Papers, Please: Why make a computer game about border control?

'Papers, Please' is an oddly compelling and thought-provoking triumph.

It’s a strange feeling, approaching the American border as a citizen. We are raised in a bubble, and only at the border of our own nation do we realise that anyone, even our own, becomes a possible enemy simply by virtue of having stepped outside.

We are raised strictly conditioned to the righteousness of our attitude to security, a conditioning that’s become more explicit since 9/11. Early on in the months that followed the event, domestic travelers removed shoes and parceled baby formula and tossed out water bottles with pride, as if performing a duty to our nation. So many of us now are inundated with messaging that implies a pat and peer at our exposed body is an indignity it would be unpatriotic to protest.

The average American doesn’t go abroad much or regularly, thanks to the way the cost of international travel intersects with the startling size of our own homeland and its apparently endless chasms and mountains and lakesides and things to do. The self-centeredness which the rest of the world seems happy to credit us with probably has to do, at least in part, with our embarrassment of luck when it comes to unspoiled places, and how rarely it is necessary or possible for us to look outside for them.

For most of us it’s not a sinister or wilful ignorance, I promise. I didn’t start traveling abroad until I became a video games and technology journalist in my late twenties, nor living abroad until I met a particular London gentleman during a games conference in Nottingham last year and decided I wanted to see some more of, er, the UK’s games industry.

My sweetheart has traveled quite a lot more than I have, and loves telling border control stories, especially those to do with how his stamps from Iran, Turkey and China particularly rankled American customs agents as they paged through this tall, roving Englishman’s passport. When we went to my hometown, New York, together, before we were temporarily divided, citizens from foreigners, we spotted a portrait of several proud, uniformed, flag-draped customs officers framed in a place of honor. The shiny plaque proclaimed that lots of New York City’s border guards had once been military servicemen and women, too.

“Jesus,” breathed my English gentleman, darkly, looking more closely at the proud, straight-backed Americans who traded in their guns for inky stamping devices. He would go on to be permitted to come home with me, but not after being held for further questioning in Level 2 security.

Whether you’re coming or going, whether home or abroad, border control is a surreal space, uniquely populated with angst. It is a place between nations, its air pumped thick with friction and fear of one another. You wonder what kind of person works in such a place. Probably sickos.

One thing no one thinks in that belly-dropping, breath-held moments when they pass their documents through a slot in a Plexiglas window to be evaluated by a stranger is, This would make a fun computer game.

But that’s just what designer Lucas Pope did, fascinated by the multitasking, the multiple documents and passports and ID cards and landing sheets and big, bright stamps. Most computer games are power fantasies, but in exploring the daily work of a border control agent, Pope’s concocted a disempowerment fantasy. What if you weren’t the brave spy or roguish smuggler, but the guy who has the boring job of stopping him?

Pope is easily piqued by the hidden complexity in everyday jobs, particularly those that lie at the intersection of irreconcilable goods: security and transparency, for example. He previously sketched unique little game Republia Times for a 48-hour game jam, intrigued by the ways a national newspaper’s editor-in-chief could (must?) balance the moral mandate of truth with the best interests of the state.

In his newest computer game, Papers, Please, you play a booth employee at the border of the nation of Arstotska, a fictional place with a vintage Soviet Bloc vibe and a chilly, grim colour palette. You start your day by lifting a heavy shutter, summoning the first in a line of anxious silhouettes with a mangled, unintelligible megaphone bark. A lined, tired-eyed face approaches your window with a foreign passport. You need to check the issue date, the issuing city, watching for discrepancies that might suggest an expired document or worse, a sinister forgery. If they’re coming for work, they need a permit; if they’re citizens, they need an ID card.

Just from a mechanical standpoint, balancing a complex set of components and variables is surprisingly engaging, a constant test of your acuity. The game has a delightful tactility to it: stamping feels so weighty and wet you can nearly smell the ink, and papers shuffle with excellent brittleness. As days pass in the game, the demands increase -- it soon becomes clear it’s nearly-impossible to process everyone in the same methodical way, without mistakes. You start losing money. Your son gets sick. And that’s when Papers, Please starts getting truly interesting.

You make your salary based on the number of travellers you process daily without error. At the end of the day, you see a tally of your earnings and penalties, and an update on the wellbeing of your family: your wife and son, and the ageing mother-in-law and uncle who also rely on you for what meagre support you can eke out for them.

Your job processing documents begins to get overwhelming. Sometimes someone’s documents don’t quite check out, and it’s up to you to make a choice -- do you fulfill your role defending the state, or do you turn a blind eye in the interest of keeping a family together? You can bend the rules, but it costs you. It costs your own family. Without this job, you’re all out of options.

Sometimes you have a particularly gruelling day, have made one too many mistakes, and someone offers you a little bribe. What do you do? One day, an intruder from rival nation Kolechia confronts the border guards and blows himself up, killing workers at the checkpoint. You don’t know why -- each day you get a glimpse of the broader political climate in the world through the local headlines, but can you trust the news? Shouldn’t you look a little more closely at Kolechian passports?

I thought of my many unpleasant American homecomings, waiting to see the passport agent, noticing Muslim families or men wearing turbans who’d been shunted to benches alongside the room, where I knew they would be waiting much longer than me.

Papers, Please also asks you: could you silently assist revolutionaries, even if you’re not sure if they’re the right sort? Could you bring yourself to subject a thin, haggard woman to a nude body scan -- if there’s a slim chance she might be wearing a bomb? 

One day in the game you deny some forged documents, and there’s an argument. The shadow of a rifle’s butt edges into frame, stuns the illegal interloper with a dull thud. The guards drag him away. All you can do is call for the next immigrant. Are you doing the right thing?

It’s not that the game makes me feel sorry for the laughing, square-shouldered agent who, on a trip to Austin, Texas, seemed to cock his finger at me almost arbitrarily, pulling me out of line to pat me with an excess of enthusiasm through my thin summer dress, mostly because he could.

But it does make me realise that the strange, ambiguous fear cloud that overhangs national border zones doesn’t just affect those of us who pass through, but also those of us who, for one reason or another, have to work there. Maybe they feel as conflicted about the body-creased, luminous and unsettling RapiScan photos they have to look at as we do about the fact we have to offer them.

Papers, Please is steeply challenging, and full of sick-making moments, just one more exemplar about how games feel most meaningful when they don’t have “fun” or “entertainment” as a primary directive. Designer Pope has told me he’s a little disappointed some reviews have lavished upon the un-fun-ness of Papers, Please. It is, in fact, quite fun, serving the subtle thrill that comes with learning -- over time, players aren’t so quick to become overwhelmed, find they memorise the obscure spellings of made-up issuing cities, enjoy blithely shuttling documents like an expert. Some of the characters are funny, too, comedy stragglers stranded in thin attempts to fool you, or local regulars of whom you might grow fond.

Papers, Please is explicitly not an “educational game,” nor a preachy one. But like a prism, it illuminates incredible swathes of a complicated issue by casting the player as one of that issue’s smallest, least remarkable components, and asking them to perform what is on its face a set of mechanical behaviours. Nor is it any kind of fantasy: the invented elements of Papers, Please -- its fictional nations, the intentional vagaries of its details -- make the game more thought-provoking than if it were literal; because Arstotzka isn’t any one place, it could be any place at all.

Here’s a sad thing about bureaucracy: it applies systems thinking to entire populations of human beings. We become a series of statistics and possible flags. And in our eyes, an agent becomes an emblem of whatever belief we maintain: that the State is just, or that it isn’t. Games have incredible capacity to create empathy, and sometimes that empathy can be more enlightening than a power fantasy. What if you were just an employee trying to do the right thing?

Papers, Please.
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Can the disciplined Democrats defeat Trump’s maelstrom of chaos?

The Democratic National Convention has been exquisitely stage-managed and disciplined. But is it enough to overcome Trump’s news-cycle grabbing interventions?

The Democratic National Convention did not begin auspiciously.

The DNC’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was unceremoniously launched as if by an ejector-seat from her job on the eve of the convention, after a Wikileaks dump of internal emails painted a picture of a party trying to keep the insurgent candidate, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, from blocking Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination.

One email, in which a staffer suggests using Sanders’ Jewish faith against him as a candidate in order to slow his insurgent campaign, was particularly damning in its optics and Schultz, who had tweeted with some hubris about her Republican opposite number Reince Priebus during last week’s Republican convention in Cleveland, had to fall on her sword.

Clinton’s pick of Tim Kaine as a running-mate – a solid, safe, and unexciting choice compared to a more vocal and radical campaigner like Elizabeth Warren – was also criticised, both by the media, with one commentator calling him “a mayonnaise sandwich on wholewheat bread”, and by the left of the party, who still held out hope that the Democratic ticket would have at least one name on it who shared the radical vision of America that Sanders had outlined.

On top of that, Kaine, who is a Catholic, also disappointed many as a vice-presidential pick because of his past personal history of opposition to abortion. Erin Matson, the co-director of the reproductive rights group ReproAction, tweeted that Kaine being added to the ticket was “tremendously disappointing”.

On the other side, Donald Trump had just received a poll bump following a terrifying speech which recalled Richard Nixon’s 1968 convention address. Both speeches appealed to fear, rather than hope; many are calling Trump’s keynote his “Midnight in America” speech. Just before the Democrats convened, analyst par excellence Nate Silver and his site, 538.com, forecast Trump’s chance of victory over Clinton in November at above 50 per cent for the first time.

On top of that, Bernie Sanders more vocal supporters arrived at the Democratic convention – in Philadelphia in the grip of a heatwave – in relative force. Protests have already been more intensive than they were at the RNC, despite all expectations to the contrary, and Sanders delegates disrupted proceedings on the first day by booing every mention of Hillary Clinton’s name.

But then, things appear to turn around.

The second day of the convention, which saw Hillary Clinton formally nominated as the first female presidential candidate in American history, was less marred by protest. Bernie Sanders addressed the convention and endorsed his erstwhile rival.

Trump’s inability to stop prodding the news cycle with bizarre non-sequiturs turned the focus of what would otherwise be a negative Democratic news cycle back onto him; an unforced error which led to widespread, if somewhat wild, speculation about his possible links with Putin in the wake of the news that Russia had been behind the email hack and lightened some of the pressure on the Democrats.

And then Michelle Obama took the stage, delivering an oration of astonishing power and grace (seriously, watch it – it’s a masterclass).

Compared with the RNC, the Democratic National Convention has so far been exquisitely stage-managed. Speakers were bookended with pithy, designed-for-virality videos. Speakers started on time; headliners played in primetime.

Both Trump and Clinton have now addressed their conventions before their headline speech remotely, via video link (Trump also engineered a bizarre early-convention pro-wrestling-style entrance), which put observers of both in mind of scenes from V for Vendetta.

But the imagery of Clinton’s face appearing on screen through a graphic of shattering glass (see what she did there?) will likely be one of the moments that sticks most in the memory of the electorate. It must kill the reality TV star to know this, but Clinton’s convention is getting better TV ratings so far than the RNC did.

Michelle Obama’s masterful speech in particular provided stark contrast with that of Melania Trump – an especially biting contrast considering that parts of the latter’s speech last week turned out to have been plagiarised from the former. 538’s forecast saw Clinton slide – barely – back into the lead.

A mayonnaise sandwich Tim Kaine might be, but he is nonetheless looking like a smart pick, too. A popular senator from a key swing state – Virginia – his role on the ticket is not to be a firebrand or an attack-dog, but to help the former secretary of state reach out to the moderate middle that Trump appears to be leaving entirely vacant, including moderate Republicans who may have voted for Mitt Romney but find Trump’s boorish bigotry and casual relationship with the truth offputting. And the electoral mathematics show that Trump’s journey to victory in the electoral college will be extremely difficult if Kaine swings Virginia for Clinton.

Ultimately, the comparison between the Democratic convention in Philadelphia so far and last week’s chaotic, slapdash and at times downright nutty effort in Cleveland provides a key insight into what this election campaign is going to be like: chaos and fear on one side, but tight discipline on the other.

We will find out in November if discipline is enough to stop the maelstrom.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.