“A Dystopian Document Thriller”

A new video game, Papers, Please, has been released seemingly to test the value of Holocaust and genocide education. The game invites users to the communist state of Arstotzka where they become immigration inspectors, deciding the fate of people trying to enter from neighboring states. According to the game’s website “smugglers, spies, and terrorists” are among those trying to enter and it is your job to weed them out. Players are trained according to the rules of the state to filter through the paperwork and fingerprints to make what are constructed as life or death decisions.

I have to admit that I have not yet played the game, but I’ve been conflicted about wanting to play, about what playing might mean, and about how I might act as an immigration inspector. And, this, to me, seems to be the point. A Tablet Magazine review calls attention to the game’s Arendt-ian construct, asking users to engage in the “banality of evil.” And here is the great ambition of the game: can desk workers, paper pushers, stamp givers, be the perpetrators of evil? Through game play, Papers, Please poses compelling questions about culpability, responsibility, and “following orders.”

Before even playing, I sense that I will want to do a good job at the game. I’ll want to read through the documents presented by each hopeful immigrant and find mistakes or red flags. But, I will also be thinking about Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the students that I have encouraged to think about the consequences of working within an evil system. For nearly a decade, I have taught students about the Holocaust and Genocide and pushed them to evaluate the lived experiences of people in these circumstances. I’ve asked them to think about how simple acts, when performed in the context of mass violence, can have great consequences. And, I’ve read Arendt with them as they grapple with the idea that evil can be ordinary, commonplace, banal.

So, I’m conflicted before even playing the game, because I want to believe that when I play, and when my students play, that we will think about the consequences of stamping or not stamping these documents. And that we will not succumb to the impulse to do better, follow the directions, and advance through the game.


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