Just following orders? Ethicists don’t generally buy that. Nonetheless it’s a testament to video games as a medium that you can be confronted with that reality through Papers, Please.
Papers, Please is an honest examination of the practical limits of resistance for anyone working in immigration and a demonstration of how oppressive states use bureaucracy to obscure their abuses. The increasingly complex rules for who you admit to Arstotzka don’t just exist to arbitrarily increase the game’s difficulty.
It’s a bureaucracy suffocating you under an avalanche of regulations, guidelines, and checklists so you don’t have time to think about the “why” of what you’re doing. The legalistic framework surrounding every aspect of your life and job serves to separate you from your own morality, replacing it with a series of rules and regulations. You may have been assigned a job without consent, you may have to screen refugees and immigrants according to nonsense criteria, and your family can be forcibly relocated at any time… but it’s all legal. And if you have a moral problem with any of those laws, confronting them makes you a criminal.
A state that requires self-immolation in the act of genuine resistance is a state designed to enforce compliance. Part of Papers, Please‘s power is that it doesn’t offer you a heroic path out of your dilemma. There are no good options: you’re either enforcing these rules and therefore you become part of the problem, or you are doing what you can to subvert those rules, and in doing so, you put your life and the life of your family at risk. All for seemingly meaningless results, since you have so little agency as an inspector that any commonplace acts of defiance seem futile.
The bureaucratic grind of your border inspector’s life is compounded by how devastatingly poor you are. If you aren’t fast on the first day of the job (where the rules about who to admit are their most simplistic), you’re liable to be dangerously low on money very quickly. Papers, Please has 20 separate endings, and only one of them involves your inspector managing to more or less successfully complete their mission. The majority of playthroughs will find you in an impossible position.
The severe poverty of Arstotzka and Papers, Please‘s intentionally oversized portrayal of despotic overreach can strike many Western players as a profoundly alien experience, but many of the structural hurdles your border agent faces are written into the marrow of Western democracies as well.
Even before Donald Trump, American immigration policy was a labyrinthine horror show of red tape. ICE as a tool for targeting the most vulnerable immigrants en masse predates Trump as well. We’re only seeing it utilized now as a larger scale vehicle of state terror. The key difference between your inspector in Papers, Please and the federal agent staffing an airport checkpoint is that your inspector never signed-up for any of this. You were forced to become a cog in this machine.
Read more about it here.