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Policing the Border in Lucas Pope’s Computer Game Papers, Please

Alan Mattli

Pages 99 - 117



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0.

Lucas Pope’s 2013 video game Papers, Please places the player-character in the position of an immigration inspector in a fictional Eastern Bloc nation. Since its release, the game has garnered enthusiastic responses, being celebrated by critics as an essential dramatisation of the ethical dilemmas associated with the migratory flows and fraught border politics of the post–9/11 world. However, this essay argues that this reputation must be scrutinised: for while Papers, Please indeed illustrates some of the contradictions at the heart of contemporary border policy – such as immigrant- receiving states’ pragmatic application of exclusionary immigration practices that run contrary to their self-professed liberal-democratic ideals – it also engages in a ‘universalising’ abstraction of the border space, which limits its feasibility as a lens through which to view 2010s border discourses. Drawing from current research in Border Studies, a close reading of Pope’s game illustrates how its geo-historical setting and its omission of crucial phenomena associated with the twenty-first-century border, such as the interactional processes of bordering and the existence of ‘bi-cultural’ borderscapes, ultimately render it a liberal-democratic fantasy, according to which the conflicts engendered by the enforced geopolitical border are abstract questions of morality and ethics rather than practical socio-political questions.

Keywords: video games; border politics; migration; rebordering


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