Valentine’s Play

If you know me, you know that I’m in love. I wake up every day delighted to spend my life with the Finest Man Alive(tm), who seems equally pleased to be sharing his life with me. I will sing his praises given any excuse whatsoever, and often when given none. The strength of our love brings me joy, confidence, and the security to be immensely bold in other areas of my life. He inspires me to be a better person in every way imaginable. It’s no surprise that I’m a charter member of Team We Love Love!

On the other hand, Valentine’s Day makes me profoundly grouchy. This isn’t sour grapes: my partner loves the entire Valentine’s apparatus. If it were up to him, we’d spend the entire day in a bathtub full of melted chocolate, sprinkling each other with rose petals while opening box after box of jewelry. Every year we carefully negotiate just how Valentine we’re going to be. Too little and he gets cranky; too much and I do!

(For the curious: this year we went out to dinner at the unbelievably fabulous Journeyman Restaurant, which I’m calling a win-win. Also he bought me a book!)

My usual explanation is that I don’t like Valentine’s Day for the same reason I don’t like Mother’s Day. Both days take a relationship that should be honored every day of the year, and reduce it to a set of arbitrary symbols performed on one special day. I’m of the philosophy that relationships are built out of the ordinary, not the extraordinary. For example, I’ve created a life where my partner and I alternate flower-buying weeks, so that we always have fresh flowers in our space before Shabbat. Some weeks they may be supermarket carnations, but they always honor and sanctify the reality of our lives together, not some fantasy of it. You can keep your dozen long-stemmed roses, thanks.

This isn’t the whole picture, though. I don’t mind celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, which also reduce down to “one special day.” I also don’t get cranky about, say, how you’re supposed to reflect on your behavior all year and not just on the High Holidays. So this got me thinking about what, specifically, about Valentine’s Day bugs me.

Then I read this paper by Carrie Heeter, and said, “Aha!” Heeter provides evidence* for something I’ve been saying for a while: mandatory play is not quite play. She and her colleagues made playing four different games mandatory, then looked at players’ self-reported experiences and in-game activity. “Resistant” players played for less time, had fewer positive and more negative emotional experiences, and were less focused in terms of attention. In other words, if you’re forced to play a game when you don’t particularly want to, it’s not engaging and pleasurable the way that games can (and should!) be**.

Now consider this excellent quote from Two Whole Cakes:

… romance has always made me vaguely uncomfortable. There is a pressure associated with being a female-identifying person on the receiving end of romantic shenanigans: I feel expected to giggle and coo, to blush and smile sheepishly, most of all, to be grateful.

The writer hits it on the nose. As a woman, I’m always haunted by the feeling that I’ve got a role to play – one which has very little to do with my desire to play the Valentine’s Game. I’ve got no control over the production of romantic shenanigans, yet I’m supposed to perform the emotional work of appreciation and cultural reification***. Yes, my partner and I can choose to Valentine in any way we please, but for me that always exists against the background of “should.” Differentiating my individual human responses from the mandatory feminine is possible, of course, but makes certain types of response feel inauthentic, produced, stage-managed.

Seriously, people: my partner makes me want to giggle with delight every day, but I do not giggle on demand.

What’s most useful to me about this insight is that maybe it can help my game design students (and colleagues!) understand the danger of what I call “designing from should.” Anyone who has felt the pressure to perform femininity – or, for that matter, masculinity – in a Valentine context can use that experience to begin to understand the resentment of resistant players, and can hopefully become a better game designer as a result. Similarly, anyone who’s ever played a DFS**** might gain insight into the ways that the delights of love can be compressed into the mandates of commercial romance.

As for me? I’m going to look for ways to make Valentine’s Day into Valentine’s Play next year. Check back then.

* Yes, it’s clearly still a draft paper, but Heeter does good work and I’m happy to trust her conclusions until the fuller version of this paper comes out.

** You’d think this was obvious, right? Unfortunately, I see a lot of serious game proposals that want to mandate play. This is probably a longer post.

*** A la The Managed Heart, whose argument I will not attempt to recapitulate here, but which I strongly recommend.

**** Designed From Should!

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