment – there are now numerous lawn-mowing simulation games available, and gamers have even created their own lawnmowers in games that do not offer them. Personally, I started to enjoy mowing virtual grass because it gave me a feeling of independence. In contrast, other GameCube games had restricted environments with limited interactive elements. Cutting grass in Wind Waker felt immersive and liberating.
Barone states that humans have an inherent tendency towards order and find satisfaction in organizing tasks such as cutting grass and preparing land for productivity. This taps into our innate desire to bring structure to chaotic situations.