Culture, Morality, and Papers, Please

Posing as an immigration officer in Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, the player processes paperwork at the Grestin border of Soviet-era Arstotzka. Increasing moral dilemmas complicate the game, as the player determines whether to allow needy citizens into the country or to strictly abide by Arstotzkan law. Each decision impacts the final game results, including player’s imprisonment or deposing the Arstotzkan government. While “just” a videogame, Papers, Please explores the dichotomy between morality and rationality in bureaucratic processes like border control, a seemingly dry and mindless line of work. The video game, resultantly, depicts the use of videogames as both statements of political education and of human morality, determined by the possibilities of choice and consequent actions.

Papers, Please sets the player in 1982 communist Arstotzka, which has recently come out of a six-year war with its neighboring country Kolechia. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman describe a game as a set of unwritten and written rules that provide for meaningful play and compelling decision making (10). The Papers, Please player inspects every immigrant attempting to cross the border and audits travel documents according to the rulebook. He makes the choice to either accept or deny the immigrant. Simple? At first, yes. As the player familiarizes himself with the rulebook, the process of checking documents becomes a monotonous task.

However, the rulebook changes everyday making the game progressively more challenging with evolving means of success and failure. These changes challenge how the player chooses to achieve the main goal of the game, even by breaking the roles (Salen and Zimmerman, 11-12). For instance, the game may add in lists of wanted criminals that the player needs to watch for or new forms of documents. The “successes” at work—with each success counted as someone correctly let in Arstotzkan—come with a monetary reward that the player uses to provide for his family, i.e. ensuring the family receives enough food or heating to survive. Wrongfully approving immigrants into Arstotzka can lead to failure to care for the family and, consequently, failure in the game at large.

Although Papers, Please lacks a real plot, the daily newspaper clippings at the start of each new day in the game provide not only clues to upcoming game and rulebook changes but also string together a larger narrative. Ignoring the narrative of the game with total immersion in game mechanics, the player can succeed in the game. But the power of choice as a core gameplay mechanic delivers a personal narrative to the game, barring the player from completely becoming one with the monotonous bureaucratic system. Essentially, this immersive environment allows the player to control his own narrative as he acts according to his intuition on how to assess a certain immigrant (Salen and Zimmerman, 33-36). This choice results in a level of uncertainty for the player. In fact, hesitation on certain ethical issues is a byproduct of choice.

Following the argument of choice and uncertainty, the option for choice in Papers, Please differs from other games, like Age of Mythology, that have a calculated storyline and use choice as a means to expose already existing doubts. For example, in Age of Mythology, the player may decide to raid a nearby colony knowing that he has a good probability of success and that success in the raid will help achieve the game’s objective. In Papers, Please, the player’s freedom to accept or deny a certain immigrant reveals a level of unknowingness in the decision, especially in higher levels where immigrants’ travel documents and storylines become more complex. The types of choices in the two games thereby depict how choice can differently impact players’ emotional and physiological states.

Additionally, the moral imperatives in Papers, Please reflect those in reality, wherein environment and its confining rules both influence and limit the possibilities of choice. These imperatives thereby stimulate an internal struggle of acting “justly” to resolve the issues that the environment constricts. Namely, this struggle conceives a choice for a person to either strictly adhere to the rules imposed on him or to undertake a loose, creative interpretation that allows him to draw upon his moral consciousness (Salen and Zimmerman, 15-18). Focusing this perspective to the bureaucratic system, the video game exposes the malleable understanding of morality within large, structured systems and the consequences of those decisions on other factors and other environments. For instance, if the player acts morally and accepts an immigrant to unite him/her to his/her family despite the game rules, he may lose money essential to maintaining his home environment. In this way, the game mechanics force users to bargain between opposing moral obligations—those he faces at work and those he faces at home.

Culturally speaking, Papers, Please also reveals more about human nature than bureaucratic predicaments. The player faces moral dilemmas because his environment provides a stimulus for those impasses. Similarly, people will often face moral quandaries as a result of environmental factors that created that sense of obligation. Otherwise, they remain oblivious to the unresolved moral issues. Salen and Zimmerman suggest that designers need to consider players’ psychological relationships with games to enable more engaging gameplay (27-30). Papers, Please certainly draws upon role-play to deepen players’ connection with the narrative of the game. This form of mimicry spatially and mentally detaches players from reality by immersing them into the gameplay illusion. However, Papers, Please concurrently uses that detachment to offer insight into the reality of human nature as explained previously. In another sense, the player identifies with the game’s avatar which enables him to experience the sorts of ethical issues that he may bypass in real life due to selective attention (Gee, 28-30).

While Papers, Please may hold some cultural significance, its function reforms when taken as an educational game. In Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College, Mark Carnes mentions the difficulties of changing belief by describing the many “social selves” of man that can only be influenced if previously-held beliefs are let go (95-97). So, then, can someone who has strong beliefs on the elasticity of morality and bureaucracy still understand something different about the system? If taken from Carnes’ perspective, maybe not. But perhaps a repeated stimulation does slowly tailor a player’s subconscious thinking towards the presented issues of morality and bureaucracy.

Consequently, if perceived as a form of education or a political statement, Papers, Please jeopardizes its status as a game. Bruno Faidutti theorizes that games must be pointless without any “tricks” to teach players certain values or shape players’ beliefs. This philosophy may seem irrelevant here as Pope mentioned in an interview with The Verge that he did not intend Papers, Please to stand as a political statement but rather as a simple means of entertainment. Nevertheless, once a game releases, the designers’ intentions stand less significantly in lieu of public perception. Just because a game did not expect to assume an educational or political nature does not mean that it cannot.

Papers, Please seems to enlighten players on morality and how the bureaucratic system eludes that very morality, but how can the general public distinguish the narrative of the story from reality? Faidutti argues that games try to mimic reality but instead pose a “systematic” and “dishonest” image of the real world was, to me, quite thought provoking. Ian Bogust’s Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames similarly expresses how games can create a concentrated reality in which the game designer subjectively selects which aspects of reality to include (97-98, 142-143). Conjoining these thoughts, games like Papers, Please can theoretically and paradoxically limit perspective and learning by forcing players to forfeit free thought and adapt their mindset to that imposed upon them by the game designer. That is, of course, if players open themselves up to “brainwashing” (Carnes, 93-96).

Without a doubt, Papers, Please finds its unique niche in the realm of role-playing games by engendering internal tensions within the players via autonomy over choice between game rules and a sense of moral obligation. The game also touches on political sentiments, especially those around how that moral choice influences monotonous bureaucratic processes. In this way, Papers, Please presses players to deepen their understanding of specific, often-neglected aspects of reality. While an enjoyable and ethically challenging and consuming and even education game, Papers, Please paves the way for a future of politically-charged video games in a time where political tensions continue to rise. If mirroring a modern era of immigration and border control, i.e. recent elections and border control in the U.S., rather than placing the storyline the 1980’s Soviet era, would players interact differently? Would they enjoy the game as much or think too much about a politically-charged agenda? Would this even classify as a “game”? Games are what the players make them to be. Papers, Please is no different. It can be just a game as Pope intended. Or it can be something much deeper, more profound, even disturbing. Perception is everything.

References

Age of Mythology. Windows PC version, Microsoft Game Studios, 2002.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. The MIT Press, 2010.

Carnes, Mark C., Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Faidutti, Bruno. “Games and Education.” Faidutti, 10 Oct. 2017, faidutti.com/blog/?p=2347.

Gee, James Paul. Unified Discourse Analysis: Language, Reality, Virtual Worlds and Video Games. Routledge, 2014.

Papers, Please. Mac OS X version, Lucas Pope, 2013.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press, 2010.

Webster, Andrew. “Immigration as a Game: ‘Papers, Please’ Makes You the Border Guard.” The Verge, The Verge, 14 May 2013. http://www.theverge.com/2013/5/14/4329676/papers-please-a-game-about-an-immigration-inspector.

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