More Papers, Please: Video Games and International Studies

15 August 2013, 1846 EDT

In our conclusion to Kiersey and Neumann’s Battlestar Galatica and International Relations, Peter Henne and I lament the relative lack of interest among cultural-turn international-relations scholars in video games. Our case rests on a comparison of the number of people who have played franchises such as Halo and Mass Effect to those who have watched the re-imagined BSG.

But the downside to neglect isn’t simply about the size of audience and consequent real-world significance. Non-gamers may not know it, but recent years have seen a wave of experimentation in video games driven by the rise of independent developers. Sure, much of the work has been, at best, incremental and, at worst, hackneyed, but the overall trend has pushed gaming into something more recognizable to non-gamers as artistic expression.

I have no idea if Papers, Please is any good (although the Metacritic score suggests that it is), but it certainly should be fodder for international-relations and comparative-politics scholars–especially those ready to critically engage with video games. From the Eurogamer review:

What we have here is the literal opposite of the usual power fantasy. You don’t play as anyone special, just a downtrodden citizen of the ominous Soviet-styled nation of Arstotzka in the dying months of 1982. Assigned by a labour lottery to work for the Ministry of Admission, you spend your day stuck in a dank booth at a border checkpoint, responsible for deciding who gets to enter the country and who gets turned away – or worse.

Here’s what your working day entails. You start by reading the diktat handed down by your superior, detailing any changes or restrictions to the immigration laws. Then you pull the lever that opens the grille, and use the tannoy to summon the first shuffling figure in a long snaking line of poor souls hoping to enter Arstotzka, either temporarily or permanently.

They appear in your booth as a lumpy, pixellated sack of human desperation, and dutifully hand over their papers. It’s up to you to check them over for any suspicious information or discrepancies and then stamp the passport: green lets them in, red sends them packing.

Mistakes trigger a dot matrix communiqué from your superiors. Turn away a valid visitor or let in somebody with dodgy papers, and you’re in trouble. The first few slip-ups are allowed to pass without sanction, but after that you’re fined five Arstotzkan dollars for every blunder. You don’t earn much and every deduction is a huge chunk out of your salary.

It’s here that the game gets seriously bleak. After each working day, you have to balance your domestic budget, dividing your pittance between heating and food for your family, while also allowing for medicine when they get sick, gifts for birthdays and the like. Inevitably, you can’t afford everything, and it’s all too easy to be heading home to a dying wife and starving child, knowing you’ve not earned enough to save either of them.

Check out the rest of the review. What do you think? Should we pay more attention to video games? And to which ones?

I know that some of our readers have been doing work on the subject…..