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.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.