Thursday, January 16, 2014

Systems and Activism in Papers, Please

Papers, Please poster via DeviantArt
My latest PopMatters article is now live: Systems and Activism in Papers, Please.

A couple weeks ago I peeked ahead at this article by comparing Papers, Please and Steve McQueen's (now Oscar nominated) 12 Years a Slave. In the game and film alike, I find fascinating looks at survival and complicity and the mixed feelings towards acting out one's agency within a system of oppression. It was my way of giving back some agency to the protagonist of Papers, Please, even as I undermine that same sense of agency in this week's PopMatters piece.

See, Papers, Please isn't just bleak in its theme, the systems it constructs are simply not built for lasting positivity. There is very little hope to be found in Arstotzka. No matter how much mastery over the game you achieve, it still creates a vicious cycle of success at a cost. To focus on the minute, Papers, Please argues, you must necessarily miss the whole. And therein lies its message about activism: enacting dramatic change requires great effort, especially when combating the very systems of oppression that make change so difficult. Political activism is, in some ways, a privilege.

This isn't to say those who find themselves within systems of exploitation or oppression cannot make political change, but that doing so, again, is costly. While not in the game's forefront, you could easily read a strong pro-union message in Papers, Please, as unions have historically offered a collective political voice to those seeking to change the very systems in which they find themselves in, diffusing the burden among the group and pooling knowledge. You could also use the game's systems to make compelling arguments for more civic engagement opportunities to the public at large, particularly in the educational system.

Again, none of this is explicit in Papers, Please. Even so, the game simply and elegantly expresses the extreme vulnerability and powerlessness of an individual alone, uninformed, and constrained.

Further Reading:
- "Experiencing the 'Banality of Evil' in Papers, Please," by Scott Juster via PopMatters
- "Papers, Please: A Game about Border, Stamps, and my Family," by Becky Chambers via The Mary Sue
- "The Art of Papers, Please," by Rob Parker via First Person Scholar 

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