Common Sense Review
Updated December 2013

Papers, Please

Mature immigration game forces tough ethical choices
Common Sense Rating 4
  • While it looks basic, scrutinizing immigration documents becomes quite complicated.
  • Each day begins with headlines that often warn of potential threats or summarize the player's recent successes.
  • Players must decide how to spend their earnings.
  • Some decisions can result in severe consequences.
Pros
Great conversation starter; teens don't have to play too much to "get it."
Cons
Brutal difficulty and a lack of in-game help.
Bottom Line
It's a provocative simulation about ethics and immigration that could spark debate but might be tough to implement.
John Sooja
Common Sense Reviewer
Classroom teacher
Common Sense Rating 4
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 3

The grind of scouring over and analyzing documents will either excite or bore. However, just trying the game will spark productive discussions.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 5

To succeed and progress (the game can end as early as Day 4), players must be fast yet precise with their analyses. This detail-oriented focus teaches skills applicable to reading, textual analysis, and decision making. 

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 2

No tutorial, and it isn't always clear how to proceed. Players can track their game progress by day and manage multiple saves, but the game doesn't go into specifics on what exactly players might have missed when investigating people.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

It'll fit into a unit on immigration and/or citizenship in history, social studies, or government classes. Since there's no tutorial, some portion of the class should be devoted to how the game works and how to play it. Students could play at home or in a computer lab, or sign up for in-class slots of play time. After each session, have students reflect on their experience in a journal. Create dedicated prompts for the journals, and since students will likely be interested in one anothers' unique experiences, consider using a blogging platform. Suggested prompts: How did the game make you feel when you had to make a hard decision? What did you think while playing the game? What do you think is the point of this game? To supplement journaling, facilitate discussion about ethical quandaries that players face. For instance, did they save the starving woman and risk losing their job, or did they deny the starving woman so they could pay for their mother’s medicine at the end of the work day?

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What's It Like?

Papers, Please is a simulation video game that puts students in the role of an immigration officer for the fictional communist nation of Arstotska. Players decide who gets in and who stays out. To approve or deny someone, players check an ever-increasing number of documents. Each day adds new things to be aware of, and it's a tough -- but interesting -- tightrope to walk. In order to make the right choice and be efficient, players need to be slow; to make the most money, they need to be fast. How does the pain of this balance increase when human lives hang in the balance?

The plot unfolds around developing political events, terrorist activity (including attacks), an anti-government radical group, and mini-stories involving potential immigrants or visitors. Players encounter many ethical quandaries that force can’t-do-good-by-everyone decisions, and upsetting people is unavoidable. It's a very simple but unique game: part simulation, part puzzle, part adventure, part commentary. For some, obsessively fact-checking and poring over virtual documents will be particularly engaging, but for others, the grind of each day may prove too difficult.

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Is It Good For Learning?

Students can learn how detailed, textual investigation can develop skills that greatly help with writing, reading closely, and applying information to particular contexts. Also, given the serious nature of the game, students explore how different decisions can produce serious consequences and begin to understand how ethics and morals intersect. The fictional but realist presentation of the game familiarizes students with important immigration, citizenship, legality, and fairness issues in a more easily consumable, broadly drawn way than if the game dealt with real countries and people. Students can also get a feel for what it's like to work on a government border and learn about the challenges and perils of working life in general.

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Lesson Plans