Papers, Please, the unlikely hit video game of 2013, viscerally gamifies the moral quandaries of being a border agent in a repressive state. You play as a guard of the fictitious Arstotzka, an eastern European dictatorship circa 1982. During each six-minute day, you process the paperwork of as many entrants as possible at five dollars per person, highlighting discrepancies with reference to a rulebook. Harsh penalties disincentivize incorrect play, as your meager salary must cover rent, food, heat, and medicine for your family. And yet, hundreds of YouTubers intentionally mis-play the game, testing the limits of its procedural ethics to deliver striking performances like the "Donald Trump run," a strategy that denies entrance to anyone from another country and inevitably results in an early loss.
This talk looks at Papers, Please as one of many games about immigrant and refugee experience—a genre which includes popular empathy generator indies like Cart Life, point-and-click war survival games like This War of Mine, and serious, educational titles like Liberty Belle's Immigration Nation or The Migrant Trail Game—to explore how mis-play can function as political protest. In any game, the rules and structures create a procedural rhetoric suggesting how a player "should" play: how does its design motivate you to act? Performative mis-play challenges these rules, functioning as a protest against a seemingly intransigent system and harkening back to playful, pre-1968 Situationist experiments in "counterwalking" Paris. Through analyzing examples of transformative mis-play in several games and connecting them to their theoretical antecedents in Debord and Certeau, this paper suggests ways that intentional videogame mis-play could draw critical attention to injustices in real-world global or national systems by subverting the (much more constrained and symbolic) systems in which a simulation operates.