This week is the year’s biggest for video games. With two new gaming consoles—the Xbox One and the PlayStation Four—released for the first time in nearly a decade, and with a slew of new titles appearing to support them, committed gamers could be excused for calling in sick and settling in on the couch with their controllers in hand. Some will play the new installment in the wildly popular Call of Duty franchise, which begins with a pulse-pounding shootout in space. Others will gravitate to Battlefield 4 and its symphonies of assault rifles, or to the joyously rowdy Grand Theft Auto V, where violence against pixilated prostitutes has become just as much a staple of the series as gunplay and destruction of property.
Forget all these titles. For a truly nerve-racking experience in electronic gaming, head to your PC and download a little game called Papers, Please. It’s cheap, and it offers none of the animated splendors of the bigger-budget titles. There are no guns here, no car chases or explosions. Instead, what’s on parade are empathy and obedience, fear and loathing, and all the other human emotions that are too often drowned out by the din of mindless action in the medium’s biggest blockbusters.
Billing itself as a “dystopian document thriller,” the game’s mechanics are devilishly clever: You are a bureaucrat at a border-crossing in a fictional totalitarian state, with little more than two stamps at your disposal, one green and one red. The metal gate goes up. Your station is open for business. People come streaming in. The rules, communicated by the government in the beginning of each level, are simple, telling you just who is to be let in and under what circumstances. The reality of your job, however, is infinitely more complex: What, for example, would you do with the mother whose papers are not in order but who begs you to let her in so that she could reunite with her long-lost son? Or the woman who begs for sanctuary from persecution in a neighboring state? The married couple, he with his papers in order and she without?
The questions aren’t just theoretical. Each transgression from protocol will cost you dearly: With every act of kindness comes a steep fine, which means that heating bills go unpaid and medicine for loved ones unobtained. Each level ends with a short statement of your personal finances and their consequences. Without heat and medicine and food, children and spouses and parents get sick and die.
But for many, I suspect, such deprivations will never come to pass. The most terrifying thing about Papers, Please is the temptation to excel in it, to be the best border guard possible, the most well-oiled cog in the machine. This, after all, is a game, and like most games it invites its players to gradually hone their skills. By the time you get very good at examining passports for forgeries, work permits become mandatory as well. You learn to read different kinds of documents. An elaborate handbook is on hand to offer guidance. Mastering the technicalities is a tedious and time-consuming affair, but its rewards are immense—in the game, as in life, control brings with it a sense of order and peace.
Which, naturally, means that anything disturbing the peace is likely to cause you grief. One of the terrifying outcomes of playing Papers, Please for too long is how giddy you get when you’ve spotted an expired permit, say, or a discrepancy between an immigrant’s passport and her work authorization form. If you can tear yourself for long enough from the obsessive-compulsive charms of solving bureaucratic puzzles, you realize that you’ve internalized not so much the regime’s ideology but its rhythms of oppression. You give consent to the state’s brutalities not by actively taking up a gun and shooting dissenters, as lesser titles might have you do—but by following orders, by training yourself—as so many of us, faced with far less daunting circumstances, do each day—to think little of anything but the daily mechanics of your job.
This, of course, is the key moral drama at the heart of Hannah Arendt’s controversial argument about the banality of evil. Now, thanks to the blessings of interactive software, we can do more than merely ponder Arendt’s question; we can literally play it out for ourselves and see not only how much evil we might inflict on others but how we might live with ourselves if we do.
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