Glory to Arstotzka: Morality, Rationality, and the Iron Cage of Bureaucracy in Papers, Please, written by Jason Morrissette and published in Game Studies, deals with the portrayal of morality versus rationality in bureaucracy as presented in Papers, Please.
Papers, Please, published by indie studio 3909 in 2013, places the player in the role of an immigration official at the border of Arstotzka, a country run by strict regime. Gameplay consists largely of choosing who to let in and out of the country based on assigned orders from the government, leaving room for players to exercise their own morality or will on the game outcome. Papers, Please rewards freedom of choice with multiple endings ranging from jail to the toppling of the regime in power.
In examining Papers, Please, Morrissette contends that the bureaucracy represented in the game closely aligns with German sociologist Max Weber’s “iron cage”, a concept used to illustrate the emotionless system replacing the interpersonal connectedness that existed previously. This point is expanded upon when highlighting Weber’s view, dissecting gameplay mechanics, and examining moral choices presented in the game.
While acknowledging the pros of bureaucratic system as speed and precision, he argues that the more “perfect” this system becomes, the less individualistic the world is. This takes shape in Papers, Please through both gameplay mechanics and presented choices.
Regarding gameplay mechanics, the player is made aware from the beginning that bureaucratic hierarchy exists running the country of Arstotzka. Comparable to real-life government roles, a player’s advancement is determined largely by how well they can manage the wave of forms and documents handed down detailing the specifics of updated regulations or day-to-day job requirements. These mechanics are accompanied by a score and art that invokes bleak imagery and totalitarian marches to accompany the player in their regular tasks.
Choice in the game is kept fairly simple. As decisions are made from person to person seeking entry to Arstotzka, the player is given ample opportunity to disobey orders and allow or deny whomever they please. As the game progresses, these choices evolve into aiding or burying a shadow organization dedicated to overthrowing the oppressive regime by whom the player is employed. Given 20 possible endings to obtain, the replay value of combinations of these choices exists as a core element of the game.
Having played Papers, Please without putting hours upon hours into it, I enjoyed the manner in which the game was examined. Presented as an overall simple game both graphically and in mechanic complexity, Papers, Please does well in giving a monotonous job to a player and using its monotony to impress choice and free will in a governmental system that both lacks and represses these traits.
Article Link: http://gamestudies.org/1701/articles/morrissette