Papers, Please is a sort of half puzzle half simulation game set in the fictional authoritarian country of Arstotzka in which the player takes the role of an immigration officer at a boarder checkpoint. The player can approve or deny entry based on an ever growing list of criteria and have to make money to keep their family alive, the catch is the player loses money after two wrong stamps but they only make money based on the number of people processed. In my experience playing it I came across the same situation many times, I could easily deny entry for a simple mistake or minor discrepancy or I could take the time to verify their fingerprints against records which would lead to me processing less people and possibly not having enough money to stay afloat. There’s also often sections were the player can detain the people at the checkpoint and is rewarded for every two they detain by a guard bribing the player with cash. Ultimately that’s the true choice the game offers not approve or deny but are you willing to be a cog in the bureaucratic machine of a fascist police state to protect your own interests or are you willing to resist against it by wielding what little power you have even if it may hurt you in the end.
Flanagan defines critical play as “…to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life.” (Flanagan 6). Many have asked themselves about various dictatorial and authoritarian regimes and thought “How could people let it happen?” and this is the question that Papers, Please attempts to answer as it’s application of critical play. The question, and by extension Papers, Please, makes me think of the book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933–1945 which details the authors studies of ten “Little Nazis” these were not men of immense means or distinction but rather the petit bourgeois who were willing to look the other way at oppression and genocide in order to not risk their own material comfort because as far as they’re concerned as long as they don’t rock the boat they’ll be fine. This is what Papers, Please confronts us with because the game lets us choose to be a cog or to play with empathy but playing with empathy often ends with the player character in a forced labor camp or on death row. Conversely playing the game by doing the job as you are supposed to by the rules of an authoritarian government, while not offering social mobility, will let you maintain your status and what little material condition you have.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. The MIT Press, 2009.