Systems and Activism in 'Papers, Please'

by Jorge Albor

16 January 2014

In addition to portraying the bureaucratization of unethical behavior, Papers, Please also makes fascinating and compelling claims about activism.

In his PopMatters article on Papers, Please, Lucas Pope’s wonderful game about managing a border checkpoint for the fictional authoritarian country of Astotzka, Scott Juster calls the game, “a terrifying and elegant illustration of how inhumanity is created through systems.” This description could not be more accurate. As the game progresses and feeding your family becomes increasingly difficult, you may sacrifice morality for another day with food or heat. Watching yourself become villainous is one of the most interesting and disturbing parts of the game.

In addition to portraying the bureaucratization of unethical behavior, Papers, Please also makes fascinating and compelling claims about activism. There is one very basic system that defines player behavior in Papers, Please: Familiarize yourself with the rules (although they may change from day to day) and reject immigrants and visitors who do not comply. Above the “look, compare, stamp” routine is a larger political system that defines the behavioral context. The government of Arstotzka, fearing terrorism or revolutionary dissent, maintains a deeply troubling and despotic regime.
Importantly, these two systems are neither separate nor entirely entwined. The political context of Arstotzka touches down briefly but significantly at the tiny border crossing in which you play. As such, you can in fact affect the larger system, but only blindly and indirectly. As the border agent, you have the power to reject or admit individuals into the country. You could, if you choose, subtly undermine the Arstotzka regime by allowing in or barring individuals for moral reasons. Accepting a spouse desperate to join her husband or rejecting a suspected human trafficker subtly, but importantly, undermines the state’s control over moral decision making. For these individuals at least, even small decisions can be activist decisions.

Even so, Papers, Please also reflects how little these acts of kindness matter towards the whole. No matter how kind-hearted you might be, Arstotzka will not fall because a husband and wife were reunited. However, there are more radical options. On Day 8 of Papers, Please, a hooded messenger working for EZIC will introduce himself and hand over a card that reads Corman Drex. If you choose to pass the card on, what follows is a series of opportunities to help the mysterious “Organization of the EZIC Star” take down the Arstotzka government.

Perhaps unfortunately, helping EZIC is not so easy. One of the organization’s earlier requests involves a cipher and a decoder that can reveal the names of two EZIC agents that you are requested to let into Arstotzka. When these agents arrive exactly is unknown, and in the meantime, you must continue your regular checkpoint duties and care for your family. As a result, Papers, Please creates a brilliantly devious circular system and some interesting rhetoric.

Here is how this circle works. To feed your family, you need money. To get money, you must process as many border crossers as possible. If you make a mistake or intentionally permit the entrance of someone without proper documentation, you will be warned and subsequently fined. This means that to make strategic choices, you need some breathing room. You have to have enough money to afford the fine or process enough people so the fine doesn’t matter. As a result, the game pressures you to work quickly and efficiently. Without hesitation, you will develop your own system—rule book open on the left, passport on the right, read name, then passport number, then location, etc. Before long, you begin to master this most basic system. You get good.

To achieve this mastery, you train yourself to be efficient, to only spend time checking what is necessary. This focus creates blindness, both to the conditions of others and to your own intentions. You may detain someone before even hearing their protestations, or like me, you may forget to check that cipher again. What was the name? Did you let them through already? Did you reject them? Have you missed your opportunity to make actual structural change?

This is another opportunity for the game’s political rhetoric. Achieving mastery over small systems, even in pursuit of justice, makes you vulnerable to becoming blind to the larger system. You may tell yourself that with a little more money, you can be more strategic, you can have more options, but the system is simply not built for radical change and gradual activism to work together. To focus on the minute, Papers, Please seems to say, you must necessarily miss the whole.

The same rhetoric can be applied even if you skillfully make ends meet and help EZIC achieve their goals. In one of the game’s “good” endings, EZIC leads a violent charge against the checkpoint wall and seizes control of Arstotzka. As a reward, you are given a new apartment and become their agent. But to what end? Will EZIC not become another despotic ruler? In the tiny room of your checkpoint crossing with your eye towards the small systems that you interact with, you cannot investigate or comprehend EZIC’s larger motives or the lasting repercussions of your decisions. Ignorance of how larger systems work leaves you blind to the lasting effects of your decision making.

The game’s procedural rhetoric seems to say that successful activism demands full commitment and broad knowledge of larger systems, something that cannot be achieved halfheartedly or under constraint. It is, through play, an argument for civic engagement. That being said, I still don’t know if I would call Papers, Please optimistic or even pessimistic. One of the game’s additional “good” endings occurs when you and your family flee Arstotzka entirely. Change may only occur when you remove yourself from the oppressive systems entirely. But, as in the real world, all of this is easier said than done.

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