“There’s Basic Rules. I’m Sorry.”

How Papers, Please—a video game about border agents—illustrates the cruelty of our immigration system.

Documents from the video game Papers, Please
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos from Papers, Please.

The video game Papers, Please simulates the job of a border patrol agent admitting and denying migrants at a border. First released in 2013 and set in the fictional East bloc country of Arstotzka in the 1980s, the information-matching game casts the player as the functionary of an immigration regime whose cruelties feel strongly reminiscent of those practiced at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019. The documents a traveler needs to gain passage to Arstotzka change daily, reflections of a quixotic system where admission is always a moving target. If their documents aren’t valid, players are ordered by superiors to reject applicants, no matter how tragic their circumstances. If invalid documents are accepted by “mistake,” the player faces financial penalties, just as an immigration agent in the real world might face professional consequences for conscientious objection.

Since its release, Papers, Please has been praised as an “empathy game” that is designed to cultivate compassion in players. But empathy didn’t appear to be a consideration during several recent, highly watched YouTube playthroughs of the game that coincided with renewed outrage over the Trump administration’s policies at the border. Not long after we learned of lice-ridden children sleeping on the floor of a windowless, overcrowded facility in Clint, Texas, Felix Kjellberg—aka PewDiePie, one of the biggest YouTubers in the world—put on a Soviet visor hat, considered the case of a documented husband and undocumented wife, and promptly rejected the wife, saying, “Boohoo—don’t waste my time!”

Papers, Please shouldn’t be a good game for YouTubers to play—the graphics are rudimentary, most gameplay involves a few basic operations, and there’s little element of surprise. This is not to say the game is bad—it won several awards upon its release in 2013—only that it lacks the traditional criteria for high-energy “Let’s Play” videos. PewDiePie’s video has accumulated more than 6.5 million views. Another popular YouTuber called Jacksepticeye—real name Sean McLoughlin—has released four videos of Papers, Please gameplay in June, averaging 2.4 million views each.

If one point of Papers, Please is to force the player to reflect on the dehumanizing aspects of immigration systems, these videos miss it. Kjellberg and McLoughlin are not only inhabiting a role many view as cruel; they embrace as fun the act of turning away migrants fleeing violence and enduring hardship for a chance at a better life. Violence may be a fact of gaming, but there is something deeply unsettling about inflicting video game cruelty on those that closely mirror the downtrodden in real life, whether it be punching a homeless man in Grand Theft Auto or shooting civilians in a war zone in Call of Duty. If these populations are already the butt of some unforgiving cosmic joke, it seems unfair to gain further entertainment from their suffering via gaming. Especially if entertainment ends up being the only point.

As it turns out, Kjellberg and McLoughlin’s viewers had a blast. You won’t find many negative comments on their Papers, Please videos, which also boast a high like-to-dislike ratio. These viewers aren’t lapping up something graphically violent but instead are witness to a more insidious kind of cruelty. In Papers, Please, players sentence characters to death via bureaucracy with the same excuse perpetrators of mass atrocity have used for the past century: The border patrol agents are just following orders. The rushed pace of the game, as players attempt to assess as many applications as possible, makes it practically impossible to weigh the normative implications of each rejection. For each pixelated character in Papers, Please who has legitimate reasons for seeking entrance but lacks proper documentation, there is a real-life migrant with a similar story, but in order to level up, players and audiences must ignore that.

This is not how players—or stream viewers—were meant to take Papers, Please. Game creator Lucas Pope intended to force players to consider the harsh reality of turning away migrants by engineering several moral dilemmas later in the game. In a 2013 interview, Pope said, “I’m trying to avoid making sweeping statements about the good or bad sides of immigration policy. … Players see the fallout from both too-tight and too-loose security.” One of the dilemmas is a scenario where players must choose whether to separate a documented husband and undocumented wife, who claims she will be killed if she is forced to return to her home country. At another decision point, a woman claims the man behind her is going to force her to work in a brothel, asking the border guard to turn him down despite his valid documents. Yet the game itself seems to want to tip the scales in favor of harsh border controls. The gameplay is underpinned by the constant threat from the undocumented. Many of those who wrongly enter commit terror attacks, smuggle goods, or are otherwise enemies of the state. That reflects a real fear of border patrol agents in any country but feels overrepresented in the sample presented here, perhaps skewed by the fact Pope’s sister was a customs agent. In the game’s logic, the border is best kept shut.

Either way, any noble intentions on Pope’s part are wasted by PewDiePie and Jacksepticeye, who, in an act of ethical transference, impose their own values on the game. When PewDiePie encounters the trafficking victim, he responds, “I don’t have time” and admits the potential human trafficker. Jacksepticeye, facing the spousal-separation scenario, is more sympathetic but still follows orders, admitting the husband and rejecting the wife. “I’m sorry. There’s basic rules … I’m sorry.”

Critics of Kjellberg may find this lack of empathy toward immigrants unsurprising, given his history of making anti-Semitic comments and repeated flirtations with the far right, but McLoughlin has marked his career with extensive philanthropy and led a “Positive Mental Attitude” campaign to encourage positivity online. He comes across as a good guy.

That he could turn away asylum-seekers in a video game, seemingly without further thought of this act’s socio-political implications, suggests that it is not enough to attribute the brutality of the Trump administration’s border policies to a cruel ideology and malicious class of agents. Rather, that we can dismiss the excesses of these policies as administratively necessary suggests a familiar banality of evil. The New Yorker has reported that many U.S. Border Patrol guards feel bad for children in detention centers: “Multiple guards told us while we were there that they are on our side and they want us to be successful, because the children don’t belong there,” a lawyer who visited the facility in Clint, Texas, told the magazine. There aren’t enough malicious actors to support the extensive architecture necessary to maintain the military-industrial complex at the border; instead, in the words of Hannah Arendt, the state has facilitated complicity by “mak[ing] functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus … dehumaniz[ing] them.” McLoughlin and Kjellberg acted without the level of reflective rationality necessary to constitute conscious activity. The gamers presumably exaggerated their reactions for the camera, but their choices betray a disturbing level of callousness toward immigrants.

This does not mean that McLoughlin and Kjellberg are overtly malicious; it means you and I and their millions of viewers are uncomfortably close to behaving like border patrol agents. When I played Papers, Please while writing this article, I found it shockingly easy to fall into the trap of denying entrance to immigrants who were clearly asylum-seekers but lacked proper documentation. On one day, when I had yet to hit the game’s maximum of two penalty-free demerits, I denied entrance to the would-be trafficker, but when the husband and wife came along, I had run out of free passes and there was no room for mistakes. I barred the wife from entering in order to avoid significant financial penalty. I became naturally suspicious of applicants who had good reasons to immigrate, the result of three terror attacks in the first seven days of gameplay. If the game intends to arouse sympathy for both immigration agents and immigrants, it fails to be an effective mechanism for transmitting empathy because it encourages sympathy for only the state: Players don’t have time—or room for bureaucratic flexibility—to think about the real people represented by the pixelated figures in Papers, Please.

Arendt offers a solution to this banal cruelty: When dealing with evil, “it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not … ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.” Playing at being a border patrol agent shows the scale at which the acceptability of violence unto asylum-seekers by inaction, of death by administration, has been normalized. If we can take a lesson from Papers, Please, it’s that games direct the behavior of the players. To fix the one we’re currently in, we either need to consciously play differently—or reboot the whole system.