Recently, in The Utopia of Rules, anthropologist David Graeber said that ‘computer games…turn fantasy into an almost entirely bureaucratic procedure’. He continues, asserting that they also ‘reinforce the sense that we live in a universe where accounting procedures define the very fabric of reality.’
Lucas Pope must have had this notion in mind when he developed the game, Papers, Please. You are a lowly immigration clerk. You sit in a box looking at the documentation of characters wanting to immigrate to your great (albeit fictional) country, Arstotzka. You must refuse them entry if anything looks a bit odd, or is missing, no matter how much they beg. At the end of the day, you go home and try not to let your family die in the cold even though your meagre salary barely covers your rent, heating, food, and medical expenses.
The game is simple. It’s 8-bit-style and while the task of looking over documentation grows more complex as you advance in the game, there’s nothing more to it. It is strangely captivating, as I reflected out loud to those within listening distance of me while I was playing. It is strangely captivating, but it is work. In fact, my previous job in the university admissions office involved rather similar processes.
While the game takes the Soviet-inspired reinforcement of bureaucracy to an extreme, there is an emotional pulse too. Life is hard for the man in the immigration box (i.e. you). You have to make decisions that don’t sit right with you or else your family could become an un-family, in the Nineteen Eighty-Four kind of sense.
But Graeber’s comments still linger in my mind. I’m not a true gamer by any means. I don’t really play, and when I do it tends to be Lego Harry Potter and Cut the Rope. But there have been many times where, in playing a game, it felt like I was following a procedural manual in arbitrariness. It is an exercise in doing stuff not for a point, but because you simply must do it. You collect the Bertie Bott’s wizard cards so that the game gives you a Lego diorama inspired by some part of the Harry Potter universe. You slice a pixelated rope on a touch screen in an ordered sequence so you can see the pixelated frog (it is a frog, right?) eat a pixelated treat.
The procedures are some mix of dull and fun. It is dullfun. The high resolution screen provides a kind of crack for the eyes and the fingers. You are constantly rewarded with tiny bits of Lego scattered around Hogwarts, or the adorable face that frog makes when you’ve handed down his treat and he chomps it up greedily. Simultaneously though, it is like a less productive version of doing your taxes.
Lately, I’ve been playing Life is Strange, a game where at least ostensibly your choices matter. The decisions you make have tangible outcomes for the game’s storyline and your individual fate. But even in this context there are annoying procedures that must be completed. You water your plant, you snoop around the rooms of your fellow students for clues, you find the places where you must go for the correct sequence of events to occur and you are stuck until you do so.
At first it seemed fun in Life is Strange that you can travel through time. But in practice the new added dimension is dull – if you perform the procedures badly you can go back in time and do them all again. Dullfun.
Papers, Please makes for largely unexciting gameplay but it is conceptually interesting and experientially odd. It’s more like Fundull. It is a game that does not hide from its procedural nature, rather it becomes the purpose.
From this vantage point, we are able to explore the emotional world of bureaucracy. It sounds wrong, but it is there. I’ve seen people burst into tears at the office after a difficult phone call, or swear loudly and insist that we all stop at 3pm for Friday drinks. You think that answering enquiries or following policy doesn’t affect you, but it does. During peak times, I would barely sleep from the stress dreams. You don’t have to be moving mountains to have trouble leaving work at work. All the more so, presumably, in the oppressive world of Arstotzk where you’re supporting a large family on a dismal income, and when your pay is directly proportional to your performance.
Real life is bureaucratic for many of us. Accounting procedures do, at least sometimes, form the fabric of reality. A lot of people game as a way to escape, which may or may not be effective depending on the routinisation inherent in the game. But for Papers, Please, in embracing that aspect of the world we can explore its landscape, both hopeful and sad, another place for human drama to play out.