Papers, Please’s Use of Empathy

Jonathan Belman, in his article Designing Games to Foster Empathy, states that games are suited to fostering empathy because “they allow players to inhabit the roles and perspectives of other people or groups”. While playing Papers, Please, I got a first hand look at what Belman meant by this statement. Throughout the game, I was routinely forced to decide between the livelihood of various strangers and the well-being of myself and my family. Playing as an immigration officer, I was tasked with checking the legal documents of various people who wanted entrance into the country. I was rewarded (in the form of my salary) for every person I correctly processed, and punished (in the form of warnings and deductions from my salary) for those I processed incorrectly. The game does an excellent job of fostering empathy because it uses both cognitive and emotional tactics- you are not only put in someone else’s shoes, you also have to face people in dire situations.

The game utilizes what Belman calls “cognitive empathy” as well as “emotional empathy”. Cognitive empathy is defined as the experience of intentionally taking another person’s point of view. Taking the point of view of an immigration officer in a dystopian country, I am challenged to empathize with someone who is forced to make morally gray decisions. Though I am turning away people from the country, some of which put a lot on the line to travel to the border, I am also being forced to do so by the government, and failure to comply may lead to the death of my family members and my own incarceration. I believe the goal of the game’s creator is to foster empathy for people living in dangerous, totalitarian governments by having players play as one, as well as foster empathy for immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves, by having the player face immigrants in various decisions throughout the game.

The game also utilizes emotional empathy, the experience of responding emotionally to what another is going through, by means of the individuals trying to gain access into the country. A “parallel” example of this is when a husband and wife are immigrating to the country. The husband gets through and notifies the player that his wife is next. However, her papers are not correct and the player must decide whether to let her through after she reveals that if she is sent back she will be killed. The player feels parallel empathy when they consider that they also have a family at home that may die if their job is not done correctly. Like the wife, you feel despair and heartbreak. A “reactive” example is the games utilization of searches. Whenever you search a character, you receive a picture of their naked body, and you feel pity for them and the humiliation they must be feeling.

One thought on “Papers, Please’s Use of Empathy

  1. I had an experience with Papers Please that was similar to yours, dealing with choices influenced by various forms of empathy. Reading your descriptions of the types of empathy and the circumstances that established them made me step back and wonder how the circumstances of the game translate to empathy in the player. If we know it is all made up, and our choices aren’t going to affect real people, why do we still feel these kinds of empathy? One possible reason is that the games are reminiscent of experiences that are real, but there might be more to it than that.


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