The Process Genre in Videogames: Papers, Please


Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

On the docket for today: Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (3909, 2013), a simulation of being a border guard in the fictional Soviet-bloc-style nation of Arstotzka in 1982. As you scrutinize people’s documents, weeding out the undesirables, stamping the passports of some travelers and detaining others, there is plenty of opportunity for political drama—in particular, do you do your best as a servant of your obviously oppressive government, or do you quietly aid rebel factions? But there’s also just the matter of making enough money to keep your house heated, your son fed, and getting medication for your elderly uncle. Since you’re paid by the number of entrants you correctly service, this means being good at your job: memorizing the bureaucratic rules, getting good at both quickly and carefully examining documents, and keeping your desk clean and orderly. It is, all things considered, as much a game about a desk as it is about a family, or a nation.

Papers, Please and the problem of fun

Here we go, hurtling fast into matters of taste. When it came out, there were many reviewers who found Papers, Please to be a forthrightly enjoyable experience. Sam Machkovech of Ars Technica praised “the sheer satisfaction to be found in its gameplay loop,” noting that the “act of reviewing and cross-referencing a slew of documents … taps into a hide-and-seek, ‘Where’s Waldo’-type reflex.” John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun hit the same notes in his review, writing that the game’s “spot-the-difference” matching mechanics constitute “an intrinsically satisfying process” that “triggers a reward mechanism in your brain, and you feel on top of things.”

And then there’s me. I did not find Papers, Please to be a forthrightly enjoyable experience. I found Papers, Please to be a stressful and emotionally overwhelming experience. Anxiety-inducing and unnerving. Nasty, even. I found that I couldn’t sit and play it for long sessions. I stretched my playthrough of it across several weeks, sometimes sitting down to play just a single, six-minute in-game day at a time. If I tried for any longer, and it would feel like acid was burning a hole in the pit of my stomach. There was just too much to remember, too many details to be careful about while still being fast at my job. And the stakes—keeping my family alive, while also saving up for my own forged documents to leave the country while it was still possible—were just too high to allow for any error.

So I cannot speak to the rich satisfaction supposedly buried within the mechanics of Papers, Please. But I can say that I loved it. It finally sold me on the idea that yes, procedural rhetoric can do things on an emotional level that other types of rhetoric simply can’t. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the possibilities of gaming as an expressive medium. It remains one of my favorite gaming experiences.

Here, we brush up against an issue that many “art games” and “serious games” struggle with—and that especially looms over the process genre in games, as I have set out defining it. Game artist Eddo Stern has called it “the problem of fun.” What Stern meant by it was this: It is more or less taken as a given that art should subvert expectations. We’re a century removed now from Stravinsky and Duchamp. People aren’t shocked anymore when art plays with our expectations. On the contrary: “playing with our expectations” has just sort of become part of our definition of what art (particularly fine art) does.

Games, though, present some unique difficulties when it comes to subverting expectations. The most obvious expectation to subvert would be the idea that games should be fun. It seems like a rich target: think of the broad affective palette of experiences we’re missing out of by deciding that games have to be “fun”!

But there’s a real trickiness to pulling off this subversion right. I don’t wish to wade too deeply into debates around this issue, but I think that it can be generally agreed upon that most games require a greater degree of activity from their players than most forms of art do for their spectators, readers, or listeners. They require various forms of participation from us: to obey rules, to interact in pre-described ways, to buy into a simulation for some set amount of time. The promise of fun is games’ primary way of motivating us to stay engaged, and play by its rules. If that promise is broken, if that expectation is subverted, if the game becomes actively unpleasant to play, it becomes very difficult to maintain player participation.

So, basically: It’s hard to subvert the expectation that a game be fun and still have play it. But there’s an additional twist, too: People who self-identify as “gamers” can be quite good at wringing “fun” out of places where none was intended. Competitiveness and one-upmanship leads to things like people speed running QWOP (Bennett Foddy, 2008)—even things like skilled Quake players successfully “beating” JODI’s untitled game (1996–2001).[i] Fun, it turns out, is a difficult thing to subvert: A certain portion of your audience will lose interest if it’s absent, and another portion can be very adept at constructing their own.

All of this is to say, I suppose, that I am grateful that my experience of Papers, Please was as unpleasantly stressful as it was. It gave me an experience I had not before had in a game, and perhaps never again will. I cannot speak to anyone else’s experience, and I certainly cannot promise that anyone will have the experience I did. I’m fairly certain that if I were to return to it, I also could never again have that same experience again.

And, really, isn’t that what we ask of all great art?


Labor, action, and for-the-sake-of

Just because I can’t speak to the “fun” of Papers, Please doesn’t mean that others haven’t been able to do so intelligently. One of the best bits of criticism I’ve encountered on the game is Oscare Moralde’s take on it as part of the Well Played series.[ii] Moralde’s accounting for the game’s pleasures is deep. The tactile pleasures of manipulating virtual paper documents and the satisfying physicality of the controlling game’s all-important stamp get special mention, and Moralde draws from figures in phenomenology such as Vivian Sobchack and Don Idhe to endow his observations with theoretical heft.

There is, however, one prominent figure in the phenomenological tradition that goes notably unmentioned by Moralde: Hannah Arendt. This ins’t tedious “you missed a spot” nitpicking—on the contrary, I think the lack of engagement with Arendt is a significant oversight on Moralde’s part. That’s fine, though: it gives me a way in!

Of course the mind immediately jumps to one thing upon mentioning Arendt in the context of a game about a low-level bureaucrat trying to keep their head above water in a totalitarian regime: the banality of evil. And yes, as we all know, each and every philosopher is doomed to be remembered for just three words. For Descartes, it is “cogito ergo sum.” For Nietzsche, “Wille zur Macht.” For Arendt, “banality of evil.” Yes, of course it’s there, ever-present.

But there’s so much more light that Arendt can shine on Papers, Please. I’m thinking particularly of her tripartite division between labor, work, and action in The Human Condition. I won’t be sticking to Arendt’s strict vocabulary in all of my posts on the process genre, but it is worth getting into for Papers, Please.

In The Human Condition, Arendt distinguishes between labor, which produces “consumer goods,” and work, which produces “use objects.” There are several ways we can tease out the differences between these. Several times Arendt connects consumer goods to human’s immediate biological needs. Considered under this lens, food preparation is the most obvious and literal example of labor.

But Arendt includes in the category of laborers not only cooks but also house servants, not only those who feed but also those who clean. So she obviously has something more than just literal consumption in mind when she maps out the boundaries of “labor.” An alternate way to think about it is the difference between actively contributing to the scaffolding of a world, versus simply maintaining human life and activities within that world. A carpenter who builds a table creats something that supports the future of of human activity. A table is something on which careers—chef, craftsman, accountant—can be played out. In this way, a carpeter leaves a legacy within a larger social order. This is, for Arendt, the very definition of “work.” The custodian who sweeps up the crumpled paper from beneath that table, on the other hand, is a laborer. They leave behind nothing.

Finally, Arendt distinguishes labor and work from a third category, action. This is the most political of all categories, and often the most seemingly unsubstantial: many times, it exists not within the realm of physical objects at all, but in the realm of of speech and rhetoric, in the verbal designing of human affairs.

Now that we have our terms straight, what does Papers, Please simulate? Labor, work, or action? It’s hard to answer this question cleanly. The game nicely illustrates how tendrils of each of Arendt’s categories sneak into one another.

Let’s start from the supposition that what we’re doing in Papers, Please is labor. This seems to fit. We’re not producing anything of lasting use value in Papers, Please. We process entrants during the work day, and there is nothing left behind when we leave our desk in the evening. We are basically custodians—custodians of the state, if you will. We don’t build things. We just keep the state’s population tidy.

And yet … something gnaws at us. This seems too neat. If this was all their was to the labor we were doing, then the “satisfaction” reported by the reviewers above wouldn’t feel quite so perverse. No, there is no denying it: we cannot hide our actions behind the seemingly apolitical designation of “labor.” We are doing more than just keeping this world clean. We are actively contributing to its perpetuation. We might seem like a lowly bureaucrat, positioned at the tip of the state’s apparatus, far away from its central nervous system. But it is at this tip that its will is executed. It is through our labor that the state finds its means of action.

We can think of this osmosis between the lowly labor of the bureaucrat and the powerful action of the state as the inseparable relationship between in-order-to and for-the-sake-of. Arendt touches briefly upon this linguistic division.[iii] For more to work with, though, we can look to Arendt’s teacher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger uses “in-order-to” (um-zu) to describe our relationship to equipment (Zeug). We reach toward a hammer, or a pen, or a ladle when we are in the midst of our concerns, attending to an immediate task.[iv]  Our sense of “for-the-sake-of” (umwillen), on the other hand, extends far beyond this low-level encounter with a piece of equipment. It describes they way in which our immediate concerns connect to a much larger ontological project, of answering the question of our being, which most often takes the form of defining ourselves in relation to a larger societal role.[v]

In other words, the simple acts of leafing through our rulebook, or hitting the “denied” stamp (hearing that satisfying “ka-chunk” sound) are never entirely innocent. The rulebook, the stamp, the body scanner, the gun: these are coded as “something in order to” succeed at our job, and our job might be the only thing immediately on our mind. But if we think things through, past the “in-order-to” and toward the “for-the-sake-of,” we begin to glimpse the larger context in which “succeeding at our job” is housed. The actions we take in this tiny gatehouse gain their meaning through their connection to the contemporary political regime of Arstotzka. To do this job is to take a stand on this larger societal scaffolding, unwittingly or not.[vi] There’s no clean way of separating out action from our labor. In agreeing to be part of the cleanup crew, we are part of this machine. There is no ethical room for apoliticism in this equation.

And so, here we are: back to the banality of evil. “He did his duty, as he told the police and court over and over again,” writes Arendt of Eichmann; “he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.”[vii] The brilliance of Papers, Please is that the oft-reported satisfaction to be had when successfully following its myriad rules, in processing an entrant successfully and not hearing the terrible buzzing of a ticket being printed after you’ve let them through (a sign that you’ve lost some income for the day). This satisfaction, in other words, is built upon successfully obeying laws, without asking the more profound question of whether Arstotzka’s laws are just. It is the satisfaction getting lost in the “in-order-to,” and willfully ignoring the “for-the-sake-of.” The fact that Papers, Please allows this satisfaction is one of its great triumphs as a piece of procedural representation. There are great films one could watch about how a love of one’s career can lead to conformity and a convenient blindness to the full terrors of authoritarianism/totalitarianism. (I’d recommend István Szabó’s Mephisto, for instance.) Even the greatest of these films, however, can’t put you, yourself in quite that same mindset as Papers, Please, to truly confront you with what it means (and how hard it is) to take an ethical stand on the labor that keeps your family housed and fed.

[i]. I’ve never seen this in person myself, but I’ve heard jonCates tell stories of it happening. I dearly hope that Cates saw this with his own eyes, and was not just relaying apocryphal tales, because, if true, it is a fascinating study in how the expert human perceptual system can adapt to radically new movement cues, one that deserves to be placed alongside famous studies such as people’s adaptation to vision-inverting goggles.

[ii]. Moralde, Oscar. “Cause No Trouble: The Experience of ‘Serious Fun’ in Papers, Please.” Well Played Journal 4, no. 1 (2015): 35–50. PDF version downloadable here.

[iii]. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Pg 154.

[iv]. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Pp 97–98.

[v]. Ibid, pp 116–117.

[vi]. Heidegger has a range of technical terms for describing the process of consciously taking a stand on the role one plays within the society in which one lives, and finding a way to fulfill that role without completely falling prey to conformism. “Authenticity” is probably the most well-known, but closely connected (and, frankly, difficult to untangle) are the concepts of “resoluteness” and finding one’s “ownmost potentiality-for-being.” (As a tangential note on that last one, it is fascinating to me that, in contemporary colloquial English, the phrase “own it” has come to mean something along the lines of, “forthrightly acknowledge not only your strengths, but also your limitations, and likewise accept the consequences of your beliefs, actions, and attitudes.”)

[vii]. Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Revised and Enlarged Edition. New York: Viking Press, 1964. Pg 135.


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