"Is this person a lawful citizen of my country or an unauthorized immigrant, terrorist, spy, or smuggler?"
This is the primary question you'll have to ask yourself if you play the new game "Papers Please," which casts users in the role of border agent.
Lucas Pope, an American video game designer living in Japan, has been making video games of all sorts for 20 years. But his latest game comes at a time when immigration has coincidentally taken center stage in American politics.
Inspired by George Orwell's 1984 and by the checkpoints separating East and West Berlin during the Cold War, the game is set in an imaginary nation called Aristotzka in 1982. The challenge is to inspect immigrant documents and spot discrepancies.
The game is inherently susceptible to critique because the name "Papers Please" is often associated with Arizona's controversial SB1070 bill (which critics say encourages racial profiling of Latinos). The game's premise is also dependent on the broad stereotype that there are a large number of "bad" immigrants trying to get into your country. But Pope says he's actually tried to keep the highly political topic as unpolitical as possible.
"I have some opinions [about politics] but they're not particularly strong and I'm intentionally trying to not politicize the game," Pope said. "My goal is more to connect players with the difficult decisions an immigration inspector has to make. The focus is on the low-level task of trying to manage a job and a family when the right thing to do isn't so clear."
"Papers Please" is compelling to many users in game discussion boards because it stands in contrast to those popular games which encourage users to evade and kill authority figures (Take, Grand Theft Auto, for example.) Instead, in Pope's game, the user plays an ordinary person who must make difficult decisions about who to let into their country, in order to hold onto their job and feed their virtual family every day.
"I really like the ideas behind 'empathy games' like Papers Please and Cart Life," wrote one user last month, in reference to another game which simulates the difficulties of being a self-employed street vendor.
This is not the first time video game designers have taken on the issue of immigration -- some in more cruel ways than others. In 2007, Breakthrough TV, an immigrant-rights advocacy organization, designed a game called ICED to show gamers what it would be like to try to survive in a virtual New York City as an unauthorized immigrant.
In stark contrast, the browser-based game called "Border Patrol", which was labeled one of the "10 Most Racist Video Games" by Complex.com, awards points to users who shoot cartoon Mexican immigrants, including a pregnant mother referred to as a "breeder," as they cross the border. The site claims that it's been played more than a million times.
But Pope's game is a far cry from the sadism of "Border Patrol," dealing instead with key emotional complexities of a job on the border. In real life, more than half of all border patrol agents are Latino, and some report an emotional paradox in carrying out their duties. Similarly, a handful of users found the "Papers Please" game difficult to want to "win."
"There were moments when I wanted to let someone in I shouldn't, rules be damned, like when I had to split up a husband and wife," wrote game reviewer Jessica Cook. "Yes, [the game] actually gave me a little sympathy for my real life border guards."