Why you should care

Because this is happening right now.

The new travel ban is top-of-mind these days as we hear stories about people being detained at airports, and U.S. border personnel denying them access. Some officials have dismissed it as an inconvenience — and, indeed, it’s hard to imagine how traumatic it is to be stopped and possibly detained, with no control over your fate. That’s what Donald Rumsfeld would have called an “unknown unknown” — people don’t even know how little they understand something until they’ve been through it.

The first time I played Papers, Please, I didn’t understand it. I’m decidedly bad at video games, but my much smarter, younger sister recommended this one. It’s a simple, retro game with ’80s-style graphics where you play a border guard in the fictional nation Arstotzka. The faster you process people, the more money you make, and that money buys food and medicine for your family. Mess up and you get fined. Check passports. Stamp passports. As I played, I got a kick out of going faster and faster, enforcing ever more complicated rules, sending back people who shouldn’t have been allowed to cross.

That mechanic is what first inspired indie game designer Lucas Pope to create the game — which he did in the space of nine months. An immigrant himself — Pope lives in Japan — who watched passport officers at every border crossing, he saw how repetitive identity checking could be its own game. He grew up in the ’80s, and Papers, Please is filled with playfully deployed Cold War-era tropes, some of which get turned upside-down. His work was well-rewarded: Games for Change tapped it as the most innovative game of 2014, and it won the grand prize at 2013’s Independent Games Festival. The game, which costs about $10, can be played on an iPad or desktop.

The game doesn’t always tell you if you made the right or wrong choice.

The second time I played Papers, Please, my real-life world had changed: I was an immigrant. Having been refused entry to countries, I was the one with my heart in my mouth and a bag full of supporting documents each time I handed over my passport at an airport. Most of my American friends were mystified by my experience; they were — as I had been — used to having people with power take them at their word. For me, Papers, Please helped me better understand the uniform on the other side of the window.

When you’re playing the guard, you have a job to do. Sometimes characters approach you, begging you to bend the rules, and sometimes you let them through because you believe them. The game doesn’t always tell you if you made the right or wrong choice. Yes, it’s about efficiency — you become consumed with being the best border guard you can be — but each rule is explained, and you’re told your country is at stake. “Everything that happens is motivated in some way,” Pope says, “even the bureaucrats, even if they’re motivated by stupid rules.” But the game’s narrative also helps you understand what’s seductive about following orders, no matter what it means for those whose in-game lives you control — and even those who naturally side with border guards could come to realize, through the game, the damage they might be doing.

To be sure, Papers, Please isn’t going to cater purely to anyone’s ideology. Playing the hero — letting people through the border who beg you for help — won’t help you win the game, and too much feel-good heroism can leave your in-game family starving and allow real bombers to cross into your country. Rather than cater to the good guy-bad guy kitsch of the ’80s spy stories that inspired him, Pope’s playing a subtler game.

Papers, Please exposes the humanity of not just those crossing a border, but also of the guards themselves. You come out of the narrative, for all its goofy music and made-up countries and dramatic excuses, hoping that — whichever side of the window you’re on — you’ll look through and see, really see, another person.

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