Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Papers, Please: Human Rights and the Bureaucratisation of Morality

It's December 18th, 1982.  One week to Christmas.

In the past month, my wife and children have died of starvation (I could not afford to put food on the table), colleagues have been killed in terrorist attacks on the border, and I have just been instructed to start confiscating all Arstotzkan passports.  (My own was confiscated weeks ago.)

Welcome to Papers, Please.  Please have all your documents ready.

An altogether ingenious "Iron Curtain" simulator developed by indie developer Lucas Pope, Papers, Please casts the player as a border agent in a fictional communist nation.  The gameplay mechanics are gratifyingly simple: inspect travel documents of individuals trying to cross the "East Grestian Wall", and Approve or Deny as required by the State.  Sure, the rules might seem arbitrary - one week, Obristanians might be banned after a diplomatic spat, the next, it's all native Arstotzkans, with the central government in deep paranoia mode over a revolutionary movement - but it all comes down to doing your job as efficiently as possible.

Of course, as can already be seen from the description, this is far more than just Pushing Papers: the Video Game.  Rather, as an exercise in controlled futility, it winds up being one of the most remarkably tense, compelling, and at times disturbing narrative experiences of the year.

"Just doing my job" can be sometimes difficult to justify.

It begins with "efficiency": as a border agent, you're paid on commission, required to process (properly, of course) as many travellers as possible, or suffer the consequences of docked pay (for improper processing) or low-yield salary.  Given that you're also trying to save money to feed, shelter, and keep warm your family, this leaves little room to manoeuvre.

Fascinatingly, this focus on efficiency also encourages you to focus on the system of people processing, rather than, well, the people themselves.  Thus, when a wife with forged documents begs to be let through to see her husband, or a weary traveler gets fed up with increasingly obscure visa requirements, you find yourself torn between "just following orders" (where have we heard that before?) and quietly letting a "mistake" slip through here and there.  As you can see from this screenshot of my outcome, you can imagine some of the choices I had to make:

And while the gameplay mechanics never change (just becoming more complex, requiring more shuffling of more paper, and - eventually - the issue of a sidearm "due to the increased threats of violence"), the narrative most definitely evolves.  Thus, in addition to daily moral quandaries like the ones mentioned above, there are also several overarching narratives playing out, in which (if you so choose), you find yourself a bit player.  Maybe it's the smuggler-with-a-heart-of-gold who wins you over (perhaps in the faint hope of gaining his assistance sometime in the near future).  Or perhaps, with revolution in the air, you find yourself strangely compelled by the ghost-masked "Order" member who, should you choose to accept, will begin delivering coded instructions to aid his plans.  Of course, you must also deal with visits from your supervisor and other Important Authorities, kowtowing to the so-called "Will of the Proletariat" lest you wind up in the gulag, or worse.  (The game has some 20 alternate endings on offer.)

Pictured: Not the Best Ending.

But perhaps what is most fascinating about Papers, Please is its subtle but highly sophisticated rumination on dehumanisation: Despite spending most of your time turning human faces and human stories into rote bureaucratisation, it's altogether striking that, at the end of the day, the greatest pangs of regret you feel are for the nameless, faceless spreadsheet that represents the digital "family" you've worked so long to protect.

Never has so little text conjured so stark an image.
The Banality of Evil
Ultimately, Papers, Please is really about what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls the "rationalizing tendency of modern bureaucracy".  In showing the incredible power that rules have to constrain our lives, this little game (it takes all of four hours to experience) demonstrates the extraordinary danger found in (to borrow from Bauman again) the substitution of technical for moral responsibility in our lives.

Now go finish that report!

(And, if interested, Play It Here.  All Purchases Support Charity.  Glory to Arstotzka!)

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