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A foreign video game concept: making red tape fun

If you made a list of the subjects likely to make for a compelling video game, “bureaucracy” would not be near the top.

That’s why “Papers, Please,” a new “Dystopian Document Thriller” by Lucas Pope, instantly piqued my interest. On his website Pope describes the setting of the game: It’s 1982 and “the communist state of Arstotzka has ended a six-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin. Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists.”

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So that’s it: You work at a checkpoint booth and would-be border-crossers give you their documents and you inspect them, making sure, among other concerns, that the issuing country and city match, that the photo matches the person you’re looking at, and that their documents aren’t expired. The further you go, the more complicated things get — visa restrictions will be put into place after a terrorist attack, for example, or a lagging economy will cause Arstotzka to slow the immigration of foreign labor to a trickle by forcing foreigners hoping to enter to first obtain work permits.

At first blush this all appears to be a soporific concept for a game, but it’s weirdly compelling. And beyond that, it’s a wonderful example of how video games can be used to help shed light on complicated human social structures.

Since you only have so many hours in your workday and you get paid per applicant processed (whether accepted or rejected), time is a constant source of pressure. But if you rush things too much and reject someone you should have accepted, or vice versa, you get a fax (every message in the game is delivered as impersonally and bureaucratically as possible — the only people you actually interact with are the applicants) alerting you to your error. After two mulligans, your next error costs you “credits” (the game’s cash), meaning it is vital not to let the need for speed overly hinder your accuracy.

At the end of each day, a simple, stark screen shows you how much money you’ve earned (never all that much), as well as the various financial responsibilities bearing down on you: rent, food, heat, and a seemingly endless parade of relatives in need of medicine. If you’re not careful — that is, if you don’t make enough money — your family members will quickly die. In one early, less-than-stellar playthrough, that’s exactly what happened to me, at which point the game ended and I was notified that Arstotzka values citizens who produce healthy families, and that since I had failed to do that, I would be replaced.

“Papers, Please” is fun in its own right, but it would also be a useful tool in any political science or psychology class. You, like the people standing in the endless line to have their documents inspected, are caught in a big, faceless machine — the government of Arstotzka. This machine provides certain incentives and punishments, and within the rules that have been set out you have a certain degree of freedom of action. Want to let through the hapless, terrified political asylum-seeker? Even though her documents don’t appear to be in order? Go ahead, but it could cost you valuable money you need to give medicine to your sick kid.

‘Papers, Please,’ by casting the player in the role of bureaucrat, provides a surprisingly resonant sense of what these jobs must feel like.

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Plenty has been written about how bureaucracies work — it’s always an active area of study among social scientists trying to explain, say, why Congress is so dysfunctional. But “Papers, Please,” by casting you, the player, in the role of bureaucrat, provides a surprisingly resonant sense of what these jobs must feel like, and how the rules — and the manner in which they are enforced — can influence behavior. Marshaling limited resources, making tough decisions as the clock ticks, and figuring out how to satisfy competing demands: These are among the skills required to excel at “Papers, Please,” and the result is a rather visceral sense of what it’s like to work under extremely difficult, oppressive conditions.

Pope did miss one opportunity, however: It would not have been all that difficult to allow the player to tweak certain aspects of how the game world works. For instance, in real life Arstotzka would be unable to determine just how well I was doing my job, and surely this knowledge would impact my behavior given the pressures at hand. Economists call this a “monitoring problem,” and it’s exactly the sort of thing they look to in order to explain how organizations go awry. In “Papers, Please,” allowing players to ramp down Arstotzka’s omniscience, or to increase or decrease the sanctions for messing up, would have provided the players with some very interesting insights about how incentives affect behavior.

But notwithstanding this minor qualm, I hope that more releases like “Papers, Please” are in the pipeline. There simply aren’t that many games that simultaneously provide an enjoyable experience and offer up real insights into human behavior and organizations, and this is one of them.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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