The world was a very different place four years ago, when self-declared ‘dystopian document thriller’ Papers, Please was released. The game invited players to experience the life of a border guard for the fictional country, Arstotzka. You must navigate the increasingly frantic bureaucracy of the border crossing, scrutinising immigration papers, interrogating individuals, and even ordering arrests, whilst mounting political tensions begin to infringe more and more on your initially simple job.
The different paths your character can take are now well known, as is the fact that Papers, Please is a remarkable game. It received almost universal critical acclaim, in spite of open acknowledgment that it couldn’t necessarily be called fun. In the context of Donald Trump’s second iteration of the Muslim ban, and increasingly anti-immigration sentiments in Europe, Papers, Please looks less and less like fiction, and more like a lens through which we can begin to understand our political and social world.
It can be all too easy to dismiss games as frivolous distractions in a time where protest and action are urgently needed, but in fact they can be one of the most persuasive media at our disposal. Games don’t just abstractly consider moral dilemmas, they force the player to enact them. As a result, games such as Papers, Please can have implications for our actions in real life. Here are three important lessons we can take away from Papers, Please in 2017.
Documents can dehumanise
“Strict adherence to mutable laws of documentation can sacrifice our humanity.”
The set-up of Papers, Please is one which deliberately draws your eyes away from the person in front of you, focusing instead upon the assorted documents on your desk. Even as they speak, this is reduced to a written transcript that you must check for factual accuracy, devoid of human interaction. The temptation to think of documents as a neutral and unassailable element of border crossings is a strong one, particularly for those of us in positions of privilege. Many people, however, may not have the basic documents required for border crossings – through no fault of their own.
The way strict adherence to mutable laws of documentation can sacrifice our humanity is made evident in Papers, Please from the moment you are first asked to bend the rules. Do you separate a couple, or allow someone through without adequate certification? The beauty of the game is that your decisions are entirely your own, and there is no one route to take. Nevertheless the game shines a spotlight on the issues of documentation, and the myriad of ways in which seemingly straightforward rules can become unmanageable when applied to real scenarios.
A particularly insidious element of Papers, Please is the way that the player becomes ever more complicit in the human rights violations of the Arstotzkan regime as gameplay develops. Your role evolves from simply rubber-stamping passports to incorporate interrogation, strip-searches, and reporting individuals to the secret service. The most terrifying component is the gradual manner in which these changes arrive. Little by little, you find yourself doing things that, if you considered them, would make you feel profoundly uncomfortable.
“The player becomes ever more complicit in human rights violations.”
The fact that terrorist activities continue in the game regardless of your actions could be read as a critique of the so-called ‘security theatre’ of the modern age. Action is taken merely for the appearance of increased protection rather than for true efficacy. Never has this seemed more pertinent than in our current world of fake news and ‘alternative facts’, in which all politics seems to accept the primacy of ‘optics’ over reality. Image is everything in Arstotzka, and even as you struggle to perform the increasingly convoluted border checks, you can’t help but feel that it’s all part of an absurd show.
“The player-character can choose to disobey their orders.”
The final key point to take away from Papers, Please is of a slightly more hopeful nature. This is that individuals and individual action can make a difference, even in the face of a regime that seeks to undermine human rights. The player-character can choose to disobey their orders, or even try to join the resistance against the governing powers of Arstotzka. Despite the oppression they face, these choices are still available to them.
Events like the Women’s March are effective partially because they operate on such a huge scale, but we must remember that they are made up of the initiative and participation of individuals. Ordinary people can affect change on a small scale, even if that only consists of trying to explain to people close to them why the current situation is unacceptable.
The real darkness of Papers, Please stems not from forcing the player to follow the rules, but from asking you to consider why, even when the rules are morally bankrupt, some people still do.