This semester, I began teaching for the first time a course of my own design. It’s an interdisciplinary University Seminar course aimed at looking at games and how games can be used to explore issues and create empathy for people outside of our current, real world understanding. It’s called Story Games for Social Exploration, and it asks whether games are worthy of being academic art and how, exactly, they uniquely explore issues. Originally the course was meant to focus purely on Storytelling Tabletop Games, such as American Freeform style games or Jeepform games, but I eventually expanded it to include story-driven digital games, as well.
Now, I am teaching this class for the first time to a classroom of eight students in Mumbai, India. The experience has been incredibly interesting and rewarding in a lot of ways, greatest of all because of the intersection between the different ways we perceive the world and its social issues—myself as an American, and my familiarity with how the West perceives these issues, and the students’ perception of the issues both as someone from a very different geographic culture and fairly different youth culture.
One of the games that produced a lot of discussion was the digital game Papers, Please. In it, players take the role of a border patrol agent in a police state, trying to survive on their limited rations while processing migrants as quickly and efficiently as possible. The idea of the game is that in order to survive, in order to make enough money to feed your family, you must stop thinking of the individual migrants as people. You are forced in gameplay to strip away the humanity of the characters and turn them into a list of facts that must be checked and double-checked. If the information checks out, you let them through. If it doesn’t, you don’t. It doesn’t matter if they’re a good person or not. It doesn’t matter if they’ll be killed because you turned them away, or if they’re crossing the border as part of a sex slave operation. All that matters is doing your job, and feeding your family.