Jason J. Morrissette

Dr. Jason J. Morrissette is a Professor of Political Science and Director of International Affairs at Marshall University. His research focuses on the intersection of popular culture and politics, including work on using fictional depictions of vampires as a metaphor for teaching Marxist thought to undergraduates and examining the similarities between the discourses surrounding fictional zombies and “real world” discourses concerning terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Dr. Morrissette is also the designer of Stair Quest, an adventure game about the perils of stair-climbing.

Contact information:
morrissette at marshall.edu

Glory to Arstotzka: Morality, Rationality, and the Iron Cage of Bureaucracy in Papers, Please

by Jason J. Morrissette


Papers, Please casts the player as an immigration inspector, processing paperwork at the border of the fictional dystopia of Arstotzka. During gameplay, these duties are complicated by several moral quandaries: Should the inspector allow individuals in need to cross the border without proper documentation, or should he faithfully enforce Arstotzka's laws? These decisions shape the game's outcome, with possible endings ranging from the inspector's imprisonment to the overthrow of the Arstotzkan regime. This article argues that Papers, Please successfully replicates the monotony of bureaucratic work in videogame form, trapping the player in what sociologist Max Weber termed the iron cage of bureaucracy. Moreover, the moral choices presented to the player represent opportunities to subvert the iron cage, albeit at significant risk to the protagonist. In this sense, Papers, Please offers a nuanced exploration of the disjuncture between morality and rationality that not only defines Weber's perspective on modernity, but also shapes much of the contemporary debate on immigration.

Keywords: bureaucracy, iron cage, Max Weber, Papers, Please, morality, rationality


Even against the thematically diverse landscape of electronic entertainment, the promise and perils of bureaucracy are unlikely inspirations for a videogame. "Bureaucracy", after all, is seldom a word associated with play or fun; rather, it conjures to the mind images of long lines, red tape, and forms filled out in triplicate. Nevertheless, a handful of games have explored the byzantine inscrutabilities of modern bureaucracy. A prominent early example is the aptly titled text adventure Bureaucracy (Infocom, 1987), designed by Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams. In this game, a simple change of mailing address goes massively awry, pitting the player against the machinations of a faceless bureaucracy and an increasingly absurd set of obstacles, including a ruthless tribe of cannibals. Described by its tagline as "a paranoid fantasy", Bureaucracy features an inventive "blood pressure" mechanic; too much frustration or too many mistakes elevate the player's blood pressure to the point of a fatal aneurysm. Adams claims to have based the game -- or at least its premise -- on his own real-life experiences ("Bureaucracy", n.d.). In contrast, games in the city-building/ management genre, most notably Will Wright's SimCity series, actually cast the player in the role of the bureaucrat (or, perhaps more accurately, the bureaucracy writ large). While the player is ostensibly serving as "the mayor" in SimCity and its sequels, his or her role is closer in practice to that of an omniscient city planner whose portfolio encompasses an ever-expanding range of public services over the course of the series. That said, gameplay in SimCity is relatively depersonalized; city planning does not take place in an office or from behind a desk, but rather from a distant overhead view of the city itself. As a result, while the series may simulate the output of a bureaucracy, it makes little effort to capture the actual day-to-day experience of working as a bureaucrat. It is in this capacity that Papers, Please, a 2013 "dystopian document thriller" designed by Lucas Pope and published across multiple platforms by 3909, sets itself apart from previous videogames that have tackled the subject of bureaucracy.

In Papers, Please, the player assumes the role of a low-ranking, unnamed immigration officer whose duties primarily consist of approving or rejecting the paperwork for a seemingly endless stream of would-be entrants into the fictional dystopia of Arstotzka. The game takes place entirely within the confines of a cramped inspection booth, and the intentionally repetitious gameplay, drab visual design, and plodding soundtrack succeed in replicating the monotonous drudgery of actual bureaucratic work. As the story progresses, however, a series of moral dilemmas complicate the oppressive routine of document inspection. Should the inspector allow various individuals in need to cross the border without proper documentation, or should he uphold Arstotzka's laws in the interest of job security? How the player responds ultimately shapes the game's conclusion, with possible endings ranging from the inspector's arrest and imprisonment to the overthrow of Arstotzka's corrupt government by a shadowy revolutionary group known as the Order of the EZIC Star.

In this article, I argue that the depiction of bureaucracy in Papers, Please closely reflects German sociologist Max Weber's seminal understanding of the modern, rational state. While Weber certainly acknowledges the technical advantages of modern bureaucracy in terms of "precision, speed, clarity" (1978, p. 973), he also recognizes that it is fundamentally a dehumanized system that strives above all for objectivity in decision-making. In a modern bureaucracy, disputes are resolved through calculable rules rather than through "individual privileges and bestowals of favor" (Weber, 1978, p. 958). Bureaucracy therefore traps modern societies in what Weber refers to as an "iron cage" -- a disenchanted world in which rationalization and intellectualization have replaced the interpersonal ties that once connected individuals to one another (1946, p. 155).

By simulating administrative monotony in its mechanics and embracing the iron cage as its overarching theme, I argue that Papers, Please exerts the same pressures toward ordered rigidity and conformity that Weber associated with the modern state. Furthermore, while the game offers a compelling simulation of the dynamics and dilemmas modern bureaucracy, it also presents players with opportunities to challenge these impersonal institutions and break free from the iron cage. As such, Papers, Please represents a nuanced reflection on the fundamental disconnect between morality and rationality that, according to Weber, largely defines modernity and the rise the bureaucratic state. The present article explores this philosophical dilemma by: 1) illustrating how the simulated paperwork in Papers, Please reflects Weber's understanding of modern bureaucracies, 2) highlighting how the game uses both mechanics and aesthetics to evoke the disenchanted monotony of the iron cage, and 3) examining how the moral quandaries presented to the player reflect the inherent tensions of depersonalized administrative systems.

Why study Papers, Please, and why now? The deep-seated struggle between morality and rationality depicted in Papers, Please is noteworthy not only in a philosophical context, but also in its mirroring of "real world" debates concerning immigrant and refugee populations. In 2015, the global population of individuals living in a country other than where they were born reached 244 million (United Nations, 2016). Among these, the UN Refugee Agency estimates there are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and 21.3 million refugees. This equates to nearly 34,000 people a day forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution, many of whom seek refuge outside their countries of origin (UNHCR, 2015). Over 5 million people have fled Syria alone since the onset of the country’s civil war in 2011 (UNHRC, 2017). These international migrants, many of whom are in desperate need, nevertheless spark heated political debates as they are unduly identified as threats to employment, wages, the welfare state, social and cultural cohesion, and even national security. As countries around the world, including many liberal democracies, rush to adopt immigration reforms aimed at strengthening their borders, they place these vulnerable populations at increased risk. In much the same way governments and indeed entire societies continue to grapple with the moral obligations and supposedly "pragmatic" concerns of immigration policy, Papers, Please inserts the player into the controversy at the level of an unremarkable bureaucrat, tasked with resolving these incongruities for the individuals who approach his inspection booth on a daily basis. In this regard, the gameplay and thematic focus of Papers, Please simulate, from the perspective of street-level bureaucracy, an ongoing debate that affects the lives of millions of people around the world today.

Weber on Rationalism and Bureaucracy

Before engaging in further analysis of Papers, Please, a more thorough examination of the Weberian perspective on bureaucracy is in order. While Max Weber is far from the only scholar to have written about bureaucracies, I have chosen to focus on his perspective not only due to his status as a founding figure in the disciplines of both sociology and public administration, but also the fact that his pioneering theoretic work on bureaucratic order remains widely read and highly influential across a wide range of academic disciplines almost a century after his death. In turn, Weber's intellectual contributions continue to inform any serious scholarly inquiry into the social and ethical implications of bureaucratic systems today.

In Weber's view, the rise of rational bureaucratic order is a quintessential feature of modern society and indeed "one of the crucial social inventions in the history of the world" (Collins, 1996, p. xxiv). As Weber notes, "Increasingly, all order in public and private organizations is dependent on the system of files and the discipline of officialdom" (1978, p. 988). As society grows increasingly complex, thanks in large part to the advent of capitalism, it demands professionalization and the establishment of calculable rules in order to efficiently discharge both public and private business. According to Weber, a bureaucracy built on the objective application of rules fulfills these demands of modern society "in the most favorable combination" (1978, p. 975). Bureaucracies embody what Weber refers to as Zweckrationalität, or rational self-interest focused on the most cost-effective means to achieve certain desired ends. This stands in contrast to Wertrationalität -- that is, rationality driven by moral concerns rather than efficiency. Earlier societies frequently relied on Wertrationalität in the conduct of public and private business; however, the complexity of modern capitalist societies demands the impersonal instrumentalism of Zweckrationalität (Almond, 1990, p. 135). As Weber summarizes, "The more complicated and specialized modern culture becomes, the more its external supporting apparatus demands the personally detached and strictly objective expert, in lieu of the lord of older social structures, who was moved by personal sympathy and favor, by grace and gratitude" (1978, p. 975). Rules, regulations, and paperwork therefore emerge as defining features of modernity.

Weber identifies efficiency and precision as the hallmarks of modern bureaucracy. For instance, he summarizes the technical superiority of bureaucratic organization as follows:

The fully developed bureaucratic apparatus compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with the non-mechanical modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs -- these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration. (Weber, 1978, p. 973)

The comparison to mechanical modes of production here in particularly apt, as Weber (1978) later compares the officials who comprise these bureaucratic agencies to little more than small cogs in a much larger machine. As such, their capacity for autonomy -- for instance, bending a rule due to special circumstances -- is limited.

While Weber highlights the advantages of bureaucracy and identifies bureaucratic organization as an essential trait of mass-production societies, there is also an ambivalence in his writings toward these modern inevitabilities. As Weber argues, "Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is 'dehumanized,' the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation" (1978, p. 975). Although these "irrational" elements arguably stand in the way of progress defined in terms of means-end efficiency, the resulting "dehumanized" society is one in which there is no room for officials to incorporate morality into their decision-making or otherwise conduct business with sympathy or on a case-to-case basis. Objective rules applied objectively may produce predictability and efficiency, but they do not guarantee the bureaucratic apparatus will generate the "right" or "best" outcome from a moral standpoint.

In turn, Weber contends that the drive towards efficiency and rationalization in modern societies -- typified by the rise of complex bureaucracies -- contributes to "the disenchantment of the world", a state of existence in which "the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations" (1946, p. 155). He further associates this sense of disenchantment with a wide range of negative consequences, including the commodification and depersonalization of social relationships, the deterioration of common values, and growing alienation. In turn, rationalization erodes the interpersonal ties that once connected individuals to one another, causing these individuals to suffer a loss of certainty about the purpose of their lives (Lichbach, 1997, pp. 268-269). As a result, individuals living in modern societies find themselves trapped in what Weber described as an "iron cage" of rationality and bureaucracy (Weber, 2001, p. 123). It is a rigid system driven by efficiency, in which conformity is valued over individuality and personal liberty.

Consequently, Weber's outlook on bureaucracy is twofold. On the one hand, he contends that modern life would be impossible without the iron cage of bureaucracy. At the same time, however, the bureaucratization of social order robs modern life of much of its meaning. Gerth and Mills encapsulate Weber's "paradoxical opinions" on bureaucracy as follows:

Weber thus identifies bureaucracy with rationality, and the process of rationalization with mechanism, depersonalization, and oppressive routine. Rationality, in this context, is seen as adverse to personal freedom. Accordingly, Weber is a nostalgic liberal, feeling himself on the defensive. He deplores the type of man that the mechanization and the routine of bureaucracy selects and forms. The narrowed professional, publicly certified and examined, and ready for tenure and career. His craving for security is balanced by his moderate ambitions and he is rewarded by the honor of official status. This type of man Weber deplored as a petty routine creature, lacking in heroism, human spontaneity, and inventiveness (1946, p. 50).

While the formal rules and unceasing paperwork of Weber's iron cage offer the benefits of efficiency and precision, we should not discount the social costs that accompany these gains. In turn, it is this modern disjuncture between morality and bureaucratic rationality that Papers, Please explores through both its gameplay, aesthetics, and narrative.

Papers, Please: Simulating and Subverting Weber's Iron Cage

In the following section, I will examine Papers, Please in the context of Weber's work on rational bureaucratic order. In turn, my analysis will focus on three central questions. First, in what ways does the border checkpoint depicted in Papers, Please represent Weber's understanding of a modern bureaucracy? Second, how do the ludic elements of Papers, Please simulate the dull monotony -- and even anxiety -- associated with bureaucratic work? Finally, as the narrative advances and the player is eventually presented with an opportunity to challenge the oppressive Arstotzkan regime, how does Papers, Please offer an escape from Weber's iron cage of rational bureaucracy?

Weberian Bureaucracy and Papers, Please: Inspection Booth or Iron Cage?

Summarizing the Weberian perspective, Collins describes the essence of modern bureaucracy as "organization by rules and regulations, which is to say by formal paperwork" (1996, p. xxiv). In turn, as a so-called "dystopian document thriller", formal paperwork serves as the driving ludonarrative force behind Papers, Please. The similarities between the repetitive grind of the game's unnamed inspector and Weber's understanding of bureaucratic order extend beyond the shuffling of official documents. For instance, in Economy and Society, Weber identifies six characteristics of modern bureaucracies:

  1. Bureaucratic agencies operate within fixed jurisdictional areas, governed by laws and administrative regulations. Furthermore, he notes, "The authority to give the commands required for the discharge of these duties is distributed in a stable way and is strictly delimited by rules concerning the coercive means... which may be placed at the disposal of officials" (Weber, 1978, p. 956).
  2. Bureaucratic duties are carried out based on principles of office hierarchy; that is, there is a clearly established chain of command in which there is supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones (Weber, 1978, p. 957).
  3. The management of bureaucratic agencies is based upon written documents, or simply "the files" (Weber, 1978, p. 957).
  4. Office management usually presupposes thorough and specialized training of the officer.
  5. Bureaucratic activity demands the full working capacity of the official, even though his or her "obligatory working hours" in the office may be firmly limited (Weber, 1978, p. 958).
  6. The bureaucratic office follows general rules, "which are more or less stable, more or less exhaustive, and which can be learned" (Weber, 1978, p. 958). In turn, the officer is expected to exercise his or her authority impersonally; rules are not "bent" on a case-by-case basis.

In turn, applying these characteristics to the Arstotzkan border checkpoint depicted in Papers, Please reveals a number of close parallels.

The game's border checkpoint undoubtedly meets Weber's first criterion. Specifically, it operates within a clearly delineated jurisdiction -- processing entrants attempting to cross the East Grestin border into Arstotzka -- and discharges these duties based on a handbook of clearly defined rules and regulations (Figure 1) provided by the Ministry of Admission (M.O.A.). In terms of coercive means of enforcing these rules, the M.O.A. initially authorizes the inspector only to either permit entry or dismiss the would-be entrant if his or her papers are not in order. Later in the game, however, the inspector is provided first with a tranquillizer gun and later a sniper rifle to defend the checkpoint against any direct assaults.

Figure 1. "Rules and Regulations for Inspectors" (Source: Papers, Please)

Furthermore, as repeated references to the Ministry of Admission suggest, a bureaucratic hierarchy is in place to govern Arstotzkan immigration policy. The M.O.A. oversees and directs the Grestin border checkpoint where the inspector performs his duties, and, in turn, the M.O.A. presumably answers to the Arstotzkan regime along with the other ministries referenced in the game (Labor, Information, Justice, Health, et cetera). The protagonist's M.O.A. supervisor Dimitri also visits the inspection booth multiple times during the game's Story Mode to evaluate the inspector's performance. Designer Lucas Pope accurately describes the hierarchical authority depicted in the game as "some kind of bureaucracy where the rules just come down from the top and boom, that's your job" (Cullen, 2014).

Weber's fourth characteristic of rational bureaucratic order underscores the importance of paperwork, or simply "the files" (Weber, 1978, p. 957). Likewise, in his introduction to Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Collins describes organization by formal paperwork as "the essence of bureaucracy" (1996, p. xxiv). As a game dubbed by at least one reviewer as a "paperwork simulator" (Tilly, 2013), Papers, Please undoubtedly embodies this trait of modern bureaucracy. While I will explore the game's mechanics in more detail below, gameplay in Papers, Please consists almost entirely of shuffling an ever-expanding array of documents -- the M.O.A. rulebook, daily bulletins, visas submitted by would-be entrants into Arstotzka, entry tickets, entry permits -- around a cramped workspace (Figure 2). Moreover, the player's advancement in the game depends on his or her successful management of this onslaught of official government documents and forms.

Figure 2. The inspector's workspace, cluttered with paperwork (Source: Papers, Please)

Turning to Weber's fifth point, managing this heap of paperwork and executing the duties of the office -- that is, either approving visas or denying entrance to Arstotzka -- demand the full working capacity of the inspector. In fact, much of the ludic tension in Papers, Please derives from the player's efforts to process as many visas as possible before the workday comes to an end; very little time is afforded by the game to other activities unrelated to the job [1].

Despite these fundamental similarities, the fictional border checkpoint depicted in Papers, Please is not an exact match for Weber's ideal bureaucracy. For example, Weber suggests that the management of a modern bureaucratic office presupposes specialized, expert training. The background of the unnamed inspector in Papers, Please -- including any training he may or may not have received -- is left ambiguous. All the player knows based on the game's brief introduction is that the inspector "won" his posting in the October 1982 Labor Lottery [2]. The application of Weber's sixth characteristic concerning stable, exhaustive rules is also slightly problematic in the case of Papers, Please. While a comprehensive system of rules is codified in the M.O.A. rulebook, specific regulations and procedures are frequently updated via daily bulletins distributed to the inspector (Figure 3) -- typically in response to the ever-changing political climate in Arstotzka [3].

Figure 3. Bulletin with updated regulations, Day 3 (Source: Papers, Please)

For instance, the daily M.O.A. bulletin might inform the inspector that all foreign entrants must now present entry tickets (Day 3) or identity supplements specifying weight, height, and appearance (Day 13) in addition to their visas. Therefore, while the rules that govern the border checkpoint are arguably exhaustive in that they also serve as the basic ruleset that governs gameplay in Papers, Please, they are also frequently in a state of flux. That said, I would argue that the inspector's presumed lack of specialized training and Arstotzka's "evolving" immigration policies alone do not preclude the M.O.A. from qualifying as a Weberian bureaucracy; rather, these deficiencies simply suggest that the M.O.A. is not an especially functional bureaucracy.

One final point of comparison between Papers, Please and Weber's understanding of bureaucracy merits attention. Weber contends that the complexity of modern capitalist society demands that "the official business of public administration be discharged precisely, unambiguously, continuously, and with as much speed as possible" (1978, p. 974), and that bureaucratic agencies are uniquely capable of fulfilling these objectives. Without question, speed and precision are key gameplay components in Papers, Please. The inspector earns five credits (the in-game currency) for each entrant that is correctly processed at the checkpoint -- that is, admitted if his or her paperwork is in order and dismissed if it is not. For every entrant erroneously admitted or turned away, the inspector faces a potential fine. Therefore, the player has an incentive to work quickly to process as many entrants as possible (the protagonist has a family to feed), but also to work carefully and avoid mistakes.

While Papers, Please accurately reproduces many of the defining traits of a Weberian bureaucracy in videogame form, it is worth noting a realistic portrayal of bureaucratic work was not necessarily designer Lucas Pope's goal. As Pope stated in a 2013 interview with Pixel Enemy, "A few people with similar jobs have told me that the mechanics in the game are close to what they do. If that's true, it's just me getting lucky. Once I started considering the concept, the gameplay mechanics and story grew from what I thought would make a fun game" (Khan, 2013). Yet, as many game reviewers have noted, the simulated grind of bureaucratic paperwork in Papers, Please favours drudgery over fun.

Bureaucratic Gameplay: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Most players would likely agree that a day (or month) in the life of a border inspector is not the most obvious starting point for a videogame. After all, as designer Lucas Pope observes in a 2013 interview, popular media is far more likely to portray the dashing secret agent sneaking through border checkpoints than the official examining immigration documents on the other side of the Plexiglas window. Pope argues that Papers, Please offers an alternative: "Instead of letting the super-spy slip through, you can be the one to throw him in prison" (Shackleford, 2013). I contend that not only does the protagonist subvert our narrative expectations, but that the game's purposefully drab visuals, oppressive sound effects, and repetitious gameplay simulate a work experience that emphasizes tedium over fun.

What makes a game fun? Koster argues, "Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension" (2005, p. 40). This potential for mastery certainly exists in Papers, Please; the player grows more adept at shuffling through paperwork and spotting discrepancies over time, and this progress does create a certain sense of satisfaction. In contrast, Yee (2006) explores the blurred boundaries between work and play in massively multiplayer online games (MMORPGs), arguing that beneath the façade of dragon-slaying, the repetitive "grind" of completing quests and crafting virtual goods trains players to become more industrious workers outside the game. To minimize burnout and mask the work-like nature of the genre, MMORPGs (like most games) rely on "the timing and layering of reward mechanisms" to ensure that players "derive pleasure from the work that is being done" (Yee 2006, p. 70). While rewards in the single-player Papers, Please are not as flashy as a magical sword or a new suit of power armour, progress does advance the narrative and introduce minor tweaks to the basic gameplay mechanics -- both of which might offer relief from the game's calculated tedium. Furthermore, as Stevens (1980) suggests, the distinction between work and play is arguably a false dichotomy in the first place. Play can be worklike, just as work can be fun (Nardi 2010, p. 95).

Fun in a videogame like Papers, Please might also derive from immersion. McMahan notes that immersion means that "the player is caught up in the world of the game's story (the diegetic level), but it also refers to the player's love of the game and the strategy that goes into it (the nondiegetic level)" (2003, p. 68). Again, it is not difficult to imagine a player getting caught up in the inspector's story, especially as the intrigue intensifies later in the narrative. Similarly, players might find themselves "in the zone", so to speak, so immersed in the act of processing paperwork that they enter into a transcendent state of "deep play" (McMahan, 2003, p. 69). That said, Papers, Please does not go out of its way to cultivate an overt sense of fun in its gameplay, graphics, or sound design; rather, it favours the soul-crushing actions and aesthetics we so often associate with "real world" bureaucracies.

"Tedious, boring, and stressful" -- these are the words a reviewer writing for the Toronto Sun uses to describe Papers, Please (Tilley, 2013). GameFront asserts that it is a game "pretty much designed to make you feel anxious all the time" (Hornshaw, 2013). The Telegraph refers to Papers, Please as a "bleak, oppressive" game that "dares take you to the brink of boredom" (Hoggins, 2013). Eurogamer compares it to a digital version of the infamous Milgram experiment (Whitehead, 2013). Polygon raves that Papers, Please is an "exercise in misery" (McElroy, 2013). Finally, GameSpot notes, "Papers, Please will stress you out. At times it may even make you hate yourself" (Peele, 2013). Yet, all of the critics quoted above ultimately awarded Papers, Please with overwhelmingly positive reviews. In fact, the game was met with near-universal critical praise, earning an 85 out of 100 on Metacritic, a review aggregation site. After all, as Sicart observes, "play is not necessarily fun" (2014, p. 3). He continues:

It is pleasurable, but the pleasures it creates are not always submissive to enjoyment, happiness, or positive traits. Play can be pleasurable when it hurts, offends, challenges us and teases us, and even when we are not playing. Let's not talk about play as fun but as pleasurable, opening us to the immense variations of pleasure in this world. (Sicart 2014, p. 3)

Following this logic, it is entirely possible to derive pleasure from the oftentimes wearying gameplay of Papers, Please. In presenting an interactive environment in which the narrative setting of a bureaucratic office and the repetitious gameplay of processing paperwork mutually reinforce one another, Papers, Please achieves a satisfying experience without necessarily relying on fun to maintain the player's attention.

Each "day" of gameplay in Papers, Please follows the same pattern. The inspector arrives at his booth, calls over the loudspeaker for the first prospective entrant into Arstotzka to step forward. The entrant approaches the booth, presents his or her documents, and the inspector verifies the documents, searching for any discrepancies -- an expired visa or missing entry ticket, for instance. Following the verification process, the inspector stamps the entrant's visa as either "Approved" or "Denied", returns it along with any other documents, and finally calls for the next entrant over the loudspeaker. This cycle continues until the end of the workday, at which point the booth closes, the inspector returns home, goes to sleep, and starts anew the following day. Clearly, the game is attempting to capture the dreary repetitiveness of bureaucratic work in its gameplay, and it does so quite successfully. Much of the game is spent directly manipulating in-game paperwork with the mouse (or touchscreen), picking documents up from a slot in the booth's window, dragging them around the cluttered workspace, physically positioning them under the "Approved"/ "Denied" stamp, pressing down the stamp, and finally returning them to entrant after entrant. McElroy (2013) describes the gameplay as follows:

The bulk of the game, the main mechanic, if you will, is reviewing documents, consulting a rulebook, rearranging papers for a better view of all the information. After the hundredth time or so, double and triple checking, it can get very, very boring. But that boredom, that tedium, is the key to the game.

In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Koster proposes that we, as human beings, "dislike tedium, sure, but the fact is that we crave predictability" (2005, p. 116). Yet, the intentionally tedious gameplay in Papers, Please effectively serves to reinforce the game's oppressively wearisome narrative setting -- the grey interior of an Arstotzkan inspection booth. The work of a bureaucrat is dull, even in simulation.

The art style and sound design in Papers, Please further bolster the game's drab depiction of bureaucratic order. The graphics, for instance, are purposefully primitive -- looking in many instances as if they would be more at home on a Commodore 64 than a modern gaming system (Figure 4) [4]. Game reviewers variously describe the graphical style as "bland" (Vineaux, 2013), "depressing" (Lee, 2013), "lo-fi" (Hoggins, 2013), and "8-bit" (McElroy, 2013). In an early development log, the game's designer identified the game's style as "mid-res pixel art" with many backgrounds and items rendered in a limited three-shade colour palette (Pope, 2012).

Figure 4. Low-resolution character portrait with limited colour palette (Source: Papers, Please)

The music and sound effects in Papers, Please similarly strive for an oppressive, totalitarian ambiance. The soundtrack consists of a single song: the Arstotzkan anthem, a dirge-like march that, as one reviewer noted, has a way of ingraining itself in the player's mind (Porter, 2013). The repetitive sound effects, from the thunk of the "Denied" stamp to the garbled voice of the inspector calling for the next hopeful entrant to step forward, provide a steady rhythm that lends itself to the mindless shuffling of paperwork. In turn, these graphical and audio choices not only lend the game an intermittently communist and/ or fascist retro aesthetic, but also further accentuate the mundane sameness of the game's narrative and gameplay.

To summarize, I argue that the game mechanics and bleak aesthetics of Papers, Please mutually reinforce one another to effectively simulate an interactive version of Weber's iron cage of rational bureaucracy. For instance, Weber describes life inside the iron cage as follows:

The individual bureaucrat cannot squirm out of the apparatus in which he is harnessed…. [T]he professional bureaucrat is chained to his activity in his entire economic and ideological existence. In the great majority of cases, he is only a small cog in a ceaselessly moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march. (1978, p. 988)

In comparison, Pope highlights the advantages of his game's dystopian setting by musing that "you can tell the player, 'You have to do this.' There's not a whole lot of questioning of, 'Why?' 'You have to do it because that's how we fucking run things here; we tell you how to do it, and you do it.'" (Cullen, 2014). Even attempts to decorate the inspection booth with a family photograph can result in a fine from the M.O.A. In reducing the player to little more than a wearied, dehumanized cog in a massive bureaucratic machine -- bolstered through the game's gameplay, visuals, and sound -- Papers, Please creates a ludic environment that eschews fun in favour of an often uneasy sense of immersion and engagement.

How does a videogame steeped in negative emotions draw players in and actually keep them playing? Drawing on earlier work by Kubovy, Järvinen explores five "pleasures of the mind" that a player might experience while playing a videogame, each of which elicits specific emotional responses in the player: curiosity, virtuosity, nurture, sociality, and suffering (2009, pp. 102-103). It is perhaps the final category, suffering, that best explains the satisfaction a player might experience while playing Papers, Please. As Järvinen summarizes:

Kubovy's final category, suffering, finds its mundane realizations in the paradoxical nature of player motivations, that is, the player's willingness to play even in the face of potentially suffering loss or experiencing negative emotions. This paradox has been explained in psychological theory with the concept of "metamood". The term accounts for a mental process where individuals experience unpleasant emotions on the object level, but also positive emotions and enjoyment on the meta-emotional level. (2009, p. 106)

Papers, Please is a game that intentionally strives to evoke discomfort in the player -- specifically, the discomfort of wielding power over others [5]. This is perhaps at no point more apparent than on Day 7, when the game introduces a body-scanning mechanic that projects pixelated nude images of prospective entrants on screen, underscoring the invasive nature of the job [6]. Nevertheless, as Järvinen and Kubovy suggest, it is still possible to derive positive experiences at the meta-emotional level from a game that, at least on the object level, primarily seeks to elicit feelings of tedium and discomfort. In turn, I suggest that by alternating between these extremes of boredom and anxiety, Papers, Please provides a strangely pleasurable interactive model of Weber's iron cage -- a claim that I would argue is borne out by the game's overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Escaping the Iron Cage: Is There a Happy Ending?

Papers, Please is not content to merely simulate the "iron cage" experience; rather, as the game progresses, it offers players opportunities not only to challenge the bureaucratic regulations of the Ministry of Admission, but indeed the entire Arstotzkan regime. As Weber repeatedly notes, modern bureaucracies are quintessentially rational institutions. He refers to the "cool 'matter-of-factness'" of bureaucratic administration (Weber, 1978, p. 980) and emphasizes its impersonal nature that discharges business according to "calculable rules" and "without regard for persons" (p.975). There is very little room in the iron cage for moral quandaries or other special exceptions. Yet, Papers, Please introduces such complications as early as Day 4 of its Story Mode, when a woman without proper documentation approaches the booth seeking admission to Arstotzka. When questioned about the purpose of her visit, she states that she hopes to see her son for the first time since the border closed six years earlier. This presents the inspector -- and, by extension, the player -- with a dilemma: follow M.O.A. rules and rightly deny her access, or make an exception in the spirit of reuniting mother and son? Similar situations later in the game include a husband and wife, only one of whom has the necessary documentation to cross the border (Day 5), a man lacking proper paperwork who needs to visit Arstotzka for a surgical procedure that is illegal in his home country (Day 16), and an entrant who is unable to afford medical care and therefore does not have the certificate of vaccination required for admission (Day 26). In turn, these decision points and others like them force the player to choose between dispassionately executing his or her duties by the book or violating regulations to help people in need [7].

As the game progresses, however, the moral choices laid before the inspector expand from tales of individual hardship to decisions that impact the future of the Arstotzkan regime itself. On Day 8, the player encounters a messenger from the Order of the EZIC Star (or simply EZIC) for the first time. Soon thereafter, the player learns that EZIC is a shadowy organization intent on overthrowing the corrupt government of Arstotzka (Figure 5).

Figure 5. A note explaining EZIC's ideology to the inspector (Source: Papers, Please)

The player is given the opportunity to assist EZIC by carrying out a series of tasks ranging from allowing its agents cross the border unmolested to poisoning a particular individual who poses a threat to the organization. Alternatively, the player can choose to remain loyal to the Arstotzkan regime and instead work to eliminate the EZIC threat. These decisions ultimately shape which of the game's twenty possible endings -- some good, others not so good -- the player will experience.

What are the costs of pursuing morality over rational obedience in Papers, Please? After two warning citations, the M.O.A. issues a fine each time the player violates immigration protocol by either admitting someone without the proper documentation to enter the country or dismissing someone with the necessary credentials. At the end of each day, the player is presented with a summary of the inspector's finances after paying for rent, food, and heat (Figure 6).

Figure 6. The daily summary of the inspector's finances (Source: Papers, Please)

If the inspector does not bring home a sufficient wage due to slow performance or accruing too many fines, the health of his family begins to deteriorate -- potentially resulting in the death of individual family members. At various points in the game, including branching story paths that involve assisting EZIC, the inspector has the option to accept bribes in order to support his family. If the inspector accepts too many bribes, however, his neighbours grow suspicious and report him to the authorities, resulting in his imprisonment.

Among the game's twenty possible outcomes, twelve involve the arrest and imprisonment of the inspector for such charges as poor performance, violating orders, associating with EZIC, or accepting bribes (Figure 7). In four of these cases, the inspector is found guilty and executed; in four others, he is sentenced to forced labor for his alleged crimes against the regime. Ultimately, the inspector is alive and free in only six of the game's twenty endings (although his family dies in one of those "winning" scenarios). The message seems clear: breaking free of the iron cage of bureaucracy does not come without a price.

Figure 7. The inspector is arrested in one of the game's possible endings (Source: Papers, Please)

That said, following orders and remaining loyal to Arstotzka results in EZIC's defeat and preserves the inspector's job at the checkpoint. This conclusion also unlocks the game's Endless Mode, allowing the player to continue stamping visas at the border ad infinitum, thus forever trapping the inspector in the iron cage of his inspection booth.

Conclusion: Papers, Please as a Philosophical Game

What does it all mean? "In a well-designed philosophical game," Konzack argues, "the philosophy of the game is a coherent thought system or even a number of thought systems that interact in conflicting patterns" (2009, p. 34). While it is perhaps tempting to frame Papers, Please in the context of a conflict between oppressive order (Arstotzka) and some ill-defined revolutionary rhetoric (EZIC), the true philosophical clash at the game's core is between Weber's concepts of Zweckrationalität and Wertrationalität. Does the player stay the course, follow the letter of Arstotzkan law, and perform his or her duties as the bureaucratic apparatus demands (Zweckrationalität), or does he or she exercise discretion and allow moral concerns to trump obedience, rationality, and efficiency (Wertrationalität)? With multiple paths through the game and twenty possible endings, this choice between Zweckrationalität and Wertrationalität confronts the player with the option of either experiencing the secure monotony of Weber's iron cage or daring to rattle that cage in the greater interest of doing what is "right". The end result is an ostensibly simple game that tackles surprisingly complex philosophical questions -- especially in an era in which immigration flows and refugee crises are increasingly prominent issues in global politics.

As Hornshaw (2013) argues, Papers, Please "successfully conveys a particular feeling and asks particular questions that couldn't be conveyed through any other medium in quite the same way…while perhaps forcing you to ask a few questions about yourself once you come back out". This mirrors Sicart's (2014) understanding of play as "a way of explaining the world, others, and ourselves. Play is expressing ourselves -- who we want to be, or who we don't want to be" (p. 6). By casting the player as a passport inspector thrust into the contested space between morality and the rational execution of rules, the game is both tediously simulative and thematically consequential -- particularly with regards to the "real world" debate on refugee and immigrant populations. Furthermore, the semiotically enriched mechanics accomplish something that an entire library filled with Weber's writings could never do: present the player with an opportunity to essentially break free from the rule-bound iron cage and explore dangerous moral choices in a system that rewards blind obedience. Papers, Please leverages its repetitious gameplay and bleak narrative to represent a debate that shapes the lives of millions of people around the world on a daily basis, whether the player chooses to bring glory to Arstotzka or risk it all for a better tomorrow.



[1] Notably, the long line of would-be entrants to Arstotzka never actually grows shorter -- regardless of how efficiently the inspector discharges his duties.

[2] As Story Mode progresses, the inspector eventually meets his supervisor, Dimitri, for the first time. If the player has amassed several citations due to mistakes in processing paperwork, Dimitri will comment on this poor performance by saying "Perhaps it was mistake to rely on lottery" or "It makes me look like fool to trust lottery" (Papers, Please, 2013). This perhaps suggests that the Labor Lottery is a lottery in the truest sense of the word, and that the inspector was chosen from the entirety of the Arstotzkan population at random and has no formal training beyond what is provided in the M.O.A. Handbook.

[3] Story Mode in Papers, Please consists of up to 31 "days", although the game may end sooner depending on choices made by the player at various critical junctures. Each day typically introduces a new gameplay mechanic or narrative element to the player.

[4] Juul (2014) suggests that many independent games use contemporary technology to emulate the visual style of an earlier era in a conscious effort to communicate authenticity. While the pixel art graphics of Papers, Please certainly situate it within this "DIY" context, they also evoke a sense of utilitarian gloom that dovetails with the game's narrative and core mechanics.

[5] This inverts Sutton-Smith's (2005) concept of the rhetoric of play as power, which uses play as "the representation of conflict and as a way to fortify the status of those who control the play or are its heroes" (p. 305).

[6] This body-scanning mechanic initially delayed the release of Papers, Please on the iTunes App Store due to concerns over "pornographic content" in the game (Moore, 2014).

[7] Lipsky (2010) notes that actual street-level bureaucrats tend to exercise considerable discretion in their interactions with the public in terms of the application of rules. He goes on to argue that such discretion is necessary because street-level bureaucrats often work in situations "too complicated to reduce to programmatic formats" that, in turn, "require responses to the human dimensions" of problems (p.15).



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