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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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.