Thanks to the holidays, I have had more time than usual to play some new games. Just last night I completed the story mode on Papers, Please, an indie game developed by Lucas Pope. The premise of the game is that you are an immigration officer manning (or womanning) the checkpoint to Astrotska. Your job is to verify entry documents, such as passports, tickets, and vaccination records, and deny entry to those with insufficient or faulty documentation

The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-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. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.

While this might not immediately sound like riveting gameplay, Papers, Please was hard to put down. The game hinges on the player’s decision making. Do you deny the woman with a typo on her passport or do you let her through to care for her ill child? Do you take up the revolutionaries’ cause and risk losing the only source of income for your family? Do you buy medicine for you son or your wife, as you cannot afford medicine for both?

Although all the countries represented in game are fictitious, the Soviet era feel is prominent.

Therefore, I played it straight my first go-around. I towed the government line and as a result my family prospered (so long as feeding and housing my family in better-than-Gulag-conditions is considered prosperous). Before I came into the world of psychology, I was a Russian Language and Culture major, and am all too aware of what happens to those who do not pay homage to glorious Astrotska, if you take my meaning.

Throughout the game, you can earn small tokens from some of the people passing through the checkpoint, typically by being nice to them. Or, as I told my husband, “by not being a total heartless dick.” I earned some of these tokens, but not all. I got warnings from my boss about letting through unauthorized persons, but he also gave me a plaque for being “sufficient” which was pretty cool. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the game, I frequently felt pretty awful about making the decisions I did. But hey, I was just doing my job, doing what I needed to do to feed my family.

The game intentionally pulls for this kind of emotional discomfort, cognitive rationalizing, and immigration awareness-building. In fact, it even won a few awards.

Based upon your decisions, the game delivers you one of 20 different possible endings. When I realized that, I went straight back to play again. One thing I instantly noticed was how much faster I was at processing trivial and mundane paperwork. I instantly recognized the covers of the passports and knew which country they belonged to. I even started recognizing the fictional name of cities which issued the passports in their respective countries.

And I couldn’t help but think of how awesome it would have been if Astrotska and Impor and Republia were real countries with their real passport covers and maps of real borders. Granted, the goal of Papers, Please was to create an experience reflective of the immigration experience and generate awareness through that narrative, not to improve my geography skills. However, it does serve as an excellent reminder that learning happens in games and that a good game can make even pushing paperwork engaging and educational.

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