‘Papers, Please’ and the Bureacracy of Play

Lucas Pope’s “bureaucracy simulator” Papers, Please both satirizes our information culture and reveals just how much we love mundane, everyday tasks.

Check. Check. Check. Stamp. Check. Check. Check. Entry Denied. ‘Please let me through, my children… the war.’ Call the border police. Come with us. ‘I won’t! My children!’ Rifle butt to the head. A woman’s body is dragged to the interrogation room. Check. Check. Check. Stamp. Repeat.

This is the experience of playing the videogame Papers, Please. You play as a border guard in a fictional pseudo-Soviet republic called Arstotzka. The bulk of the game consists of checking various papers—passports, work permits, entry permits, diplomatic visas, identity cards, fingerprint printouts—against various other papers, and against various rules, and then making the decision to allow or deny entry. Most of these tasks are roughly analogous to those an actual border guard would perform; perhaps Papers, Please is best characterised as a bureaucracy simulator.

The game’s setting gives the bureaucracy an unusual tone of human misery and turmoil, coloured by the burden of the USSR’s history. Most of the time, the player doesn’t see any actual violence, with the exception of occasional suicide bombers, and she rarely administers it directly (with the exception of one rule that requires the shooting of rogue border crossers with a tranquilliser gun), but you know that behind every stamp and every pedantic box check is suffering: torture at the hands of border guards, return to war torn countries or political persecution, the separation of families.

Most of the commentary around the game has focused on this aspect, praising it for its satire of Soviet life and for imbuing pixelated faces with pathos and the player with a sense of responsibility and remorse. The game is perhaps in this sense educational; it seems to fit into the lineage of anti-Communist texts that warn of the cruelty that human systems can exert, along with 1984 and all the other usual suspects.

However, there is one significant distinction between this kind of literature and Papers, Please: these satires are built on events, on representing narratives. Papers, Please is built on repetition and on the mundanities of experiencing bureaucracy. Such direct experience is unique to videogames as a medium, and it is this involvement that makes Papers, Please a worthwhile piece of art rather than a piece of sub-Orwellian propaganda. Where the literature has excitement, Papers, Please has boredom—or, rather, it feels like it should have boredom. By far the most revealing thing about the game is that it isn’t boring, despite being a bureaucracy simulator. It’s not a surprise that Papers, Please is not boring, despite being in part about boredom—and it’s no surprise that a videogame should be about administration.

Videogames are, in general, a form of bureaucracy, in the broadest sense, i.e. involving the ordering information in a systematic way. The designers provide the relevant forms, and the players tick the right boxes. The similarity is most obvious in those sorts of games where you manage resources, strategy games like Civilisation or Total War most prominently, but it holds to some extent for most kinds of game: anything with inventory management (RPGs), or balancing scarcity (of e.g., mana, bullets), or managing space (e.g., first person games, platform games) or gaining points (e.g., Tetris). The players in these cases interact with a system to produce increasingly efficient outputs; the efficiency gains are mostly found through repetition and the familiarity with the system that it entails. It’s this characteristic of modern society that we amuse ourselves by administrating.

Many other relaxation tasks resemble administration. Social networking is an obvious example: social networks provide users with a system and rewarding outputs, both real (having good relationships) and arbitrary (‘points’ within the network: retweets, likes), and in return require significant management. Think of the amount of time that you have spent checking that things were right with your profile, pruning friends you didn’t want anymore, editing privacy settings, responding to messages, uploading, organising and tagging photos.

Computing has extended bureaucracy of a kind into many areas of life. Going out requires research: where to go, what bus to catch; being out requires photo taking and Foursquare check-ins and other cataloguing of the data of day to day life. Going home requires the management of this data, the maintenance of networks, and then maybe some other relaxing sorting activities: cleaning dishes, matching laundered socks, responding to emails, staying up to date with the news and the weather. The last century or so has seen an explosion in the amount of available information; we now spend most of our time sorting through the wreckage.

This then is the genius of Papers, Please: that it is a satire of our information society as much as it is of their Soviet dystopia. It’s biggest joke is that it’s at once a tedious, boring job and a mode of entertainment and relaxation. The idea that the life has become bureaucratic is not a revelation; it is, for example, one of Franz Kafka’s many prophecies. But Papers, Please, unlike any work before it, asserts this fact with an unusual force. The player is caught literally doing administration for fun.

A selection of Kafka’s office writings from his time working as an insurance agent were recently published. Michael Wood, reviewing them in the London Review of Books, noted that:

I can’t pretend the texts as a whole make for lively reading, or that they are full of secret literary treasures. They are dense, detailed, local, and they hold your (or my) attention because they really do give you a sense of consuming office work, a set of tasks where the spectre of boredom and a necessarily intense concentration go hand in hand.

Despite his work’s inherent boredom, Kafka seems to have enjoyed it, or at least to have cared about his success at it and found satisfaction in doing pedantic tasks perfectly correctly. Papers, Please shares this satisfaction: there is a conflict between the player’s desire to succeed, her glee at discovering some obscure error—a passport with a false issuing city, perhaps—and her desire to respond with empathy to the plights of the pilgrims that pass across her desk. When the former desire trumps the latter, bureaucracy is at its most evil. This is not the cruelty of totalitarian systems, where bureaucrats enact horrors out of their own fear: this is a totalitarian system where bureaucracy itself is the controlling authority, and Papers, Please‘s asylum seekers are its victims, sacrificed to small satisfactions.

Patricia Hernandez has argued that Papers, Please is a fantasy of white collar empowerment, and that ultimately the gamey heroism of the player’s role is more significant than the exertion of the player’s sympathy. This is very true, but it’s complicated by the fact that Papers, Please exists within two bureaucratic systems: the bureaucracy of Arstotzka’s immigration, and the bureaucracy of the video game itself.

Within the Arstotzkan bureaucracy, the player feels empowered, because the Arstotzkan bureaucracy is a videogame’s bureaucracy. The player can take risks. The player is the bureaucracy’s sole visible agent. But within the wider bureaucracy of the game, this agency is lost. The moments where the player’s empathy is being engaged are obvious, clearly demarcated by the designer, Lucas Pope, with script and dialogue. The player is given a binary choice in these situations: to admit or to deny the pixelated immigrant. One of these options will be to follow the rules of the bureaucracy: deny those without papers, admit those with correct papers, ignore the rest. The other will be to follow the rules of the game: to admit those with good stories, to deny those with bad, to admit refugees and keep families together and to deny drug dealers.

The tension of the game comes from the when these two bureaucracies overlap, and to succeed within the laws of one means to fail within the laws of the other. Whichever the player chooses to follow, they will be doing so in line with bureaucratic expectation. In both cases, the player receives a positive outcome, enjoying the small satisfactions of bureaucratic success. Which satisfaction she prefers is a matter of temperament. I mostly chose to play things by Arstotzka’s book and rigorously upheld immigration law. For me, the small satisfactions of fastidious correctness are preferable. For others, the draws of the game’s appeals to empathy and empowered decision making are perhaps more successful. Either way, bureaucracy is inescapable.

It’s the fear of these small satisfactions that I have taken from the game. I embrace bureaucracy, but I’m wary of its extension throughout our lives and thoughts. If we accept the thesis that life is becoming ever more bureaucratic—and I see no reason to doubt it—then we must realise that we are more at risk of letting our lives become dominated by small satisfactions. It’s necessary to assess whether the small satisfactions of efficiency and order and correctness are what we want to experience every day, and whether the pursuit of small satisfactions overrides the pursuit of larger ones. It’s necessary to decide the extent to which we want our society’s controlling authority to be bureaucratic. Bureaucracy has vastly improved human experience, but not all human experiences are improved by bureaucracy.

Timothy Kennett lives in London. He writes about technology, literature, and sometimes soccer. His work has appeared in The Independent and The Inkling.