By Jean Cochrane
On Day 5 of Papers, Please, almost a week into my grueling stint as an Eastern Bloc immigration inspector, I was faced with two choices, one big and one small. Both choices involved making binary decisions based on perception. Both choices left me ambivalent about the way that the game frames gender.
The big choice had to do with separating a married couple. It was “big” in the sense that the game made clear to me that the stakes of my choice were high. An Antegrian couple came through the immigration line to escape persecution in their home country. The husband’s papers were good, but the wife’s weren’t. The game seemed to present me with a binary choice, involving a difficult set of rewards and punishments: allowing the wife entry would keep the couple together and save both of their lives, but would irk my bosses; turning her away would separate them permanently and likely sentence her to death, but would allow me to feed my family. It was a hard choice, and I had to make it quickly. I allowed her to enter and accepted the pay cut.
The small choice involved interrogating an immigrant about their gender. It was “small” in that the game made no fanfare about it. The immigrant’s passport listed their sex as “M,” but they had a woman’s name – the documents were wrong, so I was supposed to deny them entry. No complex reward system, no sad story of separation of loss. Despite my bad feeling about it, I felt I understood the game’s cruel logic. I turned the immigrant away.
My sibling, who had been watching me play, laughed at my choice: “Oh, so you’ll believe any two straight people who say they’re married, but you’ll throw a trans person out of the country because you don’t believe their gender.”
Cory Johnson claims that Papers, Please challenges the prevalence of binary reward/punishment systems in games “by designing more than just a reward structure… layering rewards to weave a complex and difficult context around making a very simple decision.” It’s an eloquent argument, but my experience being forced into the role of The Gender Police makes me less than certain about the game’s reward structure. Does Papers, Please really “weave a complex and difficult context” for each choice? Or does its selection of situations that deserve “complexity” in fact reinforce predetermined modes of binary perception – like the process of gendering strangers against their will?
This is not to suggest that the game is oblivious of “gendering” as an act of dubious perception. As Terry Schenold points out, Papers, Please is fundamentally “a game of seeing” in that it forces you to question how accurate your gut perceptions are, overwhelming you with visual details that must be checked for accuracy. Gender is part of this set of details, and confusing situations routinely arise around people’s sex, names, bodies, and perceived gender. Schenold cites the body scanner as one way in which the game complicates your perception, offering you a view of the “truth” of someone’s body that is ultimately just as fallible as you are. Is the machine any more accurate when faced with an ambiguous body, for example?
To Schenold, these moments of ambiguity are indicative of a game that seeks to challenge you to rethink gender. “I was confronted with my own interpretive strategies and perceptual biases [in these moments],” Schenold says, “informed variously by fears… and personal goals.” But I remain unconvinced. Certainly the game wants you to rethink your perception, but which perceptions? Is the “truth” of gender perception in fact up for review?
Another way to think about these questions is by looking at the reward system. Moral conundrums frequently arise around threats to heteronormativity – threats to marriage, fatherhood, arguably even threats imposed by human trafficking – but rarely around people’s gender. In the case of ambiguously-gendered subjects, there is a “right” and a “wrong” perception. If Johnson is right that the game is most compelling for the way it complicates reward and punishment, then what are we to make of the unequal distribution of complexity?