Arstotzka Welcomes You: “Papers, Please,” Procedural Rhetoric, and Working in Restrictive Immigration Systems

The Arztotzkan Flag — Papers, Please (2013)

Papers, Please, released in 2013 by video game designer Lucas Pope, is unique, even among other video games. Some of the themes that the game incorporates are commonly explored in the medium. However, one of its themes, that of immigration and immigration systems, are more rare among video games. Additionally, the gameplay, or the way the player interacts with the game’s systems and rules, are unique. Papers, Please is self-described as a “dystopian document thriller” where the player sorts through immigration documents and compares them to an evolving set of immigration rules and laws in the fictional country Arstotzka in the 1980s.

The game has been praised for its unique game mechanics, engaging story, wellrealized setting, and for provoking empathy in players regarding immigrants and the immigrant experience. There have been a few studies on the ways in which Papers, Please uses its gameplay systems to reinforce its themes. There have also been studies on how the game critiques wider immigration systems and laws. However, what is lacking is the way that the game makes the player feel sympathy for the people that live in countries with extremely strict immigration laws, and how those laws wreak havoc on the lives of those that live and work in those systems. Because of this, I argue that through its use of procedural rhetoric, Papers, Please shows emancipated players how harmful restrictive and ever-changing immigration systems are to those working within the systems, just as they are to those without.

In his article, “The Emancipated Player,” Gerald Farca proposes the idea of a certain kind of player that everybody has the potential to be: one that “willingly engages in the act of play and who primarily wants to experience play’s aesthetic effect” (1). Through interaction with representational art like a game, people can experience an “aesthetic effect,” as Farca puts it. However, when it comes to games as representational art, this aesthetic effect requires “an emancipated being that open-mindedly and critically works her way through the virtualized storyworld s/he encounters (both ergodically and imaginatively)” (2). In other words, a player that comes to a game with an open mind and critical focus will be able to experience a change in the way that they think and feel about subjects.

Farca proposes the concept of “emancipated involvement” which “occurs when the player steps beyond the basic pleasures of entertainment and affective emotions and reaches for the levels of significance; an experience which leads to a partial restructuring of her or his habitual dispositions” (Farca 2). What Farca describes here is something that occurs in the experience of other art forms such as literature and film. It is an experience in which the audience (in this case, the player) feels something beyond simply being entertained, and comes away with their outlooks and opinions changed.

A player who has this kind of experience in mind is dubbed “the emancipated player” by Farca. This kind of player is one “who is critical about her or his involvement in the game- and storyworld and who primarily wants to experience play’s aesthetic effect” (2). Because of this, an emancipated player would show positivity towards representational art.

Farca brings up Wolfgang Iser’s ideas from The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1978) about the imaginative and interpretive involvement a reader may have with a text. It is through interaction with the text that the reader creates an aesthetic object. Iser then compares the reader’s involvement with the text with an “experience,” which will lead to the changing of the reader themselves (4). In order for this to happen, the reader must not remain passive and must imaginatively involve themselves in the text. Farca argues that the interactive nature of a game makes it easier for a player to imaginatively involve themselves in it, and as such, games have a high potential for emancipated involvement.

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames by Ian Bogost is one of the foundational works on video games and the unique ways that they influence how people think. While examining how video games make arguments, Bogost describes them as both an expressive, and a persuasive media form. He argues that, because of this, video games allow for a new type of rhetoric because they include what he calls rule-based representations and interactions. This new kind of rhetoric is dubbed “procedural rhetoric” by Bogost. Procedural rhetoric refers to the ways in which a game’s rules, reward structures, processes, and so on, are used to convey a persuasive message. This allows video games to have persuasive power that goes beyond other computer-based persuasion. Video games can both support existing cultural and societal positions and challenge them.

“Procedure” as a term often conjures negative connotations, bringing to mind bureaucratic processes and static ways of doing things that may be old and in need of revision. However, Bogost notes that this is because we only think about procedure when something goes wrong. In truth, procedures give structures for behavior. In the world of computing, “procedural” refers to a computer’s “defining ability to execute a series of rules” (qtd. In Bogost 4). While people often think of these rules as restrictive, imposing restraints can also lead to creative expression.

Papers, Please has had procedural rhetoric applied to it as a critical lens before. In “Cultivating Transcultural Understanding through Migration-related Videogames,” Esther Chin and Dan Golding analyze 19 different games, including an in-depth look at Papers, Please that all involve examining the regulatory, economic, and political systems that influence immigration. Chin and Goldin note how Papers, Please uses its various simulation elements and gameplay systems to impart arguments to players about the bureaucratic systems that control immigration. After analyzing the ways that the game’s systems influence the play, Chin and Golding put forth the idea that Papers, Please is not as concerned about the player’s individual morality and their responses to ethical quandaries, and instead is focused on the bureaucratic systems that influence and are the basis of said responses. In this way, they argue that the game critiques political and legal structures governing immigration as arbitrary and subjective. I agree with this assessment; however, I disagree that Papers, Please is not concerned about the player’s responses to the ethical decisions they must make. I also do not believe that the game only focuses on immigration systems, The game uses its gameplay systems and procedural simulation elements to show the player how overly restrictive and ever-changing immigration rules, laws, and regulations are also damaging to those within the system, just as they are for those without.

Matthew Kelly in his article “The Game of Politics: Examining the Role of Work, Play, and Subjectivity Formation in Papers, Please,” gives a very good overview of the gameplay systems of Papers, Please, and the ways that the player interacts with them. The gameplay mechanics of the game, the way that the player interacts with the game’s world, heavily blur the line between work and play in ways that most games are hesitant to do lest they put a player off from playing the game.

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What the player will be seeing for most of the game — Papers, Please (2013)

During gameplay, the player works in an immigration booth on the border between Arstotzka and Kolechia. On the top of the screen is an overhead view of the booth, and the area around it. The lower left side of the screen shows the view from inside the booth, and the lower right part of the screen shows a top-down view of the player’s desk. When a potential immigrant enters the booth, the player is presented with immigration documentation. Exactly what documentation and how much is given will change depending on how far into the game the player is, which will contribute to the aesthetic effects that I will discuss later.

The player must check the documentation from the immigrants against a set of rules and regulations that become increasingly demanding as the game goes on. Sometimes, potential immigrants will acknowledge to the player that their documentation is lacking, but will attempt to persuade the player to let them in anyway. As an example, at one point a man with correct documentation is admitted. He tells the player that the woman behind him is his wife, and that her documentation is not sufficient. He begs the player to allow her in anyway. Incorrect admissions lead to the player’s pay being docked, which impacts their ability to feed their family, so the player must decide between doing what is “right,” and being able to provide for their family. These decisions have a wrench thrown into them further. The player is allowed to make two mistakes per day without penalty, so if they have been doing their job thoroughly, they will be able to admit the wife without penalty to themselves. However, this decision becomes much more difficult if the player has not been sufficiently vetting potential entrants.

Someone jumps over the border wall and is shot — Papers, Please (2013)
A newspaper headline about the events of Day 6 — Papers, Please (2013)

During one of the early days of the game, the player witnesses someone jump over the border wall. The person runs towards the guard, and is shot. The day ends early, and the player is sent home. Interestingly, this event is referred to in the news as a “terrorist strike” despite the only violence coming from the guard in some player’s experiences. In response to these events, stricter rules are put in place the next day. Foreigners are now required to acquire and present a valid “entry ticket” in addition to having their passports filled out properly. The player then has to look over potential immigrants’ passports and their entry tickets for improper information and discrepancies between the two. Not only must the player remember more rules and check more information, the physical space of the player’s desk gets more cluttered and they must manage moving documents around and keeping their desk in order.

A headline about jobs — Papers, Please (2013)

Later on, a newspaper headline proclaims, “Jobs Few, Becoming Fewer” and “Immigrants Taking Jobs from Locals.” There is no evidence in the game that immigrants are the cause of jobs becoming fewer, and sharp players will recognize the fact that this is unlikely as the immigration restrictions have already become stricter since the beginning of the game. After this event, the regulations become even more restrictive, requiring people coming to Arstotzka to work to present a work pass in addition to their entry permit and passport. This only serves to further clutter the player’s desk, and increases the amount of information they have to keep track of and crossreference Formosa et al. 215). There are now three separate documents that the player must examine at the same time, and they must do so in a timely manner because they are paid based on how many potential immigrants they process. This increases the player’s stress and ensures that they never get too comfortable with their job.

The player’s cluttered desk — Papers, Please (2013)
The player allocates funds for their family — Papers, Please (2013)

In addition to the stress of the process of doing the job, the player will also be stressed about the state of their family. The financial penalties that come with errors will mean that the player will likely have to choose between food, heat, and medicine for their family members. The player’s performance is directly related to the health and well-being of their in-game family (Kelly 471). All of these elements together serve to stress the player out and exhaust them mentally, and perhaps even physically, depending on how quickly they are moving their mouse to move documents around. The gameplay systems all work together to make the player feel a little bit of the stress and exhaustion that restrictive and ever-changing immigration laws do to somebody working within that immigration system.

A suicide bombing — Papers, Please (2013)

The game does not only make the player stressed, it also discomforts them using a specific gameplay system: the body scanner. Towards the end of day 6, one of the people that the player allows in (it should be noted that this person’s papers are, and always will be, correct every time the player plays through day 6) runs over to the guards, shouts “FOR KOLECHIA!” and explodes in a suicide bombing, killing the guards. The next day, the Arstotzkan government installs body scanners at all checkpoints and mandates that all Kolechians are to be scanned prior to entry. These scans see through the potential immigrant’s clothes, allowing the player to search them for weapons or contraband. The player is not told what kind of scanner they are using, and they are not told that the scanner sees through clothes. The potential immigrant is not told this either. Assuredly this system represents a massive, discriminatory invasion of privacy, and will come as a shock to the emancipated player. The player will feel disgusted every time they must use it, and they must use it a lot, as they are required to scan every Kolechian.

The player scanning a Kolechian — Papers, Please (2013)

Eventually the Kolechian government becomes aware of these scans, and demands that Arstotzka end the practice. The Arstotzkan government complies, but only partially. The player will no longer be required to scan every Kolechian, but must instead scan anyone that seems suspicious. Such suspicions could include a discrepancy between the potential immigrant’s stated weight on their passport and their actual weight, and the immigrant’s stated sex on their passport and their appearance. There are certainly gender and queer criticisms and lenses that one could take to examine these rights violations, but those are outside the scope of this project, though they felt necessary to mention.

Playing Papers, Please is an exhausting experience. The constantly changing immigration rules, and the player’s need to keep up with them and enforce them, are draining. In my experience, I played the game for three hours one day, and needed to lie down for a while afterwards. This feeling is intentional on the game’s part. Papers, Please succeeds in not only showing the dangers and arbitrary nature of overly restrictive and constantly changing immigration systems, but it also succeeds in demonstrating to the player the negative effects such systems can have on those living and working in them, and in societies that would pursue such systems. The work that the player has to manually do in reading regulations, examining paperwork, moving said paperwork around their virtual desk in order to keep things organized, and do all of this efficiently and accurately enough to keep their family alive could hardly be considered “play” in the traditional sense; however, the way these systems combine with each other and the way that the player interacts with them leads to an aesthetic experience that cannot be replicated in any other medium.

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Works Cited and Consulted

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games : The Expressive Power of Videogames, MIT Press, 2007. Chin, Esther, and Dan Golding.

“Cultivating Transcultural Understanding through Migration-Related Videogames.” Asia Pacific Media Educator, vol. 26, no. 1, June 2016, pp. 83–98, doi:10.1177/1326365X16640346.

Farca, Gerald. “The Emancipated Player.” DiGRA/FDG ’16 — Proceedings of the First International Joint Conference of DiGRA and FDG, vol. 13, no. 1, 2016.

Formosa, Paul, Malcolm Ryan, and Dan Staines. “Papers, Please and the Systemic Approach to Engaging Ethical Expertise in Videogames.” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 18, no. 3, 2016, pp. 211–225.

Gabriel, Sonja. “Serious Games — How Do They Try to Make Players Think About Immigration Issues? An Overview.” Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, vol. 6, no. 1, University of Bucharest, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, 2015, pp. 99–114.

Kelly, Matthew. “The Game of Politics: Examining the Role of Work, Play, and Subjectivity Formation in Papers, Please.” Games and Culture, vol. 13, no. 5, July 2018, pp. 459–478. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/1555412015623897.

Lohmeyer, Eddie. “Papers, Please as Critical Making: A Review.” Press Start, vol. 4, no. 1, University of Glasgow, 2017.

Morrissette, J. (2017). Glory to Arstotzka: Morality, Rationality, and the Iron Cage of Bureaucracy in Papers, Please. Game Studies, 17(1).

Papers, Please. Version 1.2.70 for Windows PC, 3909 LLC, 2013.

Sou, Gemma. “Trivial Pursuits? Serious (video) Games and the Media Representation of Refugees.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 3, Routledge, 2018, pp. 510–26, doi:10.1080/01436597.2017.1401923.

Hi, I’m Jon. I’m an English grad student who loves books, video games, movies, and really anything with a story. I write articles that I’d like to read.