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.
What was most interesting to me in gameplay was the fact that the students never interrogated the individuals. The game provides you the option—if there is a discrepancy in their information you can interrogate them on it, and they will provide you with some excuse. The excuse never matters. It never makes a difference on whether or not you would be right to approve or deny them. But it gives them a chance.
I always interrogate them.
The students didn’t. Not once.
Facts right? Approved. Facts wrong? Denied.
When I asked them about it, they admitted they simply hadn’t thought to do it. That the characters on screen didn’t matter. If they wanted to feed their family they had to process as many people as quickly as possible, and that meant not caring about the individuals. I could tell, as we talked about it, that this upset some of the students. The fact that they hadn’t thought to give characters a change bothered them.
It’s been a few weeks since we played, and a student just ran into my office, excited and trembling. Some of my students are preparing to go to the United States for the first time as part of a Spring Break trip organized by the University, and part of that requires getting their Visas up to date. They’ve been getting biometrics recorded, physicals done, vaccines injected. Today they had to go back to the consulate for their final approval interviews.
My student came in to tell me that the entire time she could not stop thinking of Papers, Please. That every time the official spoke to her, their voice electronically muffled behind glass, she was reminded of the experience of playing the game. And she was reminded that she was not an individual person to this official, who had a human’s life under their control, who did this dozens or scores of times a day. A denial on this Visa could affect not only the student’s plans to visit their prospective University in a few weeks, but potentially their ability to get out of the country at all.
She was struck by how insignificant she was to this person, and how important this person was to her. And how the person would not even look at her while they spoke to her, would not even turn their face toward the speaker so that she could understand their questions. That she was afraid to ask them to speak up, because she didn’t want to bother them, and risk causing problems in her Visa application. She thought about all of this, and about the game. About being on the other side of that thick glass, and not spending a single second to consider the people she was processing.
She was so excited and nervous and scared that she had to tell me as soon as the group returned from the consulate. She knew that if she had not played the game she wouldn’t have considered the position she was in, that it wouldn’t have had the same effect. And that, to me, is what the importance of games can be when they are used to explore social issues, and to explore the way other people live their lives. It’s why I made the class.
And it feels good to see that kind of power of play in action.