The Gender Police: “Papers, Please” and the enforcement of binary perception

6 thoughts on “The Gender Police: “Papers, Please” and the enforcement of binary perception”

  1. Hi Jean! Thank you for this post, which (like all of yours) beautifully lays out something lodged in the game, and starts to distort it. If I’m following you, the game posits moments of shock and ambiguity that are supposed to lay bare the player’s own system of categorization, perhaps similar to the way that Kobena Mercer theorizes Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs as “throw[ing] the spectator into the flux of uncertainty and undecidability, experienced as the feeling of ambivalence and disturbance in which one’s subject-position has been called into question.” Mercer writes that “the risky business of ambivalence by which his images can… confirm a racist reading as much as produce an anti-racist one, suggests that indeterminacy doesn’t happen “inside” the text, but in the social relations of difference that different readers bring to bear on the text, in the worldly relations “between.” This, to me, is the ideal being posited by Schenold of what Papers, Please is trying to accomplish. And what I hear you saying is that it does this in some scenes but not in the scenes of gender/ gender perception because in these moments the contestation ends or ceases to exist; one “version” of gender is preferred over another, there is a right answer and a wrong answer.

    This, to me, reveals an edge of what might be possible with the single player game play or with games that aren’t collectively imagined but remain stably “authored”. What I think games can do is to acknowledge that we want a world that doesn’t exist yet, things that we don’t have words for yet — and to push us to fumble together, to play and to build up forms that might get us closer to this thing that doesn’t yet exist/circulate publicly. And one of those things is a way of seeing, producing, and performing gender that is pluralized, that is WAY more than a choice between two, that gives everyone ways to perform their gender in a way that feels good and that they can name if they want to and find others similar to them if they want to (pluralize and specify). So my question back to you, then, is how do we start to create games that give us space to leap, to be nauseous together at the edge of what is visible?

  2. While I don’t think the game necessary put the “truth” of gender perception up for review, I do think it forced the players to question the validity or usefulness of using a strict gender-identification system. As a decidedly dystopian game, Papers, Please inundates the player with information that makes the immigration inspector’s job ineffective, and gender quickly becomes one of those pieces of information. At one point in the game (partly because I was so bad at it), I used “inspect” for every NPC’s portrait and gender, and noticed that the “inspect” function’s determination for who was and was not conforming to their listed gender, was totally arbitrary. For me, the fact that the game punished the player for not perceiving or accepting these arbitrary gender determinations, was its way of satirizing the binary gender system used in legal documents. It was also underscored once the player had to sift through temporary ID tags (with height, weight, basic descriptions, etc). Those tags were a reminder that in passports, gender is used for identification, but the usage assumes all women perform in a “recognizably feminine” manner, and all men similarly perform in a “recognizably masculine” manner, but the game includes several NPCs who are neither. And for me, those features reinforced the uselessness and arbitrariness of a legally encoded gender system.

  3. An embarrassing moment for me that unfortunately happened multiple times was when I noticed an apparent gender discrepancy and checked the picture with the listed gender, only for the game to present me right away with the “DATA MATCHED” sign. Since this happened more than twice, it’s tempting to think that this is an intentional part of the game’s design, that leading players to be suspicious of gender as a potential discrepancy causes them to regard ambiguous individuals as problematic right away.

    Much has been said of the ability of Papers, Please to familiarize the player with the kind of dehumanizing state of mind that arises in jobs like these. You are rewarded materialistically for using harsh, uninvested judgment, and it is incredibly easy to fall into the mind frames of “They probably deserve it” or “How do I know they’re not lying?” or “Not my problem”. In a way, this game teaches empathy by showing how easy it could be to lose it. People don’t do “evil” things because they are just irredeemably bad; they do them to protect themselves from circumstances they can’t control. The man who detains you for misspelling your name on your passport is only doing it to keep his family from starving to death.

    With this in mind, I feel that the Arstotskan protocol for gender is part of this quagmire. It isn’t ethical to force people to strip or conform to a gender they may not be comfortable in so they can get across, but for the sake of protecting the country, these are the rules that have been given to you and making any kind of political stand except the one you’ve been given is downright dangerous.

    1. I too wondered about how intentional the gender-binary strictness structure was in Papers, Please. There was something very knowing about being forced to identify someones genitalia as “the correct gender” when compared to the aura of the rest of the game.

  4. @theatmosqueer: I love the conversation about Mapplethorpe (and “The Black Book,” I assume) that you’re bringing in here. It’s helping me to stop and reconsider my own “shock” at the game’s gender politics. The idea of Mapplethorpe’s ambivalence “confirm[ing] a racist reading as much as produc[ing] an anti-racist one” feels very similar to my own reaction to “Papers, Please” in a generative way, and makes me wonder: isn’t it in fact a good thing that “Papers, Please” led me to ask all these tough questions?

    The questions you’re thinking through about collective authorship are also huge and difficult. It’s certainly true that in a static single-author game like “Papers, Please,” some mechanics and themes will inevitably receive more attention than others just by the nature of the author’s interests and the closed system that the game represents. A form like ARGs, where narrative can be written collectively and in real-time, seems more conducive to the sorts of world-building play that you’re interested in seeing from games. Certain kinds of systems-level games (“The Sims”) or multiplayer role-playing games (“Second Life,” “World of Warcraft,” and other descendants of D&D) might accomplish a similar type of collective authorship while still sticking to one medium.

    At the same time, I’m not sure that a game needs collective or dynamic authorship to still “give us space to leap.” In spite of my skepticism, many parts of “Papers, Please” in fact spoke to me deeply and led me to spaces of generative play I couldn’t have reached without it. “Problem Attic,” which we’ll play for this week, feels like another example of a game that is closed and single-authored but which contains within it an expansive alternate world that requires co-creation from a player. Maybe we can open this discussion back up next week? I think it’s crucial to “Queer Games and Networked Relations”!

    @cindyjiy: This is a great counterpoint, and was something that came up for us in discussion on Friday. I think you’re right – I didn’t give the game enough credit for the way that the mechanics push the player to question their gendering of strangers. It’s certainly an intentional part of the game, and it feels very effective at pushing players to question the relationship between individual and state processes of assigning gender (as @btbarber03 shows so well).

    But I suppose what troubled me was the way in which the state’s violent attitude toward gender stayed a mechanical choice, and didn’t factor into the game’s reward system. During my playthrough, complex ethical questions never arose around my assignment of gender the way they did around traditional issues like marriage and fatherhood – a discrepancy that seemed to situate gender among procedural concerns, and not moral ones. Another way to put it: making the decision about an ambiguous body felt more similar to questioning someone about a misspelled city name than it did to making a live-or-die decision about a family, even though in the real world, that kind of interaction is often just as violent.

    Did you all have a similar experience with the reward system? I only played through to one ending, so I’d be curious to hear if more complicated things happen later on.

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