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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital