Can entertaining video games be used to teach history?

You load up the game and the first thing you hear is ominous music, a dark tune with a marching beat. The game’s title screen scrolls incrementally up your computer monitor, with Papers, Please displayed in a font meant to remind you of Cyrillic script. You start a new game and are presented with a brief introduction:

Congratulations. The October labor lottery is complete. Your name was pulled. For immediate placement, report to the Ministry of Admission at Grestin Border Checkpoint. An apartment will be provided for you and your family in East Grestin. Expect a Class-8 dwelling.


Over the first few days of work you learn a bit more about your situation. The year is 1982 and you are a citizen of Arstotzka. You brought your family with you, and you are the only one employed. Your job consists of sitting in a booth surrounded by fences and armed guards, calling upon the next person in line, and checking the validity of their papers. The goal of the game is to approve all people with valid papers and deny all those with something wrong, such as an expired passport or mismatched identification numbers.

You are given a salary at the end of each day based on how many people you process. If you are good at the game, you earn enough to pay for rent, food, and to heat your apartment. If you are a bit slow, members of your family will get sick and die. Also, you are fined for making errors. Compounding your problem is that many events are outside of your control. For example, sometimes a terrorist attack shuts down the border for the day, cutting into your pay and further endangering your family. Border guards will offer you cash to detain more immigrants. Border-crossers will offer you cash (and often a bit more) to be accepted into the country.

I argue that Papers, Please is one of the only games on the market that can actually be used to effectively teach history. At this point, I see at least three strengths in Papers, Please.

(1) There are no good guys or bad guys in Papers, Please. The game presents the player with serious ethical, political, moral, and personal problems in a simple-yet-complex form, something that other games tend to gloss over or oversimplify as a “good versus evil” trope. The Arstotzka state detains and executes people, while the resistance employs suicide bomber tactics. It is very similar to the toxic environment seen in memoirs from Cold War Eastern Europe, a place with many villains, few heroes, and even fewer “correct” solutions to daily problems.[1]

(2) By situating the player in a fictional place, Papers, Please avoids the problems of the player encountering “historical inaccuracies.” Even though you work in the fictional land of Arstotzka, it is strongly implied that you are in the middle of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. When a game is set in a real historical environment, players are quick to catch onto things that “are not right.”

For example, in the game Civilization (all five of them), the player takes on the role of a ruler of a historical civilization with the goal of becoming the greatest empire in the world (determined by their diplomatic, scientific, cultural, or military might). Each civilization has their own traits in an effort to simulate the real past, so for instance Queen Elizabeth will rapidly expand around the globe and Bismarck will emphasize military and industry. However, every Civilization player knows one thing: Gandhi will drop an atomic bomb on you the first chance he gets. Original game programmers made a mistake. Intending to set Gandhi’s stat for being warlike to zero, they accidentally set it to the maximum. Over the years, players came to expect Gandhi as a warlike invader in the game, so game sequels kept Gandhi’s traits as such, keeping the inside joke intact. Obviously, real-life Gandhi would be appalled by his digital behavior, and players in part chuckle at his expense. With an example such as this, players can easily become detached from the game’s historical atmosphere and thus the moment of historical thinking is lost.

In contrast, a fictional universe serves as an allegory or satirical world, and players are not going to criticize a fictional history as being inaccurate (except in the case of well-established canons like Star Wars or Middle-Earth). With a fictional world, the impetus is upon the player to make the connection to real life. In other words, game creator Lucas Pope does not simply state “Arstotzka is a Soviet bloc country”; it is up to the player to make that connection.[2]

(3) Papers, Please is an excellent facilitator of historical empathy.[3] You are given just enough historical context to understand your present situation. The player is vaguely told there was a war between Arstotzka and your neighbors, Arstotzka annexed the city where you work, and most of the rest of the world views your country as a land of fascism. Most importantly though, players are encouraged to develop an affective connection to the character you embody, and players accomplish this through simply playing the game.

You, the player, are the lived experience. Rather than read, listen, or view a the experience, you do all of that at once.  Given enough time in the game world, the player understands the lived experience of the faceless checkpoint guard character. On day one you only need to worry about two documents, but by day twenty you must worry about dozens. This slows you down; this cuts into your pay; and this causes your family hardship. Through the game’s other characters, you see these problems were likely faced by anyone involved in attempts to assert sovereignty over human movement and political borders. The player begins to understand and engage the hardship, the problems, and the difficult decisions a checkpoint guard had to make every day, hour, and minute of their life. This final point is historical empathy, a very difficult thing to achieve in a classroom or museum that I believe can be achieved with an independent, retro-style video game.

[1] Timothy Garton Ash, The File: A Personal History (New York: Vintage Books, 1997). Milan Kundera, The Joke (New York: HarperCollins, 1967). Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003).

[2] According to the game’s creator Lucas Pope, Arstotzka’s government is based on Oceania from George Orwell’s 1984. The checkpoint at which the player works is inspired by the checkpoints separating East and West Berlin during the Cold War, such as the infamous “Checkpoint Charlie.”

[3] I prefer Jason Endcott’s definition of historical empathy: “the process of students’ cognitive and affective engagement with historical figures to better understand and contextualize their lived experiences, decisions, or actions.” Historical empathy requires three interrelated and interdependent factors: historical contextualization, perspective taking, and affective connection. For more, see Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks, “An Updated. Theoretical and Practical Model for Promoting Historical Empathy,” Social Studies Research and Practice 8 (2013), 41-58.

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