Experiencing the Banality of Evil in ‘Papers, Please’

I once moved to the U.K. for an extended period of time. I can recall very few situations more stressful than that customs line: Did I have all my papers? What questions were they going to ask? What would happen if I got waived through but my wife didn’t? In terms of “immigrations,” it was a relatively mild one. We had given up our apartment and jobs in the U.S., but if we got denied, we still had friends and family to help us out. We weren’t going to be secreted away by fascist goons, and the laws of both the U.S. and the U.K. were fairly navigable in the grand scheme of things. Still, watching the border officer review all our paperwork was tense. The seconds it took for her to reach for her stamp felt like years. What was going through her mind while she looked at our documents?

Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please offers one possible explanation, albeit one set in a much more dramatic environment. It’s a game where you play as an immigration inspector who has to process paperwork and make the decision whether to allow people to cross the border. Your job is simple: grant or deny people passage to the country. However, as the game goes on, the human cost of of your decision for both you and those you evaluate becomes apparent, leading to some uncomfortable realizations about the power of social structures.

The game’s drab colors, plodding music, and over all down-trodden environment set the tone for a process that rewards emotional detachment. As a border agent, you get paid for each person you let through, but you’re docked pay for mistakes, so you don’t really want to spend more time than absolutely necessary on any one person.

Things look bland, but they feel frantic as you try to make evaluations both quickly and carefully. Each document must be manually dragged from the counter to your inspection table. Unless you have a good memory, you’ll be leafing through the rulebook and daily policy change notices to double check passports for discrepancies. Even the way you physically array a collection of documents can obscure a crucial piece of information at the bottom of a heap of papers.

Success in Papers, Please bestows the same satisfaction games like Diner Dash or The Sims do. Setting up and executing efficient procedures is rewarding, both in terms of in-game currency and in that portion of your brain that likes processing chaos and refining it into order. Therein lies the problem and the deeper message of Papers, Please. The raw material you’re processing is people.

Papers, Please is a terrifying and elegant illustration of how inhumanity is created through systems. Sure, you can choose not to stop any immigrants, but then how will you pay the rent or feed your family (actions you’re forced to face at the end of every in-game day)? Some immigrants plead with you and say that sending them back to their former country is as good as a death sentence. Other people who seem suspect probably should be denied, but their papers are in order. Is going with your gut either fair or worth the fine of erroneously denying them? Processing people quickly means abdicating your personal moral code and ceasing to question authority in order to survive. Put in this position, people wind up doing some horrible things.

I think teachers could employ Papers, Please as a way to teach students about the banality of evil. In much the same way that Oregon Trail simulated the various hardships of American western expansion, Papers, Please provides some systemic weight to abstract intellectual concepts. I don’t know if this is the case for most kids, but I always thought I’d be smart or brave enough to stand up to flaunt the rules of a corrupt society. Why not just “refuse” to follow the rules? The answer is that the ideal reality and the practical reality can’t co-exist without sacrifice and that sacrifice has to be made by somebody.

This takes us back to why I find border checkpoints so terrifying. It’s rare that you get to see the machinations of a gargantuan set of rules responsible for structuring modern society so plainly. At the tip of the spear are people whose entire lives hinge on being able to conform to those rules regardless if said rules are biased against you personally or are corrupt in a broader sense. The concept of how close we are to a situation where “man is wolf to man” becomes startlingly clear whether you’re the one waiting for the stamp or you’re the one charged with deciding whether or not to bestow it.