Week 7: Border Play: engaging with political realities in videogames


6:00 – 8:00PM

ARTS 103

Borders between nations provide focal points for populist anxieties about the economic and cultural implications of immigration, anxieties that are currently receiving increased political appeasement in the West. Reece Jones observes “a powerful idea in the media and in wealthy societies that violence at borders is inevitable when less developed, less orderly societies rub against the rich, developed states of the world” (Violent Borders ebook). In this reductive discourse, efforts by journalists, campaigners, artists and others to communicate the day-to-day realities of life at borders struggle to gain popular purchase.

Like all media, videogames cannot be considered wholly separately from their global political contexts because they’re implicated on all levels: from production to distribution and consumption (see: Dyer-Witheford and Peuter). What responsibilities and/or abilities do videogames have to address these contexts?

This week we’re playing Lucas Pope’s 2013 indie game Papers, Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller, which enrols the player as an impoverished immigration officer at a border to the fictional, Soviet-bloc-esque nation “Arstotzka”. Discussing the game in the context of Donald Trump’s travel ban, Jason Concepcion describes Papers, Please as “disturbing and humbling — disturbing because of the clear parallels between the game and Trump’s executive order, humbling because of the way it depicts how easily a person’s morality can become subsumed by the machinery of state power”.

In this week’s reading, Alexander R. Galloway calls for social realist videogames that “reflect critically on the minutia of everyday life” that are otherwise suppressed within the dominant discourse, emphasising that such games “must be realist in doing, in action”. Relevant here is Ian Bogost’s notion of procedural rhetoric: the creation of interactive, rule-based, procedural models for expressive and/or persuasive purposes. Bogost argues this is particularly effective for communicating systems: “Procedural rhetorics in political videogames make claims about the particular interrelations between political processes, why they work, why they don’t work, or how society might benefit by changing the rules” (Persuasive Games 120). A social realist videogame might therefore effectively communicate the minutiae of life in a political system through the player’s active engagement with its own system.

Philosopher Étienne Balibar writes that

For a rich person from a rich country, a person who tends towards the cosmopolitan (and whose passport increasingly signifies not just a mere national belonging, protection and a right of citizenship, but a surplus of rights – in particular, a world right to circulate unhindered), the border has become an embarkation formality, a point of symbolic acknowledgement of his social status, to be passed at a jog-trot. For a poor person from a poor country, however, the border tends to be something quite different: not only is it an obstacle which is very difficult to surmount, but it is a place he runs up against repeatedly, passing and repassing through it as and when he is expelled or allowed to rejoin his family, so that he becomes, in the end, a place where is resides. It is an extraordinarily viscous spatio-temporal zone, almost a home – a home in which to live a life which is waiting-to-live, a non-life. The psychoanalyst André Green once wrote that it is difficult enough to live on a border, but that is as nothing compared with being a border oneself. He meant this in the sense of splitting of multiple identities – migrant identities – but we must also look at the material bases of the phenomenon. (“What is a Border?” 83)

Perhaps in having the player navigate the mundane violence of life as an immigration officer, the procedural rhetoric of Papers, Please offers a fresh way of communicating the realities of life at a border, or as Balibar and Green put it, as a border.


Reading for this week:

Alexander R. Galloway, “Social Realism in Gaming”, Game Studies 4.1 (November 2004) http://gamestudies.org/0401/galloway/

Mark Brown, “Snuggle Truck iOS Game Ditches Immigrant Characters for Fluffy Animals”, Wired 5 March 2011 https://www.wired.com/2011/05/iphone-snuggle-truck/


Drop by and let’s talk Papers, Please, politics, and of course play.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Richard, Becky & Vicki


P.S: As well as Papers, Please, Lucas Pope has developed a free-to-play Flash game set in the same alternate-universe called The Republia Times. If you’re enjoying a particularly uneventful reading week, you may find it interesting to consider this game’s procedural rhetoric in the light of recent anxieties concerning “fake news” and the algorithmic curation of content on social media.


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