Gameplay Journal #9 — Critical Play
While exploring the concept of games as art, many present the idea in terms of the literal technical achievement, rather than examining the experience of playing the game as part of the artists transmission of their message. “Critical Play is built on the premise that, as with other media, games carry beliefs within their representation systems and mechanics. Artists using games as a medium of expression, then, manipulate elements common to games — representation systems and styles, rules of progress, codes of conduct, context of reception, winning and losing paradigms…” (Flanagan, pg. 4) Much like how traditional art is judged for the experience or emotions it evokes, games made with artistic intentions should be treated the same way — and if anything, games can evoke a far more focused experience in a user than some mediums of art that are more interpretational. Rather than simply evoking a feeling through description or illustration, a game can — if made well — force the intended feeling upon the player. More than allowing the player to sympathize, this allows the player to empathize to a degree — as they experience a representation of the artist’s vision. By putting the player into the shoes of someone whose experiences and environment illustrate the point the artist is trying to make, they can argue their point less explicitly, while still having the player come to the same conclusion.
Papers, Please is an excellent example of this ‘persuasion by immersion’ technique. While the names of nations in the game’s world are all fictional, and none have perfect real-world equivalents, the similarities are clear enough that as the game’s events unfold, the player can empathize with their player character’s plight. In simply trying to survive and make enough money to afford both living and improvements to their home, they’ll be tempted by opportunities to act selfishly — to not have to care for more people, to save money by only paying for food one day and only for heat another, to accept bribes, and arrest people that may have simply made an honest mistake. They’ll see and be threatened by the senseless violence from both terrorists hitting the checkpoint and their own authoritarian boss, threatening to fine or fire them for infractions. But beyond this, they’ll feel the increasing responsibility and danger heaped upon them as a bureaucrat in an authoritarian regime — from processing an increasing number of documents, to arresting criminals, to confiscating the passports of innocent citizens — to their dismay and protest — to having to use a weapon to defend the check point. It illustrates the evils of the post-soviet autocratic state far more elegantly than a list of the atrocities they have committed. It humanizes the cruelties and gives the player someone to connect with, and empathize with, because even though they’re fictional, the player knows it’s representative of an entire class of real people that once existed, and in some respects, still exist in the world today.
Anyone interested in seeing Papers Please for themselves can watch this video by Wade Barnes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AthPcwOLDc
All rights to the video and its content belong to Wade Barnes, and I am not related to or endorsed by them, nor are they endorsed by me.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. The MIT Press, 2013.