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Papers, Please: A Game About Borders, Stamps, and My Family

Essay

I don’t know how I decided to play Papers, Please without considering the parallels. Why that game, of all the games in my backlog? Was it a subconscious thing? It’s laughable, really, that I didn’t think about it. It’s as if I’d actually forgotten how much of my life has been defined by stamps in passports, how many sleepless nights I’ve spent worrying about said same.

I’m writing this from my childhood home in Southern California. I came here for a convergence of events, primary among which was my grandmother’s memorial service. She was a German immigrant first, a US citizen second. At the memorial, my uncle spoke of a photograph that showed my grandmother and her sister as little girls, playing in their backyard. He remarked on how if you had looked at them then, it’d be hard to imagine how differently their lives would turn out.

He was speaking, in part, about East and West Germany.

My grandparents were kids when World War II broke out, born in the wrong place at the wrong time. My grandmother grew up surrounded by that war, and came of age amid Soviet occupation. She fled East Germany in the 1950s, after sweet talking her way into the good graces of a border guard. She got across. She got her papers.

My mom found those papers a few months ago, and my grandfather’s, too, though his were American. “Operation Paperclip,” proclaims the header. Long before those papers were printed, my grandfather had been drafted into the German army, near the end of the war. Germany was running out of men. My grandfather was fifteen. His entire high school class got shoved behind anti-aircraft guns. Just kids, hungry and scared. But after the war, on the west side of the divide, he went back to school. He got his PhD in mathematics, and that made him of interest to the American government. The Cold War had been simmering for a decade, and the Americans were snatching up all the German engineering talent they could. Operation Paperclip absolved my grandfather of the uniform he’d been made to wear, and brought him and my grandmother to the country they’d one day call home. He worked on the Apollo program, and later, the Shuttle. All because someone in a government office decided to provide a new set of papers.

I wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for that decision.

Fast forward to the 21st century. If you are not a family member or in a specialized field (like, say, rocket science), getting into this country is rough business. I know this because my Icelandic partner and I have spent the better part of the last nine years trying to be in the same place. Until five months ago, same-sex couples weren’t recognized under US immigration law. Even if we’d been married, we wouldn’t have had any options. Our story is a long one, but suffice it to say, it involves a lot of paperwork, airports, fingerprints, legal advice, and time apart. Years apart. Many of which were set in motion by a man who was never satisfied with my partner’s papers. It didn’t matter how clean her record was, or how good her intentions were, or that, as advised, my name was left entirely out of it. For reasons we never got a clear answer on, he was quick to grab the red stamp. As a result, my partner hasn’t been stateside since 2006.

But a door opened in June, with the death of DOMA. I’d seen the news, but it didn’t fully hit me until I got a congratulatory email from a friend, who works in an immigration law firm. I read her words from my current home in Reykjavik, and I cried. I could bring my partner back to my side of the world.

That same friend is getting married next week, and my partner and I are attending. Here, in California. I went with my partner to the US Embassy in Reykjavik a month ago, holding her hand after we went through the metal detector, double-checking that we had all the right papers. Papers from her boss, papers from our landlord, papers from the bank. A paper from me, mentioning that my partner will be meeting me, explaining that I live and work in Iceland, and that we have no immediate plans to relocate. It’s okay for me to be involved now. We’re allowed to exist.

The woman behind the counter was thorough, but nice. She asked a lot of questions, and apologized for how long the fingerprint check was taking. She was happy with the papers. There was no red stamp this time. She told my partner she could pick up her tourist visa the next day.

“Is there any reason they could send me back?” my partner asked.

The woman looked sympathetic. “I can give you all the stamps I can,” she said, “but they’ll do whatever they want.”

By the time this post goes up, my partner’s flight will have come in. We’ve done everything above board and legal. We’ve never broken any rules. Yet for weeks, I’ve fearing the possibility of a customs agent in a bad mood.

And I swear to you, baffling as it is, none of that came to mind as I made the casual decision to play Papers, Please.

The game describes itself as a “dystopian document thriller.” The player, wielding red and green stamps, decides the fate of would-be immigrants to the fictional country of Arstotzka. The rules for entry become more and more complex with each day. Foreigners require entry permits. Workers require work permits. Citizens of Kolechia require full body scans. By the end of the first week, my desk was an unholy mess — rulebooks, bribes, fingerprint cards, citations for oversights. I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of my cluttered workspace with the scene displayed in the frame above — a clean bird’s eye view of my immigration checkpoint, with empty space on either side. All those rules, just for the sake of walking from one side of a structure to another. The farther you pull back, the more absurd it becomes. I imagined floating above the planet, looking down at continents far less divided than maps would have you believe, considering the rules required for moving across a space I could easily cover with my thumb.

And yet I played by the rules. My son was starving and my wife was sick, and if I screwed up, I’d be docked the pay I needed for food and medicine. I ignored the pleas of the woman with the expired entry permit, who hadn’t seen her son in six years. Your son, lady? My son. I’m just doing my job.

I’ve thought that phrase many times, though with a change of pronouns. I’ve spent countless hours in airports. I can tell you how security differs, depending on where you’re flying to or from. The different kinds of questions, the typical length of lines, the thoroughness of the frisking. I always smile when going through checkpoints, and keep my voice easy. I comply as quickly as I can. “She’s just doing her job,” I tell myself, as a stranger runs the backs of her hands over my breasts. And then, as anger starts to creep in, the thing that always mollifies me: “Don’t. You can’t afford another ticket. You need to get home.”

I watched people in the game comply just as quietly. I fought back queasiness as I examined naked photographs of strangers’ bodies. When they did not comply, I detained them. I detained more people for lesser offenses after one of the guards promised to cut me into the bonus he got for making arrests. I found myself feeling spiteful toward mistakes — no, not toward the mistakes themselves, toward the people who made them. What a bunch of idiots. How could they not know the rules? They’re so clear! I felt smug in my undeserved power as I slammed the red stamp down. Smug, and ugly. Hollow.

Papers, Please showed me that my sense of compassion can be neatly overridden with the right set of pressures. All it took was a scorecard and some imaginary context. I hate what that says about me, even though it’s the most obvious thing in the world. There are no monsters here. Only humans, following rules.

My son died, as did my wife, and the rest of my family. I lost my job as a result. Citizens are supposed to build strong families. Glory to Arstotzka.

I played differently the next time. I became all the more diligent, minding the rules carefully — but not out of obedience. See, my in-game salary is based on how many people I process. If I process a lot of people, and make zero mistakes, then I am paid more. If I am paid more, I can afford to suffer penalties for making intentional mistakes. Like letting in the wife of the refugee I’d just processed, even though she lacked an entry permit. Like turning away the man involved in human trafficking, even though all his papers were in order. Like admitting the woman whose gender didn’t match the one printed on her passport. Quiet little mercies, all calculated, all dangerous. I still worried about my son. But I also worried about the futures I was holding in my hands. The paths untraveled, the dominoes aligned.

As I stamped and scanned and let things slip, I realized what I was doing. I was working through the bureaucratic dramas that have shaped my life. I wondered if the man who helped my grandmother had gotten in trouble. I wondered if the man who denied my partner’s applications had a son.

Becky Chambers writes essays, science fiction, and stuff about video games. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also be found on Twitter.

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