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By putting you in the position of an ordinary person with a large amount of power and asking you to make morally difficult choices, the video game manages to shed light on politics, ethics, and the human condition.
“Papers, please,” I say to the woman in the booth, and she hands me her documents. I check her passport, but it’s out of date. One red stamp later and she leaves, cursing both the government and me.
This isn’t my day job; rather, it’s the award-winning independent game Papers, Please, by Lucas Pope. You play as a border control officer in the fictional Eastern Bloc nation of Arstotzka, checking documents and struggling to provide for your family. Many people’s experiences with games don’t extend beyond Snake and Angry Birds, but this game has loftier aspirations than high scores. By putting you in the position of an ordinary person with a large amount of power and asking you to make morally difficult choices, Papers, Please manages to shed light on politics, ethics, and the human condition.
You spend most of the game in the border checkpoint, admitting travellers and checking their documents. The process starts off fairly simple: only let in those with Arstotzkan passports, but gradually the complexity increases. Entry permits, work permits, vaccination certificates, and diplomatic credentials must all be scrutinised. Does the person look like their passport photo? Does their work permit have the correct passport number? Is the watermark genuine or a forgery?
Before long my head was full of bureaucratic minutiae. Sometimes documents are merely invalid or out of date, and their owner must be turned away. Other times, when the documents are forged or you spot a criminal, an armed guard appears and whisks the person away.
A timer ticks down during the virtual day as you frantically try and get enough commission from processing passports, avoiding fines for misidentifying too many people. At the end of the day, you are presented with a stark budget report: savings and income come in, rent goes out, and you can opt to pay for food and heating. If you run out of money, you are sent to prison and the game ends.
Also represented on the budget screen are your wife, son, and grandparents. If you don’t buy food, they are hungry the following day. If this continues they become ill and eventually die. The objective of the game seems simple enough: correctly process enough potential entrants per day and earn enough money to provide for your family
A few virtual days into the game, a man walks into the booth. “Please,” he says, “My wife is behind me in the queue. I will be eternally grateful if you allow her entry.” His papers are in order, so I give him a green stamp and he is free to roam Arstotzka. His wife, however, is missing an entry permit. “My husband came through, yes?” Feeling guilty, I let her in. A paper slip appears in the booth: “Misidentification. Woman missing entry permit. Be more watchful in future.” If you mess up more than twice a day you start receiving fines, eating into your wages.
As the game progresses, more people start asking you for exceptions to the rules: smugglers try to bribe you; a revolutionary group asks you to deny officials and let in rebel sympathisers; sick people desperately seek essential surgery. Some days I just can’t afford to be compassionate: I need money for my sick son’s medicine and a fine would stop me from buying it. Other days, I wonder if it’s even worth it: I let in a journalist who had come to Arstotzka to report on corruption, but he verbally abuses me when I do and says I’m part of the problem.
Then one day I make a mistake, letting in someone who has a minor issue with their papers. The man walks slowly away from the booth before throwing a bomb at border guards, shouting “Glory to Kolechia!” I’ve been responsible for deaths - why should I now believe anyone’s sob story?
Many of the situations I face in Papers, Please, I run into surprisingly often in real life. Talk a walk in any major city and it’s likely you’ll be accosted by someone asking for money. Do you believe them? How do you react? It could be a homeless man, clearly in need, but you don’t want to fund a habit. Other times it’s, “got any spare change for the bus, mate?” or a fake charity worker intent on fleecing the public. Even if everyone was genuine, can you help them all? If I gave money to every homeless person I saw in a day, I don’t think I’d have enough left for my own dinner. Or maybe I am just badly allocating my spending and I can afford to help more people. Where does compassion end and survival start?
It’s also a situation Europe is facing, in a much more direct way. Who do we let cross our borders and when? Germany has taken in a million migrants and asylum seekers, but support is waning following the Cologne attacks. United States presidential candidate Donald Trump says all refugees should be sent home because “they could be ISIS,” a sentiment mirrored in many right-wing groups this side of the Atlantic. In Britain, we see heated debates about whether Prime Minister David Cameron has set the refugee cap too high, or too low. How do we, as Christians, respond? I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”
As Papers, Please progresses, Arstotzka becomes increasingly unstable. Diplomatic negotiations fail to resolve the situation and violence escalates. Potential dissidents are rooted out, and having helped a revolutionary group I am forced to flee. I steal passports and have documents forged, and leave for the border in the dead of night with my wife and son. I queue up at the checkpoint and step into the booth. “Papers, please,” says the border officer. Will he let me in, or turn me away like I have done to others on so many occasions? Will he let compassion or survival rule his actions? I’m not sure: the game ended there. Instead, the choice is left to us.
Papers, Please is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and iPad here.