There is a saying: “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” I feel an adjusted version of this proverb could accurately describe my time playing Papers Please: “one person’s nightmare job is the same person’s dream.” You see, I am an ex-bureaucrat. For a year and half I worked as a paper pushing, permit checking, document stamping permit intake specialist for a county level Planning and Development Department. Yes it was just as boring as it sounds, and yes I am quite glad to be out of there. However, I cannot deny there is something I still find viscerally satisficing about a perfectly stacked, stamped, stapled, and checked pile of paper. This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Papers Please, a game that can best be summed up as a Cold War Communist Bureaucracy simulator. Considering the popularity of Papers Please, I assume I’m not alone in feeling this way, but why?
It’s highly unlikely that all the 34,000 plus people who have given a positive review of Papers Please are recovering paper pushers. As I thought about it, I realized that the less than desirable aspects of my job which I previously described are not exclusive to permit specialists. So I assumed that at least some of the other players also have or had a real life job that somewhat parallels their role in the game. However, the question still remained as to why these people found the game enjoyable. After pondering it, the best answer I could come up with is simply Papers Please is a game, and games are something we willingly do with the intent of having fun. When we enter a game’s “magic circle” we know that we are abiding by it’s rules because the end result is fun. (Fullerton) This is in contrast with most jobs, which in a way involve entering a different type of “circle” (e.g. there are rules, accepted behaviors, and tasks that need to be completed). At a job things are done willingly but not primarily with the intention of having fun. It would seem that the main difference between Papers Please and a real life job would be that we go into one with the goal of having fun and we go into the other without trying to have fun.
As weird as it sounds, the ability of Paper’s Please to turn an unpleasant aspect of life into an enjoyable game is a skill I would like to emulate. So often in real life we get annoyed or stressed out by tasks that are tedious. By showing players that the same constraints they are put under at work can produce an enjoyable experience may help make those real life situations less stressful. At least for this player, should I ever find myself working a less then pleasant job in the future, I’ll try to channel some of the same intention for fun I had going into Papers Please.
Fullerton, Tracy. Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2019. PDF.
Papers Please. Lucas Pope, 2013.