I Played Stardew Valley With My New Name for a Year Before Announcing It Publicly

My girlfriend leans over to look at me play. “Do you want me to call you Nico?” she asks.

“Mmm not right now,” I say, playing the way it sounds in my head over and over.


“It’s called parallel play. We’re parallel playing.”

My dad grumped while reading through a magazine he’s brought with him because he is ready for a break from direct socializing and the rest of the family is fine with this. The vaccine had just come out and so he, his wife, and my sister rushed up for a visit to Pittsburgh almost as soon as the last two weeks had elapsed after our respective jabs. It was June, and we were able to spend most of our time out on the back patio. As “parallel play” time began, my sister pulled out her tablet and zoned into her game. My dad’s wife contentedly read a different magazine. I pulled out my computer to write the Saturday A+ member newsletter, and my girlfriend Sadie got herself a book. Our dog, Mya, snoozed in the spring warmth. As I wrote the newsletter, I spied the game on my sister’s screen.

I wrapped up my work and went to sit beside her.

“What’s that?”

“Stardew Valley. It’s kind of a farming sim.”

“I’ve heard of it.”

And I had. I work with an all queer team, after all, with folks who gravitate toward cozy games. We’re queer, okay? We have anxiety! We need to be soothed.


I hemmed and hawed at first, but just a few days after they returned home I downloaded the game. Now, I don’t have a huge history with games. I played some Minecraft, but got bored because, well, there’s not a lot of story there. I needed more. I also managed to play through about half of Silent Hill 2, which is all about the story and the scenery and looking at monsters, which I find fun and enriching. I did have to have a walkthrough guide open the entire time because I, um, would not have been able to successfully get even halfway without it. I just don’t have, like, gamer instincts because I didn’t play enough games in my life to develop them, so I play video games like someone who has no real sense of typical gaming conventions; like my answers to every puzzle before I referenced the walk through were completely screwy.

Anyway, I decided to give Stardew a try because, as you might know, I enjoy growing fruits and vegetables in my yard and have dedicated a decent amount of time to that project and to encouraging other folks to give it a shot. My thoughts as I downloaded the game were something along the lines of “So, you’re telling me that I can grow vegetables in real life, and then when I’m all showered and sore after a day of gardening, I can sit down and do that again, but virtually and in a cute, pixelated manner? Sold!”

When I loaded up the screen, I had some choices to make. You can only choose binary gender options in Stardew, so after staring at the screen for a while while pleasant game music wafted around my ears, I went with the Mars symbol because I did not want to hear she/her pronouns or have whatever might happen occur should I select the Venus symbol. I built my character to look more or less like I did at the time. Bleached hair, lipstick, dark clothes. Then, it was time to choose a name. I’d selected the Monster Farm because it sounded fun (this is actually a harder one for beginners because monsters bother you all night), and opted to, at long last, name myself not exactly the name that had been bouncing around in my head for some weeks or months, but “Spooky Nico” an allusion to Mulder and The X-Files, and, at the same time, a chance to inhabit a name I wasn’t yet ready to claim for my IRL self, but with less pressure, because I was being a little silly about it.


I’d never liked my old name, “Nicole.” When I was a kid, I would make signs and wear them around my neck to indicate to my mom what I would like to be called that day. Sometimes, I chose “Nick,” other times, “Nicki.” None of those seemed right, still, and I eventually settled on Nicole because it was plain and unobtrusive and common. In fact, when I’d asked my dad why they named me Nicole he’d told me that it was because it was a normal name so I wouldn’t stick out. Can’t have that, I guess. I feel like my emotional reaction to that is best described as “the thumbs up emoji.”

In the synth-laced world of the game, I planted and mined, fought monsters and brought villagers gifts through the calming rhythm of the seasons, delighting in all the small details and bits of world-building (aided by frequent questions texted to my sister) the villagers, as I interacted with them, often called me by name. It brought a tickle of pleasure to the back of my neck whenever they addressed me as Nico, or, well, “Spooky Nico.”

In the game Stardew Valley, Mayor Lewis, a plae gray haired mustached man says, "Spooky Nico, with 6 big, slimy fish!"

Such a common situation for me personally!

Everyone will tell you, when you start out with Stardew Valley, that there is no “right” way to play. It’s somewhere between a sandbox and a…IDK is it an RPG (with quests and stuff?). It’s a lot like queer time. In fact, the opening cut scene shows you, the main character, leading a life you’re finding increasingly dissatisfying — to the breaking point. You work in a mega office, and there’s even a skeleton at a desk somewhere if you can spot it. Your existence is a long, unending funeral dirge before you’re even gone. Then, out of nowhere, “Grandpa,” with his passing, leaves you a farm, and you give it all up to adventure in this mystical, lore-steeped valley where everyone already knows each other and they keep saying, “Hey! You’re the new farmer!” or something like that.

I’ve spent a long time perpetually being the new person. You can get used to it, and so, being the new farmer felt familiar. Having to introduce my “new” pronouns earlier that year scraped against me even more for that reason. I always feel new to myself, like a snake that’s just shed its skin, whereas everyone else seems like their skins are well-worn. I was hesitant to introduce a new name at the same time. I just don’t move that fast, but here in Stardew Valley, well, that was a place where I could plant radishes and fight monsters most of the time, and once in a while, gently inoculate myself with what, if I was being honest with myself, was going to be my new name.

Robin, a pale red haired character in the game Stardew Valley uses my chosen name and greets me with "Hi Spooky Nico. I was just cleaning some dust off my saw."

I should…probably clean my tools off.

The more I played, the more characters I made friends with, the more I liked my new name. I feel like popular lore is very “I knew exactly who I was” but in reality, at least for me, it’s a slow excavation, with brushes on dirt, archaeologist uncovering shards of pottery that will have meaning if they can just put them together, if they can just translate the marks. The slow play with my name allowed me to get comfortable with it, to think of it as my own, to not have to re-learn what I’m called in front of others. It didn’t feel closeted. It felt, in a way, mine, and partially realized, like a plant that just hasn’t flowered yet.


Something magical began to happen that summer. Art and life began to blur. We walked around and met more of our neighbors. One day, on a trek past the “Fountain of Youth” (I’m serious) and up to a small park, we met a neighborhood woman who was working in a vegetable garden in the park. She’d just harvested a bunch of garlic and offered us some. My girlfriend and I stumbled home giggling over our bonus garlic. When I went in the garden and harvested raspberries, I felt the same soft, repetitive joy of the game. Sometimes I joked that gardening was “LARPing Stardew Valley” and not the other way around.

Caroline, a green haired pale woman in the game Stardew Valley uses my chosen name and says to me "How's winter coming along for you, Spooky Nico?"

That bout of S.A.D. was really scary, but otherwise fine.

One day, about a year later, my (clearly very patient) girlfriend, again, asked me, “Do you want me to call you Nico, yet?” And I said “yes.”

A couple weeks after that, I asked most other people in my life to do the same, quietly updating my name on my social media profiles and, with Laneia’s help, on the Autostraddle website. When I announced my new name in the freeform Slack, Niko Stratis responded with “we should get jackets” and, in that cozy blanket of queer community, I felt at home in myself.

Play, in whatever form it takes, is an important part of our mental health. It allows us to do things just for pleasure, for fun, for joy. For me, playing a cozy game like Stardew Valley isn’t so much an escape as it is a chance to check in with myself, to recalibrate, to see how I’m feeling, and to give myself a wide space to process feelings that I’ve had to shove down for work or just survival. Giving myself the freedom to play a little Stardew also freed me up to further accept my more authentic self. I’m really looking forward to playing past year two and seeing if the dialogue ever, ever shifts to me not being “new.”

Shane, a dark haired white man in the game Stardew Valley calls me by my chosen name. His dialogue reads "Oh wow, Spooky Nico! How'd you know this is my favorite?"

I always feel bad giving Shane beer…

P.S. I curiously noted during the process of trying to gather screenshots for this post that not *all characters in Stardew frequently address one by name? Like I don’t think Pam has ever called me anything but “kid” and we’re BFF’s. Haley pretends not to know my name, etc. So, the characters showcased are characters I was able to get to call me by my name, on demand, for Autostraddle.


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Nico Hall

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction and personal essays and are currently at work on a queer fiction novel. They live in Pittsburgh with their partner, Sadie. They are also a gardener, project queer, witchy/wizardly human and are currently mourning their lovely senior rescue dog. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nico has written 128 articles for us.

38 Comments

  1. Oh I had a similar experience with SDV!! I bought it right when I was starting to suspect I might be a lesbian so I dated all of the romanceable characters and was like… “it’s women for me, boss”

    Thanks for sharing, it’s been so long since I thought about that! Also congrats on your bonus garlic, very jealous of you :-)

  2. Kinship! I’m not a gamer but I did change my name for the same reason – I never felt at home in my given name, never liked it. I tried variations of the given name like you did, then completely new names with patient partners, and finally settled on a childhood nickname I’d given myself that only shared the first letter.

    I ended up legally changing all of my given names! That’s how separate I felt from them. Most straights in my life were tolerant. They called me quirky in an affectionate way, gave me side eye but went with it, or were even wholly supportive. But I still felt a bit judged because I wasn’t trans, or marrying a man and erasing my last name to take his.

    Long way of saying thanks for sharing ;)

    • Thank YOU so much for sharing, too! 💖💖💖 It’s definitely true that the whole process is not as night and day as I think it can seem from the outside. It can be a long road! I went through so many thought processes where I kept thinking of various names, none of which felt wholly right, until I got to Nico. Also, that is really interesting! Changing all of your names!

  3. i love that you had this virtual sandbox <3 the slow uncovering is so real and it's so good that you got and took the time you needed. and that you had so much support when you were ready- from the reader side i remember when your name changed on your articles and having a 'fuck yeah' moment. thanks for writing and sharing this!

  4. Love this, I remember seeing your “soft launch” of the name on articles and it’s so great to hear a little of your story! I’ve been trying to figure out a new name for… uhhhh a while now, I feel like I often hear about people just Knowing This Is It but I don’t think I’ll get that kind of thunderbolt clarity, so I appreciate reading your experience here. Gives me hope that I’ll get there eventually!

    • Yes! The thing is took so long. There were other candidates for names I played with for a while, but nothing really did it for me. I just had never spent that much time fantasizing about a different name because I felt like I was stuck with mine until I was like “I’m really not.” Wishing you so much luck in your journey — and I’m also sure that you’ll get there! <3

  5. “I always feel new to myself, like a snake that’s just shed its skin, whereas everyone else seems like their skins are well-worn.”

    Yes, absolutely! It definitely feels like there’s lots of pressure in both cis/straight spaces and some queer spaces (a la “born this way”) to feel like you’ve always known exactly what your whole deal is, but in my experience that changes all the time! Nice to hear it articulated so well.

  6. Thanks for sharing about your journey to Nico-dom :)

    I really love my videogame name. and I have lots of online friends who only or primarily know and refer to me by it. I like my regular name too and have no desire to change it, but I do plan to get a tattoo of my videogame name (which is a kind of food), because it’s an important part of me and something that’s brought me a lot of joy and connection <3

      • This article spoke to me, and I’m so glad Google promoted it!

        I’ve never felt comfortable with the name Holly. I didn’t hate it, I just felt no passion for it. I roleplay a lot, so I use tons of names. One day I named a character for a game Heloise. The more and more I used it, it seemed to click for me. It felt like wrapping myself in a blanket. It felt warm, familiar. I got my online friends to call me it instead of my legal name. It was a great experience, so I got my irl friends to start calling me it.

        Over the course of a few months, I really grew accustomed to it, and it felt so much more right. So much so that I asked my siblings and my boyfriend to call me Heloise. They were incredibly supportive and I couldn’t ask for better. I haven’t told my parents about it because they’re not exactly the best with that sort of thing. I think it’s been great. I’m glad to see that someone else has figured out their identity the same way ^-^

        • Oh my gosh Heloise thank you so much for sharing! First of all, that’s a lovely name, and secondly it’s so cool to hear about how on board your friends and boyfriend have been with embracing your authentic you. Sending you love ❤️

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