Radical Critique of ‘Papers, Please’

Created by American indie-developer Lucas Pope ‘Papers, Please’ went completely viral in 2013, winning numerous awards and selling over half a million copies. It was one of the first truly mainstream video games with an overt politically-charged agenda and narrative. The game-play is essentially that of a Border Agency simulator — the player is presented with a collection of ordinary people of all races and genders trying to enter the fictional country of Arstotska. Among other things, the player needs to check the issue date and the issuing city, watching for discrepancies that might suggest an expired document or worse, a sinister forgery! If the immigrants are coming for work, they need a permit; if they’re citizens, they need an ID card, all documents must be current, etc.

The overall directive of the game is to illustrate the almost robotic bureaucracy behind a very real, life or death situation to so many people. While shining the light on the state of modern border controls is admirable, by itself it doesn’t do much more than any other political art. It works as an exercise of preaching to the converted at best and becomes a rather self-congratulatory project at its worst.
Lucas Pope gladly received a Bafta in 2013, Britain’s most proud and prestigious entertainment award. Meanwhile, the UK continues to enforce draconian border controls and use murderous detention centres (such as Yarl’s Wood, Harmondsworth, Dungavel etc) to coerce its population.

Lucas Pope accepting his Bafta for Best Simulation Game, 2013

The danger of falling into the mediocrity of making ubiquitous, ‘politically engaged’ games is enormous. Public and private spaces are filled with complacent artistic commentary on the contemporary world, attempting to strike the balance between the ethical and the aesthetic, but rarely achieving both, hence damaging the Political in the term ‘politically engaged’. It is not enough to pass something off as having ‘revolutionary content’ whilst still utilising contemporary modes of production: rather, it is essential for the author to become a conscious producer, one who considers and evaluates her own work and her relation to the infrastructures of capital, in a ‘truly revolutionary way’.(Benjamin, 1934) Now one could say that all video games would currently struggle to meet these terms whilst still under the dictatorship of consoles and other technologies completely reliant on the exploitation of the global south. New, politically engaged games must not only criticise the status quo, but develop tools to practically destabilise it.

One redeeming feature of the game ‘Papers, Please’ is its ability to interrogate our sense of guilt. The player is challenged with moral dilemmas as the game progresses — for example, players are tasked with deciding whether to allow the supposed spouse of an immigrant through, although their papers are incorrect, at the risk of accepting ‘a terrorist’ into the country. Bribes must occasionally be accepted in order to feed player’s own family. It not only creates simplistic, symptomatic social commentary, but also succeeds in engaging the players into admitting that they are part of the problem, making them feel actively responsible. It reminds me of Spanish artist’s Santiago Sierra’s artistic practice. Sierra focuses on delivering experiences that can be seen as ‘poverty porn’. Just to give an example, he organised a performance in 2008 at the Tate Modern gallery in London where homeless women were paid the price of a one night stay in a hostel to stand facing the wall of the gallery for 8 hours. Other performances include migrants paid minimum wage to sit inside wooden boxes or digging and filling holes in the ground.

Screenshot of ‘Papers, Please’

To be generous, I would argue that rather than just being commentary or reportage, ‘Papers Please’ did have the potential to distinguish itself by holding a mirror that reflects the often wilful ignorance that is at the key of division in our society.

However, I must admit that I struggle to recognise Border Agents as humans and find it very difficult to empathise with the game’s objective. Together with the police, these institutions thrive on corruption and the border of Arstotska is not inefficient or flawed, it is in fact a perfect example of the way these places are created to run.

How many people in the gaming industry really want to admit that one of their main rewards is a sense of superiority, a perverse high status particularly when it comes with some added frisson when being viewed as a political game developer? Producing real cultural change can be a lot harder and lonelier.(Graeber, 2011)

So perhaps despite having all the best intentions, these type of practices fall into a category of mundane preaching, unfortunately still leaving one guilty rather than empowered. Or in a worst case scenario, they are just purely recuperated and used as a tool in promoting equally oppressive structures and ideologies.

How exciting it would be to see games as tools for getting rid of capitalism, not just mere posters for it. These type of games wouldn’t even need to tell a story of Politics in their narratives, maybe it would be the way they are distributed (Bitcoin mines downloaded as part of games*)..? Or energy could be spent creating FairConsoles, an equivalent of Fairphones?

We are at a fascinating crossroad in gaming where we can either go down the route that Fine Art has gone and be completely subdued by the voices of patronising liberals, or create networks of distribution and subversiveness that would be truly revolutionary. Although I may sound very critical, I am in fact very optimistic about games’ utility in aiding future counter-capitalist projects.

* Lol wrote this still when there was still SOME hope for cryptocurrencies to have some emancipatory value. What a mistake! Don’t judge, my opinion has sure shifted since then. (May 2021)

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Writer on technology | video games | politics | social relations | modes of production | Yes to Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, Post-rock, Bikes, IPA..

Writer on technology | video games | politics | social relations | modes of production | Yes to Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, Post-rock, Bikes, IPA..