“Please! If I return to Antegra, I will be killed!”
My hand trembles over the red stamp in front of me. Her husband passed through right before her, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. I want to help her. Can’t we talk to someone about this? Isn’t there anyone to whom I can refer her to?
The clock is ticking. Each moment I waste is food taken out of my family’s mouth. I was already warned twice for absent-mindedly letting people through, so if I allow her to join her husband, they’ll dock my pay. I don’t have a choice.
I look away from the woman, exhale deeply, and I quickly jam the red stamp down onto her passport. I wince at the thwock of the rubber stamp hitting my wooden desk.
I can hear her gasp. I close my eyes tight to prevent the tears from coming out. I quietly slide her passport to her.
“You’ve doomed me,” she cries.
I hold back a sob. “Next!” I squelch out, trying to sound as authoritative as possible.
The elderly woman collects her belongings and shuffles away, incredulous. I can’t look at her. I keep my eyes focused on my hands, as they rest on the counter in front of me. I’m willing them not to tremble.
I clear my throat.
“Next!” I say again, this time with more authority. Be strong.
The next person in line saunters up to my desk.
“Glory to Arstotzka!” he bellows before showing me his state-issued ID card and passport.
‘“Fuck Arstotzka,’” I think to myself. It’s Arstotzka’s fault I’m in this position. It’s the government who raised my rent this month, ensuring more pressure on me to complete an already-harrowing task.
I’m tired. My son had a fever last night. He couldn't sleep, which meant I couldn't sleep. I need to get him medicine, but the pittance I receive from the government for ruining people’s lives isn't enough to sustain us. The guard offered me a cut of his pay for every person I detain. I don’t know what he does with them back there, and I don’t think I want to know. But the medicine is expensive, and I need the money. There’s usually a good reason to detain them, But it’s hard, especially with the young women. He leers at them as they walk by. I've overheard him talking suggestively about some of them. I know he frequents the local whorehouse. The stacks of cards I get inviting me to visit aren't disappearing from my trash on their own.
“Well?” the man says to me. “What is the delay?”
My hand glides over the green stamp.
The dopamine rushes to my brain as the man walks off. I watch him. He’s practically skipping away.
My mind drifts back to the woman. Poor lady. My thoughts are interrupted, however, by the beep of an incoming citation.
“What’d I miss?” I wonder to myself.
INVALID DATE-PENALTY: 5 CREDITS.
“Hello, my friends!” the man shouts to the border guards. I turn to call out to them, hoping I can undo my mistake.
The blast drowns out my words. I watch as my countrymen, who I am sworn to protect, are blown to bits by a suicide bomber. A suicide bomber who should have been caught. A suicide bomber I should have caught.
As the siren wails and the hundreds waiting in line sprint off, I look down at my wrists. It would be so easy.
I can’t do it anymore. I hit the “escape” button and close down Papers, Please, the fabulous new game from independent developer Lucas Pope.
Everybody has a story, and Papers, Please is one of a burgeoning genre of games known as “empathy games,” which work by using our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to influence us. Only, sometimes, it’s easy to miss the point. It’s easy to get lost in the mix of mechanics and message, foregoing one in service of the other.
It takes place in the fictional country of Arstotzka in the early-1980s. After a period of sustained civil unrest, the country has decided to open up its borders to immigrants, and you’re the lucky one who gets to man one of the booths.
The game tasks you with inspecting the documents of the various people who want entry to Arstotzka. You receive a rulebook and all of the tools you need to make proper judgments, but the game stacks the deck against you.
The first way it does so is by giving you a family. The game preys on a parental instinct as well as our instinct as players. We want to “win” games, and the only way to progress in Papers, Please is to keep your family alive. In fact, that’s the only objective. At first, the work at the border is subservient to that larger goal.
The game slowly doles out its tricks to you, lulling you into a false sense of security. The first discrepancies are easy and obvious: a female with “male” listed on her passport, an invalid city listed for entry, and other easy-to-spot problems. Eventually, you reach peak efficiency, and you glide through the first day. However, the second day brings a new set of challenges, and each day thereafter brings challenges that are a little more complicated than the one before. By the third or fourth day, foreign entrants to Arstotzka require three or four documents for entry, and they all have to match. Little details are easy to miss, especially when you’re rushing to beat the clock.
You are paid in credits for each successful judgment of an entrant. So, maybe you choose to cut corners in order to try and see as many people as possible. But, that’s when you get sloppy, and the game starts to dock your pay because of it. Perform too poorly at your job, and your income is no longer enough to cover expenses such as heat or food, and your family suffers for it.
In time, the immigrants become cattle to be herded to the proper pen. But, then the husband arrives. He’s gentle, and he thanks you for your hard work. He lets you know that his wife is coming behind him, and that’s when the game’s creator, Mr. Pope, slowly pulls the knife out of his pocket. Of course, the wife doesn't have the proper documentation, and Mr. Pope’s knife stabs you right in the heart. If you’re like me and you empathize with the old woman, Mr. Pope’s knife immediately starts to twist and dig. You know what you have to do, but it’s impossible.
At the same time, the game instills in you a sense of distrust. Early in the game, a person whose papers were perfect is revealed to be a bomber, which serves the dual purpose of shocking you into distrust and cutting your day short, costing you money. There’s no proof that this couple is actually a couple, and it’s easy to assume they’re lying. Old people can be terrorists, too.
Papers, Please has an intimate knowledge of our predilections as players, and it uses those against us to show us the ugly side of our humanity. When dealing in a strict, objective-based system, it’s easy to dehumanize people. Many games task you with shooting your way through your obstacles. They place people in our way who keep us from our goals. We mow them down with great ease and little reticence, justifying it along with way. They shot first, we tell ourselves.
Or perhaps we relax by playing competitive shooters with others online. In a virtual world, this is a harmless pressure-release that, some argue, keeps us from doing far worse in our real lives. I've played and enjoyed shooters for most of my life, and it’d take an extreme circumstance for me to even consider fighting someone, let alone killing them. But without self-examination, we tread in a dangerous middle ground where those we interact with are no longer humans, a layer of abstraction keeping us from realizing that we are killing strangers for fun. The games themselves understandably want to compel players to be efficient killing machines, measuring success in the form of a kill/death ratio and rewarding players for consecutive or creative kills. That the reward for being an efficient killer is the ability to kill even more efficiently further cements this reward system as one that gamifies murder.
Yet, no one starts a shooter not knowing what to expect. The games make it obvious just from the perspective alone (which is dominated by a gun) what the methods of interaction with the world are. If we’re all consenting, what’s the problem?
The problem is that our society rewards dehumanization
away from the virtual world, too. It’s easier to complete your goals when you
don’t see the people standing between you and those goals as actual people. We
rage against other drivers keeping us from getting home in a timely manner,
cursing them in ways we would never do in any other context. We compete for a
limited set of resources and often can’t stop thinking about ourselves long
enough to extend our hands to those in need.
In our political system, politicians attempt to “score points” with their bases of support by treating certain situations as “teachable moments” instead of tragedies or successes. If a tragic shooting happens, those on the side of gun control will want to use it as a launching point to enter a debate about gun safety, while those who are not will accuse their opposition of “playing politics.” Yet, in a situation where a gun owner defends his or her family from a would-be assailant, those in favor of less restrictive gun laws will point to that event as a sign that everything is fine, and that, if anything, we need fewer gun laws.
In neither situation is there a proper respect given to the individuals themselves. We've become so wrapped up in our political debates that the lines are blurred in a way that it’s hard to realize we’re doing it, or how not to do it.
Yet, these are important issues, and as a country we are most willing to explore these issues when facing some sort of event. We get distracted easily as a society, and it's only when something awful smacks us in the face that we're able to focus long enough to work through these issues. Discussions on civil liberties don’t happen without a whistle-blower to expose wrongdoing in government, for example. Martyrs are usually famous for a reason.
Papers, Please brings all of this history and puts it on display for us, right there in that little booth. It gamifies dehumanization in order to prove a point. The most efficient way to succeed in the game is to treat people as objects, and even when entering the game with the best intentions, the stress and pressure of the performance has you more focused on the clock and the documents than the people themselves. But, when you succeed, what happens to your humanity? For me, it’s become easy to overlook when pictures don’t match the faces of the potential immigrants, because I don’t even look at them. I’m concerned with names of places, numbers and dates.
What do you lose by successfully completing your mission? Sometimes the best way to win isn’t to play, but Papers, Please gave me just enough of a good feeling that the gut punches come harder. It’s an impossible situation, but you think that with enough perseverance, maybe you’ll find success where success is impossible.
In That Dragon, Cancer, an upcoming game from the small team of Ryan Green and Josh Larsen, one sequence has you attempting to settle down your cancer-ridden toddler with a variety of different potential remedies. There’s a palpable relief when the child stops crying at one point in the middle of the vignette, but the relief is short lived. The game makes you feel helpless as a parent would, unable to get the child to stop crying.
Yet, what happens when the need to stop the crying becomes greater than the need to actually help the child?
Empathy games can only go so far, and eventually players must explore their own psyche. It’s not enough to complete objectives. It’s not enough to merely to succeed at the expense of others, and there’s something inherent to games that make it difficult to avoid the trap of dehumanization. Games operate with such a strict rule set that it’s easy to miss the satire. It’s easy to become so invested in “beating the game” that the message the creator wanted to get across is lost.
Some games have attempted to combat this by removing traditional mechanics altogether. In Actual Sunlight from Will O’Neill, the game uses a fourth-wall-breaking interlude to remind the player what the nature of the story being told is. Additionally, the game doesn't allow you to “win” per se, further enhancing its point, again at the sacrifice of pure mechanics.
None of this is to say that Papers, Please or That Dragon, Cancer are poorly-executed compared to Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight; they’re not. However, they rely on the audience to recognize the message being given, and as an audience we must keep vigilant lest we allow creators’ intentions to be muddled by our need to “win” dominating every interaction with a game.
We live in a world where answers to life’s big problems aren't easy to come by. There are limited resources, and helping someone else might mean harming yourself. But, when push comes to shove, do you see a person in need of help, or do you see an obstacle?
In an industry full of games that, unlike Papers, Please, do not value the humanity of their subjects, do we internalize the dehumanization? Do we apply it to our everyday lives?
What happens to you when you turn the game off?
Marc Price is the Editor-In-Chief of The Limitless Magazine. He got his start first as a columnist and then editor at VGRevolution.com. View his random bullshit on Twitter or his personal portfolio site which he hasn't actually started yet. You can also check out his reviews on our blog.
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