About a week after we returned from our honeymoon, my cute new husband took it upon himself to install a dozen hooks above the oven. Upon these hooks, we would hang our pans and coffee mugs, and also our hopes and dreams. We had spent the last year apathetic about our messy nest, unable to do much of anything, much less something so ambitious as hanging cup hooks. We’d watched spills on our two-degree-tilted counter drip slowly from sink to floor over the course of hours. We’d accumulated mournful cabinets overflowing with plastic takeout containers that we could not bear to recycle. But now, there could be cup hooks!
And the shoes by the door could really use a shoe rack. The shoes we had spent all pandemic kicking off against the wall while we disinfected our hands and tossed our masks into the dirty mask basket. Now, my boo had the wherewithal to assemble a solid little Ikea shelf in which to house them, so they perched like pairs of cooing turtledoves.
And then, his amazing collection of string instruments could be hung cheerfully on the wall, instead of strewn about like a piece of experimental music you trip over to play. He got little mini-shelves, to organize the crap out of regular shelves. He cleaned out the closet. He roamed around our apartment, drill at the ready, looking for further, more strategic ways to organize our mess.
I oohed and ahhed and did the dishes.
We seemed to be nesting at last, a talent we’d lost the previous year—or rather, he’d lost it entirely, and I’d lost my ability to do it without a huge chip on my shoulder. Now we were relearning it, alongside a dozen other human talents, like students trying to remember how to conjugate verbs in another language.
“You like?” he asks, gesturing proudly with the drill bit.
“Oh!” I say, “This is exactly what I wanted! Thank you!”
I am thinking, of course, about Leah and her goat cheese.
During the first big month of lockdown, the one everyone took very seriously, the two of us got extremely invested in Stardew Valley, the adorable tend-and-befriend farming simulator where every villager holds a quirky, discoverable secret. Seasons passed reliably. Time was not broken in the valley, as it was in our quarantined apartment. We farmed, mined, and fished, delivering odd tributes to the Junimos, fairy-like creatures flitting about the Community Center. We shunned visits to Jojamart, a clear stand-in for the kind of megacorporation we couldn’t quite boycott in our actual apartment. The villagers’ lives were far more complicated than you might expect from such perky pixelated outlines—depression, divorce, affairs, failed careers, heartbreak on all fronts—but always comforting. They were getting through it, and so would we.
Intensely, we would discuss our plans before the Stardew day began: our biggest priorities, our long-term goals, how best to fill the middle hours when the stores were open, who would be drinking in the tavern at night, how to maximize our mining and still get home before our little avatar collapsed from exhaustion at 2 am. We fell into fine-tuned roles. I would research all the details on my laptop and deliver our daily strategy in clipped directions, while he would finesse the plan and execute it. We optimized so hard that it became unclear to me how anyone played it alone—surely, to do this right, you needed two fully focused adults, each working their hardest to accomplish all the tasks at their proper times. Each day in Stardew ticks by so fast, and so many things can only be acquired in a certain season, weather, or time of day. Every villager has favorite gifts and a daily schedule, and you must give them the gifts at the right moment to maximize their love for you. This was especially crucial when courting, which we could not have collaborated on more seriously had we been trying to find a third for a threesome.
We noticed Leah from the start. We loved her. A red-headed sculptress who moved to the valley to work on her art full time, Leah quickly became everything to us. She had an unpleasant ex named Kel (ugh, Kel), but obviously they couldn’t make her happy. We could. With an infinite supply of cheese.
“Okay,” my boo would say, flexing his fingers as the game booted, “so today we are building up our barn, to buy a goat, to make goat cheese, to give it to Leah?” I’d scan the wiki and reply, “Yes. And we’ve got to get it ready before her birthday on Winter 23.” Gifting her goat cheese was the lightest lift, out of all of Leah’s favorites. Poppyseed muffins or stir fry or salad had too many complicated ingredients to acquire; truffles couldn’t be found in the winter, which was the season we really started chasing her; and wine, well, we had to age our precious wine in casks for months so we could sell it, at a great profit. If Leah thought she was special enough to be worth our gold star grape wine, she was just not the woman for us. But goat cheese! Once we got into the swing of it, we could craft and give it to her twice a week, as often as she’d accept it. All winter and all spring, we dutifully made her cheese, and she accepted it with such fresh enthusiasm every time:
“Oh! This is exactly what I wanted! Thank you!”
Ugh, adorable. Leah would not have minded a messy apartment. Even after we gave her the mermaid pendant and she married us, she would not have complained about boring subjects like whose turn it was to take out the trash and why patriarchy is such an exhausting hell for all parties. Leah is the perfect woman; she does her sculpting, she forages for mushrooms when it rains, she remains fully delighted with her 79th gift of goat cheese, and when you kiss her, it completely restores your exhaustion meter. If you put up oven hooks for her, Leah would probably be thrilled. On the other hand, Leah has weird, random likes and dislikes, like every character who can receive a gift. She hates a lot of delicious foods—bread, pancakes, hashbrowns, pizza. If you hand Leah a pizza, she’ll look you right in the face and say “This is a pretty terrible gift, isn’t it?” It’s really not the sort of thing that would work in my kitchen. But through the magic of Leah, and the satisfaction of endless, cheerful tasks in the game, we do not seem to mind when our efforts go momentarily unappreciated. We make a mental note—no carbs for our best girl—and trundle back to the goats.
Because: the messy complexities of homemaking and marriage get all smoothed out in Stardew Valley, where all the cleaning and nesting is the fun kind—the kind that shows immediate, Instagrammable results, not the kind that’s just a doleful battle against entropy. We love it so because we, too, would prefer to spend all our tidying time picking up around our clean, bright farm, not picking the hair out of our actual shower drain. We, too, would like to amass many charming, colorful items and fit them neatly into the chests outside our house, not unclutter our actual kitchen table from under a blanket of papers and unopened mail for the dozenth time this month. How can virtual and literal tidying be so similar and yet so extremely different? And how can different kinds of cleaning have such different valences to them, so that even when your beloved is definitely tidying, it still can feel rotten? The politics of heterosexual housework is such a tired subject. Everyone gets it, no one can solve it. We sigh and throw up our hands. Intractable!
The politics of heterosexual housework is such a tired subject. Everyone gets it, no one can solve it. We sigh and throw up our hands. Intractable!
But we can definitely solve it in Stardew Valley. In Stardew Valley, we are a flawless team with precisely the same goals: fix up the community center, catch the river fish on a day when it’s raining, woo the pretty sculptor with the side braid. I am a drill sergeant, directing him where to go and what to buy, and he is on high alert, fingers on the buttons, following my orders to clean the land of weeds, get to Pierre’s General Store, and hurry back to plant an enormous pumpkin patch before dark. We are both set free from our annoying gendered roles. There is no voice in the back of my head, warning me not to take on the dreaded mental load—in game, I can research and think through every permutation without a qualm. And there is no voice in the back of his head, telling him that, logically, cleaning the same space is a waste of precious time and energy, and surely we could just avoid the whole thing if we only found the right combination of cup hooks—in game, he is perfectly happy to do the equivalent of loading and unloading the dishwasher every single gameday.
Out of game, what a terrible waste of time. Far better to put the dirty dishes on the counter and wash them in a bit, when it’s washing time. And if that pile attracts some fruit flies late in the summer, then my boo will craft a dozen homemade vinegar fly traps, in mason jars he has hoarded from the recycling bin as jealously as Gollum hoarded the Ring.
“Look, I made us another!” he says, sloshing the solution and placing it carefully on the counter.
“Oh!” I say, in my quoting-Leah voice, and he laughs. He is, to be honest, exactly what I wanted.
Melissa Kagen is a videogame professor at Curry College. Her book, Wandering Games, is forthcoming in 2022 from MIT Press. She co-edits the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds and can be found online at melissakagen.com or on Twitter @melissakagen.