‘We need to talk about “Florence” and emotional labour’ by Mahli-Ann Butt

It’s been three weeks since Valentine’s Day, three weeks since the inaugural release from the Melbourne videogame studio Mountains, Florence.

Florence is a self-proclaimed interactive love story for ‘people who don’t normally play games’ (on iOS and Android devices). It’s a charmer. I get butterflies when I play something which feels different from what is usually thrown at me by the public face of AAA games. As noted by games writer Jessica Conditt, under the siege of ‘war’ games, ‘love’ makes for a thematically refreshing change of pace. It’s a genre championed by fellow Melbournian initiative Blush Box and podcast Lovegames – the indie scene is certainly taking a turn towards games dealing with intimacy, love, sex and romance.

It’s easy to argue that this game was intended for someone like me to have a connection through the representation of adjacent experiences. I’m a 27-year-old Thai-Australian woman who has dated men. The title character in Florence is Florence Yeoh, a 25-year-old, Chinese-Australian woman who dates an Indian-Australian man named Krish Hemrajani. I don’t regularly see my likeness portrayed in media, so I get easily infatuated by what I grasp onto as semblances of relatability.

While I’m not here to talk about ‘how representation is important’, the great advocacy work of the last decade or so makes me feel like we’re getting close to a very apparent and unanimous consensus that representation is good. Furthermore, in recognition of the ‘non-gamer’ and diverse demographics that Florence has targeted, I have a feeling that I’d be preaching to the choir.

One reason, among many, to advocate for representation is for the benefit of gaming culture. Many of us are aware of statistics that show that women form half of the population of who plays videogames in the US, and that there are significantly more adult women playing videogames than teenage boys. These statistics are similar in Australia. Studies have observed that women and girls are the least likely to identify as ‘gamers’ because the masculinised ‘gamer identity’ was a marketing tool used by gaming magazines in the 80’s and 90’s to form a demographic. This is part of a systematic marginalisation of women and femininity from videogames throughout history. It is how we have come to view videogames like a ‘pink versus blue’ toy aisle. This false dichotomy infantilises videogames, as being ‘toys’ made for boys and ‘immature’ men – not for girls and women. Perpetuating the stereotype hurts all participants of gaming culture. This appearance of toxic masculinity, which treats femininity as incompatible with gaming, boxes in the potential for all genres of videogames. Thus, there are apparent cultural benefits for making videogames with the intention to move away from the contrived belief that ‘games are for boys’.

Despite the positive chorus, what has been lacking in coverage of Florence is a critical reading of how the game reflects societal norms: how we conceptualise heteronormative relationships. When we discuss Florence as only being ‘a game about how it feels to fall in love’, ‘a game about falling in love’, ‘turning love into a videogame’, it is both a reduction and a romanticisation of the game. Florence positions itself towards a complex conception of heterosexual dating. Like Krish’s box of belongings, used to move into Florence’s apartment, there’s an important counter-reading that needs to be unpacked: Florence exposes how everyday emotional labour performed by the woman in sustaining romantic relationships.

For the majority of the game, we play as Florence Yeoh as our avatar, framing our player perspective. It makes for a few jarring scenes where – I hoped – I was suddenly playing as Krish: when we clean his room; when we (un)pack his belongings moving in and out of Florence’s apartment. There’s the rub: we can readily accept that Florence herself cleaned Krish’s room and (un)packed for him; we can readily accept to frame these moments in a way where we’d feel like it could be something that Florence did for both of them – for their relationship. There seems to be just enough indication – Florence’s look of mild surprise entering Krish’s room, Krish carrying the boxes to Florence’s front door – which allows for the more hopeful interpretation: we have been placed into Krish’s shoes.

Emotional labour is a ‘packaging’: the collective actions of invisible efforts taken to create feelings of ease, comfort, and pleasure. I’m a Ph.D researcher studying gaming culture through ethnography and interviews with people who play videogames with their partners. My honours thesis focused on affective labour performed by women who played videogames with their male partners and the gendered pressures to be support roles in both gaming and in their intimate romantic lives. In the lineage of philosophy, emotional labour is also referred to as ‘affective labour’. Emotional labour is frequently used interchangeably with affective labour. The term ‘affective labour’ helps shifts the focus from ‘emotions’ – which, in short, are easily made theoretically and politically problematic to conceptualise – towards acknowledging social powers of bodies and how they can impact and be impacted i.e. affects. For example, customer service representatives are required to be skilled in affective labour because large parts of the job are centered around interacting with people. A systemic implication is that affective labour focused professionals, like flight attendants and nurses, are commonly gendered to be imagined as careers for women.

It’s common for women to perform the majority of domestic work, so there’s a very acceptable reading which illuminates something less rosy about Florence and Krish’s relationship that we are choosing to ignore. Moving into ‘affect theory’, emotions capture one potent and identifiable form of affective labour. This small technical move clarifies how affective/emotional labour interlocks with structural social powers, and helps us link it to important discussions on authorities of heteronormative status quos and the institutionalised ideology of commodified romance. It’s not just about the labour of making someone feeling happy in an interaction between individual players; it unravels the fabric of social pressures, the processes, and the implications around these dynamics.

The affective labour of binary gendered dynamics is exemplified through a side-by-side comparison of how Florence and Krish support each other. Introduced as an aspiring cellist, Krish spends early parts of their relationship talking about his musical goals to a silent and enamoured Florence (visually portrayed as her floating and being ‘pulled’ towards his music). Passion is an attractive quality, but Florence evidences that the great romanticisation of the game is in the idealisation of the ‘creative’ life. Florence rejuvenates her passion for art, a passion discouraged in her youth by her mother. Instead she was persuaded to pursue more a practical (and positively stereotyped) accounting career. Sitting in Krish’s newly cleaned room, Florence finds a student application for a music academy peeking out from under Krish’s bed. She literally pushes Krish to apply. When Krish attends the audition, he presents Florence with a paint palette.

Both Florence and Krish support each other in notably gendered ways. Florence expends effort – incalculable and unquantifiable – to motivate Krish to do something integral to his musical career. Florence’s encouragement is integral, the implication being that Krish wouldn’t have applied to the academy without it. Like buying a box of chocolates and a dozen roses on Valentine’s, Krish buys his support for Florence. The art supplies that Krish buys are thoughtful and thoughtfulness here locates an appreciation and reciprocation of affective labour, but purchasing gifts is easier than affective labour. Too often, men in heterosexual partnerships are ‘buying easy gifts’ in lieu of reciprocating affective labour, without being able to comprehend why this practice is sexist, exhausting, and frustrating for women. While societal norms pressure women to be carers through the assignment of gender roles, men choosing to take the easy way out intensifies gender inequality between partners. Money can’t pay someone back for doing something invaluable. In the literal sense of the phrase, without the sentimentalism: ‘you can’t buy love’.

Players are able to piece together conversations that are happening in speech bubbles. When we notice that Florence and Krish’s fights occur while they’re grocery shopping, while they’re washing the dishes, thinking through gender and affective labour in heteronormative relationships paints a clearer picture of what’s being said between the couple. We can gain more intimate knowledge about their relationship by inspecting details: in the supermarket, Florence is running through the shopping list while Krish holds the basket; at the sink, Florence is washing the dishes while Krish is drying them. Such a designation of chores forms the cornerstones of domestic arrangements with gender essentialist assumptions regarding the private realm of the home as something to be run by women. If women are not the primary housekeepers, they are shamed for going against societal expectations of womanhood and accused of undermining the man’s masculinity.

Who runs the world? Women and their everyday affective labour – organising, maintaining, sustaining, growing, nurturing, soothing, homemaking – weave a tapestry of invisible and unpaid domestic duties. The unpaid, domestic, and affective work required by women in private relationships is part of a transactional framework which diminishes the role of women in public society. Expecting the population of women to play the role of housekeepers is an economic advantage for the population of men. The value of domestic and affective work is downplayed to keep the labour free. ‘Soft’ affective skills are devalued to keep underpaid women doing undervalued work. We see this devaluing in the translation of the same ‘organisational skills’ of affective labour and housekeeping into ‘secretarial’ skills for women, when they could easily be coded for ‘leadership’ skills in a man.

Florence’s shopping list is indicative of the ‘office housework’ women are expected to perform as micromanaging housekeepers. She not only runs the upkeep of their home and the upkeep of their relationship, but she also organises the upkeep of Krish’s everyday life on his behalf. When men are taught that they ‘get girlfriends’ who will love them for who they are – as aspiring cellists – and women are raised to view relationships as being ‘work’, men learn that they do not have to, and therefore, do not learn how to look after themselves, because a woman will. Krish can assume the entitlement that Florence will fall in love with him, then look after him too, because he’s a cool musician who deserves love; Florence must earn Krish’s love by helping to organise his day-to-day life so that he can be a musician, while neglecting her own dreams of being an artist.

While men see themselves as being in charge of their dreams and their destinies, ‘women are in charge of helping men’, and remain a hybrid of ‘both surrogate mother and sex partner’ for the men in their lives. Studies indicate that men, including those in egalitarian relationships, are reluctantly participating in domestic chores while impelled by their partners to help around the house. Women have to consistently perform exhausting amounts of affective labour to convince men to contribute to their shared home, and worse, men then resent their partners for asking them to pull their weight and call women ‘nags’. No wonder tensions arise out of performing domestic duties. It feels unfair when men demand praise for chores because they’re seen to be outside of the expected tasks for men, while women have do the same chores without acknowledgement because they are culturally obliged. No wonder as the years march on that we keep hearing women say in unison how they feel un(der)appreciated. Closing the wage gap for women is a form of recognising unpaid domestic labour. It’s necessary to recognise that the wage gap is worse for women of colour, where stereotypes about maids and janitors being occupations for women of colour show us how race, class and gender intersect in notions of labour.

The aesthetics and puzzle gameplay mechanic treating Florence and Krish’s relationship as jigsaw pieces demonstrates the problematic concept of ‘soulmates’. The notion that two souls can ‘complete’ each other suggests that ‘good’ relationships should be based on unconditional love. Presupposing that an individual’s problems can be resolved by finding that magic cosmic match.

When the relationship doesn’t work, the game suggests it is because Florence and Krish don’t ‘fit’ together. There is a fundamental romantic incapability which is no one’s fault. It creates the impression that there’s no need to reflect on how exactly the relationship functioned, whether Florence can learn from her own conduct and from her experience with Krish. As Krish and Florence were not destined to be, the game suggests there is no need to consider how the lack of reciprocal affective labour from Krish may have factored in the break-up. When Florence shows us the growing distance between the couple through subtle variations in the puzzle gameplay mechanic, it is relatable. Their distress resonates. It is a poignant moment in the game, justifying the considerable attention that the game has received. But this highly dubious version of romance portrayed doesn’t seem to offer the player an opportunity to think about why they broke up. Simply, things just didn’t work out between Krish and Florence.

... Or did they? Florence ended up becoming an artist because Krish believed in her so much he brought her a paint set and she used it to make commercially successful art. “Oh!! I guess everything happens for a reason, after all!” For a game about the everyday relationships and intimacy Florence comes across as quite burdened by clichés about love which aren’t very helpful for relationships. Clichés that are associated with, even seen as encouraging, stalking and abusive behaviour, where a women is an interesting object of affection rather than an actor, and obsessive behaviour from men is ‘cute’.

A rejection of Valentine’s Day is nearly as loud as celebrations of it, which made February 14 an interesting choice for the release of Florence. Valentine’s Day embodies the capitalist spirit, heteronormative consumerist ritual and annual performance which can act as a substitute for the lack of everyday acts of care. It preys on our feelings of inadequacy about the state of our love life, whether we’re single or in a relationship. We know women don’t need chocolate, roses, and art supplies. Women need to be appreciated for what they do, they need genuine attempts of reciprocation, and they need to be treated fairly. We all need men to want that for women too.

If the division of labour were to be equal in a household, we must consider context:

‘[F]ull-time working women spend 6.4 hours more per week working inside and outside the home than full-time working men. Averaged across the year, this means 332 additional hours (or two weeks of 24-hour days) of work. […] Women do more housework than men even when they are more educated, work full-time and are more egalitarian. In fact, some studies show women spend more time in housework even when their husbands earn less money or stay at home.’

If we want a pathway towards equality, we are going to need men to recognise that all genders perpetrate gender roles. If we want to see equality in the home, we need to share domestic labour. If we want to see equality in heterosexual relationships, men need to consider using creative problem-solving skills, honed through practicing affective labour, for the benefit of themselves, their partners, and gender equality. Women are often asked, ‘what are we to do about sexism?’ The answer here is that women have already been doing plenty of work. It’s time to be asking these questions to men. What are men going to do about sexism?

Reviews nominating Florence as a utopian feminist game demonstrate the collective yearning to see an idyllic representation of a woman’s relationship. Games writer Carolyn Petit at Feminist Frequency says:

‘Florence encouraged Krish to pursue music, and Krish encouraged Florence to paint. It wasn’t a case of one person nurturing or rescuing the other, but an example of mutual support, encouragement, and love. They did something for each other that I believe love can and should do in our lives: they gently helped each other become better versions of themselves. We should all be so lucky.’

Florence shoulders the pressures of the ‘craft-game’, where the genre itself is ambitious to redefine what are otherwise shallow categorisations of ‘what games are’. Being able to shed light and provide a counter reading for how Florence exposes a problem about the way we romanticise relationships has offered a chance to talk about relationship dynamics outside of conventional contexts. Here we find the gap in games to keep crafting: where it’s currently too difficult to conceptualise heterosexual dating from the perspective of a woman without programming her to perform unequal amounts of affective labour. Willing to accept that ‘affective labour’ and ‘buying paint’ are mutual forms of support, it breaks my heart to see where the bar has been set for the relationships we would dream to have for ourselves. I want us to be able to feel like we can ask for fairer relationships and better representations of equality.

Opening the platform to more love stories from a feminine perspective increases the amount of representation in games. More feminine narratives in games make for a greater quantity of new, complex, and interesting stories. But feminist representation is not just about having more women-centric stories, it is also about the types of women-centric stories being represented. We need to make more room for positive and non-heteronormative stories about women’s intimate relationships. As seen in the fan-favourite episode ‘San Junipero’ of Black Mirror, it is refreshing to move beyond queer representations of tragic love stories. In memory of Ursula K. Le Guin, and in the wake of monumental success of Black Panther, forging utopian worlds plays an important role in how we conceptualise the possible futures we want to create.

Mahli-Ann Butt is a Ph.D researcher at the University of Sydney. Her latest publication, ‘Rebel Girls and Consequence in Life is Strange and The Walking Dead’, was published byGames and Culture and co-authored with Daniel Dunne. She is the student officer for the Digital Games Research Association and the editor-in-chief of Press Start.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Tom Apperley for his affective labour and encouragement, and the subsequent cheer squad consisting of Robbie Fordyce, Lars de Wildt, Krister Mathieu Collin, and Kyla Allison.