Friday, August 9, 2013

Papers, Please is out, and it's art

Papers, Please (you can also download a free beta version here) is a computer game which succeeds where many others fail in creating art. There have been others, of course, such as the simple flash game dys4ia, as well as interesting narrative experiences such as The Path. A good and accessible source for interesting indie game development as well as the mainstream are Patrick Klepek's Worth Reading articles on Giant Bomb, for those who are interested.

What Papers, Please manages is to wrap a game mechanic that relates intimately to the real life experiences of many in a setting which is enjoyable to explore through the game. You are a border guard in a fictional Eastern Bloc country of the 1980s, having been assigned the position and every day having to deal with ever more complicated rules to control the people who want to get into Arstotzka (Glory to Arstotzka!). Throughout the game you are confronted with the life stories of prospective visitors and immigrants to Arstotzka as well as the political developments through the eyes of a border guard. As the breadwinner you have to keep your family fed, sheltered, and warm, else they will start getting sick and ultimately die. Though a totalitarian state with a Communist bent, food, heat, and shelter costs money, and you get paid for your labour for every person you process - if you process someone incorrectly (either letting the wrong person in or denying the wrong person) you first get a warning and don't get paid for them, and then you start racking up fines. As such, you are under time pressure to scrape together enough money for your family to live on, as well as follow the rules accurately, no matter how draconian. Of course, instead of reading this description, you could have just watched this video to see the gameplay.
The rules change as the rulers of Arstotzka react to fears of terrorist attacks, smuggling, and immigration with progressively harsher rules in regards to documentation, fingerprinting, body scanning, and whatever else can be thought up to make sure that only the "right" people enter your borders.

The game can be seen as many things; the art style and your job brings forth a vision of the dreary, grey drudgery and long lines of the Communist bloc countries, the progressively harsher rules and technologies can be seen as a send-up of TSA security paranoia, while your position as a border guard can (and should) serve to highlight the daily injustices inherent in border crossings (oh, you don't have the right documentation - well, that's a valid reason to send you to your death in your own country).

What makes it art to me, though, is that the experience of the game is generalisable to a lot of bureaucratic positions today and highlights the moral quandary of the individuals put in those positions as well as a society based on that kind of logic. Every government employee whose job it is to review applications face it to some extent, as well as insurance adjusters, or something as simple as accepting warranty returns. On the one hand, you have a resource or service that people have a right to, and on the other hand you have people who are employed and are evaluated on their efficiency (where efficiency means getting people through the door as quickly as possible) and rules and forms that can overwhelm a lot of people who aren't experienced with working the system (or simply do not have the time to do so). Though people to a greater extent have a choice than the character you play in the game (labour lotteries not being that common), most people are cogs in the greater machine, and the refrain repeated by Jeff in the video linked above is just as valid in our society: hey man, I have to feed my family. Most of us don't live in totalitarian hell-holes relegated to class-8 housing, but we do live in societies where someone is tasked with rejecting insurance claims, sending people back to countries where they get killed, work in a justice system that is often unjust, force disabled people to look for jobs daily because there might be that one job where they can work while lying down, or be a prison guard. It's not like conscientious objector status exists at the unemployment office, and moral rectitude is not very often celebrated when it comes to promoting people.

Today even supposedly inefficient government jobs are ruled by NPM principles, by which most positions have to reach productivity goals defined by what is possible to measure, which often comes down to processing people as quickly as possible, just like the protagonist in Papers, Please. Did someone fill in a form incorrectly, not understand directions, need to visit some other office before coming to yours? Well, that's too bad, but it's not really your job and your productivity goals does not really mesh with explaining the form to a 70-year old. So you give them a pamphlet and send in the next person. Since it's everyone's personal responsibility to read up on the rules (readily available on the department webpage for everyone who can operate a computer), are you really to blame for shoving them out the door? In the game, if someone fleeing political persecution is lacking a stamp, is it really your fault for rejecting them? Sure, you might get a twinge of regret when you read about political dissidents being executed in the country you sent them back to, but you do have to feed your family. And you do have the ambition to get a better job. And rules are rules. And that's true whether you're a border guard in Arstotzka, a Swedish Migration Board employee, an insurance adjuster, or a DMV worker, even if the consequences differ significantly. The employees in the trenches have to do their job quickly, otherwise they get screwed, no matter if it fucks over the people who need some extra time to understand a form or whom the rules unfairly target.
That is the world that Papers, Please shows us. And hopefully it also makes us ask ourselves if that's the way it should work.

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