This is the pilot piece of our new featured article series, “Critical Exemplars.” For the previous series, “Better Game Culture,” click here.

One of the longstanding criticisms of mainstream game culture is the stubborn dominance of games that are eminently readable as male power fantasies, and these games often enable and nurture ways of thinking and feeling that are not representative of “our best selves.” [1]


Some game designs can bring out the dark side

Jane McGonigal’s claim that we are “our best selves” when we play games isn’t exactly a universal law. Sometimes games emphasize and practice other, less helpful qualities.

Some celebrity game designers have pointed this out – David Cage’s provocative DICE2013 talk “The Peter Pan Syndrome” immediately comes to mind – but it is hard to see critical commentary like this, in and of itself, however needful and regardless of the source, as successfully countering the accrued force of the design practices and reception habits of contemporary game culture. In my experience, this is especially the case with self-identified “gamers” (or “hardcores”) who are often prematurely dismissive of criticism aimed at either their favored games or game culture generally. [2] Thematic criticism is necessary, of course, but not sufficient.

Individual games can address this issue in game culture through design similar to the way approaching old questions in a different way can alter the discussion through reframing. For example, games like Deus Ex, Thief, and Portal exemplified critical ideas about their native market genre, the First-Person Shooter (FPS), and expanded the questions we ask and expectations we have about FPS game experiences – even productively challenging the usefulness of the genre descriptor.

Criticism can enhance these progressive effects, too, by developing a detailed discourse of appreciation through identification of “critical exemplars,” games that pave the way for new thinking in design and gaming. [3] Sometimes these exemplars are obvious and accepted (perhaps like the examples above), but other times they take more effort to apprehend.


Zelda’s classic hero character Link holding up an image of a more complex protagonist from
The Binding of Isaac

As a follow up to last year’s series Better Game Culture invited authors will share commentary on specific games they consider to be critical exemplars for some reason or another, exploring how their chosen game serves as a catalyst for new thinking. This series will provide readers with an inspirational collection of concrete game examples and ways of thinking about them that provide new grounds for critical discussion and innovative design.

More, Please: The Reversals of Papers, Please

Our first exemplar is Papers, Please, a “dystopian document thriller” created by Lucas Pope. This game has many remarkable qualities: compelling narrative with topical and discussion-prompting themes, interesting art, soundcraft, and challenge design – but I would like to focus on how the game exemplifies a few innovative reversals of some design commonplaces.

From the website:

The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.

Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.

1. Heteronomous Play: De-Fetishizing the Pleasure of Autonomy

Many popular games celebrate the pleasures of autonomy in play, of enabling players to express their personal desires in fantasy contexts with the constraints of game rules and simulation mechanics that are primarily designed to make this expression “fun,” challenging, and more palpable (as opposed to, say, disconcerting, estranging, or problematic) than in everyday life experiences. As one example, in Skyrim almost everything about the player character is elective, customizable, and in reference to the player’s values and power. The game is, in this limited sense, all about an unencumbered you, a virtual you that can indulge in the pleasures of autonomy and agency [4], and a large part of the design goes toward facilitating pleasures of accruing power and exercising it unilaterally, often without complex feelings of responsibility to others. The game world is coded to give feedback that marks off player achievements in the world on a heroic or “epic” scale, but on the everyday scale the game is largely silent. This isn’t a flaw in the game’s design so much as a chosen focus for attention, but we can certainly understand how it can sync up with an egocentric ethos in cultures that fetishize autonomy. [5]

Papers, Please (PP) exemplifies a productive complication of this habitual association of play and the pleasures of autonomy. As an immigration inspector on the border you exercise a lot of power, and in the immediate context of gameplay, enjoy a lot of agency. However, the game makes it very difficult to indulge in the, shall we say, “simpler pleasures” (to say nothing of the “escapist pleasures”) of popular gaming. The game invites unsettling calculations and self-reflection on values and personal habits of thinking and seeing. This is partly an effect of complicating the reference points for decision-making in gameplay. Playing as Mario (or most “heroes” in games, for that matter) one only has to think about the problem in front of you, the explicit task at hand. In PP your agency is constrained by the bureaucratic demands of your employer, responsibility to provide for your family, your sense of duty and morality within the gameworld, and your own values as a player or human being. Here is just one of many situations the game generates that speaks to this complication:


A woman pleads with you to let her into the country without the proper papers

A husband and wife are seeking asylum in Arstotzka. You’ve already checked the husband through when you learn that the wife does not have the needed papers. You can look the other way and send her through, but will get penalized, costing you vital pay (to say nothing of the possibility of losing your job) – the money needed to keep your family from starving or freezing to death! The game has also prepared the player to be sufficiently paranoiac about secret terrorists, as you’ve already witnessed a suicide bomber explode (and depending on previous actions, the player may already harbor guilt for letting one through the border with devastating effects).

This situation foregrounds the experience, both tactical and emotional (depending on the degree of player cathexis), of heteronomy – of being subjected to forces, rules, and constraints that deny the pleasures of simple and innocent self-determination and feelings of moral freedom.

2. Videre Games: Subverting Actionism

The second reversal PP exemplifies pertains not to the pleasures of gameplay but its address to player perception. Player expectation, play strategies, and commentary are often oriented toward the topic of action: What are we asked and enabled to do? Many gamers and critics take the basic fact of material interactivity, which clearly marks videogames off from novels, films, and other popular media, as the central frame for appreciation. Consequently, we compulsively emphasize the game in videogames, where “game” is generally interpreted as an experience of interesting interaction choices—of modes of action. [6]

Although PP is full of interaction, its design actually emphasizes perception. It is a videogame in a stricter sense of the term: a game of seeing (broadly interpreted).  We often forget the “video” in videogames, probably because as Lev Manovich asserted long ago, we live in the “society of the screen” and video is invisible because it is ubiquitous in everyday life. “Video” actually comes from the Latin videre, meaning “to see,” and in the case of PP there are reasons other than simple pedantry to call attention to this detail!

While we are certainly always perceiving (especially looking) in gameplay, we are often operating on a kind of learned autopilot in which what we attend to is shaped primarily by our genre expectations (“What kind of things matter in this type of game?”) and accrued expertise (“This mechanic looks familiar…”), the explicit cues a game provides, and goal-oriented activity based on these frames. Papers, Please often reverses this subordination of perception to action in gameplay, nurturing perception-centric play as well as speculative and moral reflection –not just on what you do as a character, but what happens to you, what you perceive or witness, both about the fictional world of the game as well as yourself as a human being making judgments in it.


Screens from the four seasons in Bogost’s A Slow Year

It is easier to see this reversal, exemplified in PP, in much simpler games like Ian Bogost’s A Slow Year, where the gameplay is more explicitly focused on the experience of perception – enjoying an aesthetic experience and, to some extent, escaping what Brian Massumi has termed the “tyranny of interactivity,” or tempering what John Dewey described as our human “zeal for doing.” [7] Gameplay in PP is more complex, and a major design strategy seems to be making the tyranny of interactivity palpable to the player in the form of prompting moral decisions under duress (e.g. pay is tied to the number of immigrants correctly processed using increasingly complex protocols). However, PP definitely problematizes the typical gamer’s “zeal for doing,” often by causing introspection and concern for errors of their own perception, not because they lead to fail states in the game (i.e. not seeing an attack and being damaged or killed), but because those errors inspire unsettling reflections. [8]


One of my personal experiences with PP that speaks to this theme concerns the profiling of the sex of immigrants. At a certain stage in the escalation of security protocols the game compelled me to verify the sex listed on immigrant ID cards, and when my own perceptions of the sexes based on gender codes I bring to the game left me unsure, I used the intrusive body scan option.


To my dismay I had read a female immigrant as a male, and this sent me into reflections on my process of perception and judgment. Interestingly, the game also allows players to use an automated inspection mechanic to check the appearances of immigrants against the sex listed on their IDs, and this process can indicate a discrepancy where the player personally may not see one. In defaulting to machine judgment in subsequent sessions I was still finding myself having similar feelings and reflections. In fact, in both cases I was confronted with my own interpretive strategies and perceptual biases, informed variously by fears (earlier I had forgone intrusive procedures on principle only to realize I let a terrorist through), and personal goals (I subjected some immigrants to procedures in order to get some needed cash for my struggling family).

Although we may describe videogames as an “action-based medium,” [9] this videogame is primarily about human judgment (among other things, obviously), not only judgment enacted, as form of player action, but also judgment perceived.  In a way, Papers, Please judges us, for in asking us to judge others through its designs we are given an indirect opportunity to see ourselves, perhaps more clearly, if not critically.

Next up in the series: 


[1] McGonigal on Games (skip to 3:40)

[2] A short list of some typical gamer evasions: “It’s just a game!”; “You don’t make games, so you can’t criticize them!”; “You aren’t a true gamer…”; “That’s not my experience of the game…”; “If you haven’t mastered playing the game, your criticism is illegitimate”

[3] The series is not concerned with whether or not the highlighted games are in fact the first instances or originators of the exemplary qualities authors discuss, nor the most demonstrably influential in popular game culture. Games are selected for their capacity to exemplify the identified ideas or innovations for the individual authors.

[4] Autonomy comes from the combination of “auto” and “nomos,” literally: self-law. We give the law of action to ourselves. For an interesting philosophical treatment of the Western emphasis on autonomy and how it relates to its opposite, heteronomy, see Emmanuel Levinas’s “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity” in Totality and Infinity.

[5] I personally find Skyrim (and The Elder Scrolls series generally) to be wondrous and innovative in some ways, and regressive and disappointing in others.

[6] I coined the word “actionism” in a full-scale argument against materialist accounts of gameplay in an essay  entitled “After Ergodics” in Terms of Play: Essays on Words that Matter in Videogame Theory (2013)

[7] See Brian Massumi “Thinking-Feeling of What Happens” in Interact or Die!  (2007); also John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934)

[8] For an interesting book-length treatment on experiencing failure in the context of videogames, see Jesper Juul’s  Art of Failure (2013)

[9] See Alexander Galloway’s Gaming: Essays in Algorithmic Culture (2006)

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