When I was young, I was convinced armed men would come to our house and kill my father. In my imagination, they would drive up in a white van, machine guns at their side. My dad, who would know their faces, would confront them from the porch, daring them to complete their murderous task before he could pull out his own pistol. Sometimes my dreams would concoct a night-time raid instead, the details similar but painted in more unsettling nocturnal hues. Of course these were delusions, but my sisters believed in them too. Our fears were built on the tall tales my father would share about the drug runs, shoot outs, and machismo-fueled encounteres of his youth. While we had guns in the home (hunting rifles and pistols), they were tools with variable uses. For a variety of reasons, our home was never a place of safety.
The sense of security I grew up with, and lack thereof, remains a compelling force in how I think about the safety of my own home today. Indeed, the perceived need for security is so powerful that it ranks amongst the most valued human rights. The need to “feel” safe, despite how painfully difficult it is to actually measure security, is a driving force in international politics as well. From America’s appropriation of global security to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine, notions of security shape both personal and large-scale systems. As crucial components of social and political systems, naturally games offer a particularly unique venue to explore the notions of safety and the cost of security.
Two recent indie games in particular create immensely compelling systems of security: The Castle Doctrine by Jason Rohrer and Papers, Please by Lucas Pope. While one game challenges players to protect their home from intruders and the other tasks players to protect a fictional nation’s borders against illegal immigrants, both fundamentally address the relationship between money, family, and security.
The Castle Doctrine
The Castle Doctrine lets you construct the booby-trapped mansion that I wish I could have made as a child. When you begin the game, the protagonist appears in a massive empty room inhabited by a randomly-generated wife and two children. Inside the room is a safe with a small amount of money that you can spend on constructing increasingly elaborate mazes to confound would-be thieves and protect whatever money remains after construction. The items at hand are diverse. Pressure-plates can trigger locked doors, pits can open up around corners, or electrified grates can zap any intruders to dust. You can even purchase cats, chihuahuas, or pitbulls to trigger effects themselves or maul robbers to death.
The problem is that all these security measures cost money. While you are logged out or busy, other players can venture into your home and rob you blind. Even if they fail, they can damage your walls, cut your wires, or even kill your pets and your family. In order to maintain security, you have every incentive to accrue more money to fund an improved defense system. The way you earn more money is by going into the homes of others and stealing from them instead.
The Castle Doctrine constructs some beautifully elegant procedural rhetoric that highlights the self-defeating cycle of paranoid security-mongers. In order to provide your family with security, you rob homes to gain more money. As you gain more money, your home becomes a more alluring target for thieves. As thieves continue to damage and raid your home, the perceived sense of security goes down and the perceived need to invest more into security goes up. The game is a trap and security, its goal, becomes a burden.
Interestingly, the game features permadeath/ So, if players die while raiding another home, they lose everything. The procedural outcome of this decision makes every raid on another home a terrifying endeavor. You have to get more money, but if you delve too deep into a well built fortress, your next step may be your last. The option to leave is always available for those wary about one home or another. Ideally, you would enter a home, find a quick stack of cash and leave. While safes are rarely so easy to loot, another player’s wife can be an easier target. The moment a thief enters a home, the wife and children will immediately try to escape. The spouse happens to carry with her half of any player’s cash reserves. If she happens to walk past a looter, they can easily club or shoot her, take the money, and make a quick and much safer exit. The robber’s need for security incentivizes murder.
From the perspective of the homeowner, The Castle Doctrine walks the precarious line between security and vulnerability. In addition to making a maze for other players, you have every reason to create an elaborate system to protect your wife and kids as well. These characters are AI controlled and possess their own wills. As you start walling your family off behind pressure plates, locked doors, and guarded rooms, the home takes on the form of a prison. Security comes at the cost of aesthetic beauty and personal freedom. Similarly, to maintain fairness, the game forces you to rob your own home before leaving. If you die in the process, that’s it, game over. As you increase the complexity of your own security systems at home, you also increase your own vulnerability and put everything at stake in the process. Again, security is a trap, the only out being the strangely persistent “Suicide” button on the right of the screen.
As Rhorer states in an interview about the game, “the skill and intelligence required in this multiplayer setting as the game goes on is just going to increase. It’s not like it’s going to get easier because you become more powerful — there’s no power fantasy. You’re always just as vulnerable as you ever were.”
Designed by Lucas Pope, the creator of the politically charged Republia Times, Papers, Please asks players to take on the role of a border checkpoint officer who must process immigrants and citizens as they cross national lines. At first, detecting anomalies in a passport is an easy affair, but as the game progresses each day, the requirements become more strict. Citizens must carry identification cards one day or foreigners must consent to full-body scans in the event of discrepancies. Because each person sorted rewards you with a small sum of money, players have every incentive to speed through the queue as quickly as possible. Due to the systemic demands, the processed lose their humanity and become simple profiles, numbers to be checked, sorted, and discarded.
Like Rohrer’s Castle Doctrine, Papers, Please features an in-game family that essentially drives the system. In between border crossing shifts, you see the current health and status of your family members. They may be hungry or sick, earning more money can feed them or help them recover. Every day on the job is spent for the sake of their security, and mistakes, which may lead to fines, cause them to indirectly suffer. Family security in this context is fundamentally related to income.
Most importantly, this system is tied to the broader, implicit goal of the fictional nation to maintain national security. Letting someone slip through the crossing without proper documentation can result in a suicide bombing or attack on another guard. These attacks not only stir up some of the horror associated with terrorism, but they immediately shut down the border check point, preventing you from earning any more money for your family. The game creates an economic and moral incentive to err on the side of turning people away.
The result is a game system that creates a deeply uncomfortable experience in which you must balance personal security and national security with the difficult moral and ethical concerns associated with immigration. At one point, a young man asks you to be lenient with his wife who follows him in line. His papers check-out, hers do not. Regardless of your decision, the balance is difficult to maintain and is inherently lopsided, favoring a strict and dehumanizing policy. As characters begin to plead for admittance, for an opportunity to pass through, find work, or escape persecution, their well being is stacked up against personal and national security needs. As you methodically ask strangers to submit to full-body scans that violate their personal dignity by feeding back nude photographs, the heavy cost of perceived security is felt not in a didactic lesson, but in the difficult choices made within a burdensome and ethically dubious system.
A sense of security is powerfully motivating and has consequences outside of one’s immediate safety. These personal notions cross boundaries and have lasting effects on all our personal, social, and political landscapes. These games do not offer easy answers or even clear moral lessons, but they do ask us to interrogate the systems we put in place to make us feel secure. Do they work? Are we actually safer? And even if so, are they worth the cost? Without ever hammering players with an overt message, Rohrer and Pope have quietly made some of today’s most politically relevant games.