The significance of “Papers, Please” in xenophobic America

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.



  1. invivoMark says

    Speaking of ethics in video games (no, not those ethics!), I’ve recently started re-playing 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line.

    And hooo boy, no other video game I know of can make you feel like such a horrible person. If you’ve not played it, it’s often described as a “deconstruction of modern shooters” like Call of Duty. In other shooters, you follow orders, you do what the game tells you to do, and things work out: the bad guy dies, his plot is foiled, and millions of lives are saved, all thanks to you you big brave hero.

    Without spoiling too much, in SO:TL, that’s not exactly what happens. You do what you’re told to, what the game forces you to do, and then you get to witness the horrors that result from what you just did. Then you get to watch as your character and his two cheerful squad mates process those horrors and how they affect their mental states.

    A strength of video games as a medium is that you get to feel a sense of agency in an unfolding story, and Papers Please and SO:TL both excel in exploring this. Both are excellent games.

  2. Siobhan says


    And hooo boy, no other video game I know of can make you feel like such a horrible person

    I recommend Paradox Interactive’s political simulators, in that case. It takes a bit of imagination–unlike Spec Ops, which is VERY VERY EXPLICIT–PI games are mostly abstract spreadsheet formulae with an interface consisting of a political map of Earth. But I’ve done a few things in PI games that felt fully justified in the moment, but are actually pretty horrifying upon reflection.

    Need to ensure my kingdom doesn’t inherit out of the family? Easy, I’ll assassinate my daughter so that my brother is the heir. What? I just threw a 3 year-old girl off a balcony? But the kingdom is secure!

    Inconvenient rebels? Why, click this button and they’ll all go away. Sure, the button is labelled “brutal treatment,” but the realm is safe now! Mass hangings? Nah.

    Dissent at court? No problem! Into the oubliette with you! What’s that? They lost their sanity while being kept in a hole for 24/7 for years at a time? But court is so efficient now!

  3. invivoMark says

    I’ve played a smattering of Paradox games, and I have a couple friends who are positively obsessed. Although everything is very abstracted – really, at best you’re only oppressing numerical representations of people – you can indeed do some horrible things! I’ve spent the most time with Stellaris, a game where slavery is just a check box you tick, and you can brutally end millions of lives with the click of a button (and if you like, you can also eat them). I also enjoy abducting members of pre-spacefaring civilizations, just for fun.

  4. Siobhan says


    Or turn the pre-spacefaring civilizations into cattle for your empire.

    No big deal.