On the off-chance you are some sort of cautionary New Yorker style cartoon or literally the biggest contrarian on the planet, you might know there’s an election tomorrow (or today if you’re reading it later; the election is/was on Tuesday the 8th). The stakes of the election are fairly high in a national sense, given that it’ll determine a new president as well as the makeup of congress generally; I, thankfully, am not here to talk about that election. If you’re anything like me, you’ve had quite enough election chat and debate, and frankly my additions (I’m disappointed! I don’t feel like anyone’s radical enough in the way I want them to be!) are as predictable as they are useless. So let’s talk videogames instead.
Specifically, I want to talk about explicitly political videogames, like the New York Times recent foray into gaming, the GOP Arcade created Voter Suppression Trail. Voter Suppression Trail, as the name implies, is a game about voter suppression in the United States set lovingly to the themes and in-jokes of The Oregon Trail. I don’t mean to be glib of course — there’s a lot to like about the pairing of important but dour political observations with light, nostalgic fare. Primarily the thing to like about it is that the light, nostalgic fare is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, and GOP Arcade seems willing to play with videogame fans’ expectations to get across a message.
That’s basically what we see in Voter Suppression Trail. Despite its flaws — it boasts three characters, but really the “Latina nurse in Texas” and the “African American businessman in Wisconsin” are pretty much the same in terms of their obstacles and storylines — the game is a) free and b) committed to a pretty hardline ideological attack on Republican abuses following the death of the Voting Rights Act. And if nothing else, North Carolina’s trendlines with early voting suggest that these obstacles are working: voter suppression is alive and well, and benefiting the GOP, GOP Arcade does not just suggest but calls from the rooftops. And so the game does not even pretend at subtlety, abandoning that for open political critique and clear-cut activism-in-game-form.
Is it effective? Probably! At least to a certain demographic — it’s angry enough that I expect Republican partisans would ignore it outright; but left-leaning voters who don’t live in or aren’t members of demographics that experience voter suppression definitely learn something important about the fragility of popular democracy. As Ian Bogost might put it, the game is persuasive, which ultimately means it’s not doing aesthetics, but activism. So, you might ask, what’s there to say beyond that for me, professional weird-beard aesthetic pedant of the internet? What could we add about art to this political statement that would still take it on its own terms? I’m real glad you asked!
It starts with a trip back in time to our old friend Georg Lukacs, who wrote (among other things) a neat little essay called “Reportage or Portrayal”. The upshot to this essay — and for the sake of my readers I’ll paraphrase, but it’s really a wonderful read — is that there are basically two ways to disclose political realism in literature. The first is through muckraking, on the ground reportage like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or (a little less apropos) Frank Norris’ The Octopus. These novels were fictional — a fact that was always important to Lukacs, who remained aesthetically focused even as he became politically fervent — but they involved real facts and real events, and were primarily meant to reveal iniquity on the ground. Opposed to these kinds of novels are the more traditional bourgeois novels of portrayal written by authors like Leo Tolstoy and Honore de Balzac. The benefit of these novels, Lukacs tells us, is that while they are not committed to ideological truths or even ideologically pure themes, they represent the totality of the world. Hence portrayal, as in the Edouard Manet school of Impressionism, which represents the whole emotional, structural, and interpersonal dynamic of a scene in a single moment.
Hang on to that distinction for a minute as we turn away from the reportage of Voter Suppression Trail to the portrayal of Lucas Pope’s Papers Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller. Papers Please, unlike Voter Suppression Trail, does not clearly lay its politics out on the table. It’s pretty unclear, actually, whether the game is meant to be a political protest against the USSR, a political protest against bureaucracy, or simply a rogue-like with a fun political veneer. Whatever it is, Papers Please’s representation of pseudo-Soviet Arstotzska is a fascinating representation of the hell of the menial task, particularly the hell of checking passports and granting entry.
The game operates seamlessly as a rogue-like, generating random profiles of people that need to be checked and rechecked against their documentation before being approved for entry into Arstotzska or denied and, potentially, detained. You’re expected to check against these random peoples’ IDs, nationalities, and documentation in order to flush out legitimate immigrants to Arstotzska as well as illegitimate or dangerous people trying to pass the border — some of whom actively try to undermine the country/empire you’re trying to serve.
Not that this last bit matters to you, in anything but the abstract anyway — your role is relegated to the booth in which you check and recheck passports, IDs, visitor documentation, vaccination reports, fingerprints, invasive body scans, and more. And as the difficulty of Papers Please amps up, you start to feel the second, more inventive element of the game crop up — namely, it’s not really a game that’s meant to be fun. It’s a game that’s meant to simulate the crushing hell of relatively meaningless but unreasonably weighty bureaucracy.
Don’t get me wrong — the game is totally fun. You should definitely buy it if you haven’t tried it yet, it’s worth your time. But it’s also deeply, deeply stressful. You’re tasked with getting through these passports on a fairly challenging time table; you’re docked for any mistakes out of your fairly minimal state wages; and you need to keep making money in order to pay your astronomical rent, heating, and food costs and to keep your family alive. In short, you’re put in the not-so-unlikely position of a contemporary wage-worker in late capitalism — struggling under the weight of production upon production, with the very state of your family and life in the balance.
And if you haven’t felt this way, the game does a wonderful job of simulating it, as you go through all the emotions of a truly overworked employee with the fate of real people in your hands: hope, depression, exhaustion, corruption, and apathy. At the beginning of the game you might be hoping to save some of the more unfortunate characters the game has to offer; by the end, you are self-justifying the theft of passports to save your own family. It’s stark.
We can, of course, as good communists question the politics of such a simulation. We can also, if we’re good capitalists, champion such a representation of ostensibly Soviet communism — highly bureaucratic, state-driven, corrupt — all the things that Francis Fukuyama might want to tell us the USSR was, Papers Please has in spades. And really, let’s be honest: the game is wildly anti-Soviet and probably anti-communist. It’s idealistic, but I’m not so sure it has much of a political moral beyond “when the state controls the means of production, everything becomes precarious hell.” The quick trigger of your bosses to jail you for treason, the multiple endings of the game (most of which end with you rotting in a cell), all of these elements of Papers Please read in part like a maudlin paperback account of Soviet crimes.
And who knows if that’s what Pope is going for. Maybe he sees it as a big satire, in defense of the USSR. Maybe he could care less about politics whatsoever. Ultimately for our purposes it doesn’t matter because like Tolstoy and Balzac — both of whom were not exactly the most left-wing radicals you could ask for — Pope has created something that speaks to the systemic quality of everyday life, not something that adds value simply because of its political content. Lukacs — remember how I told you to hang onto that little thread — values portrayal over reportage for this very fact. While reportage can tell people facts about their oppression, portrayal can show them the lines of connection that undergird the systemic quality of that oppression. And it doesn’t matter if the person writing the portrayal is right, left, or apathetic — the art does the work for them.
Now this isn’t perfect, of course. Papers Please is a wonderful game based solely on its mechanics; it doesn’t really need me to make an aesthetic theory out of it. And Voter Suppression Trail is a smart and, yes, enjoyable political tool that should make some real headway in creating awareness in an audience of casual internet readers that are kind of resistant to that sort of thing. So even if this is all nonsense, the games succeed on their own merits and in their own missions. I doubt either creator is living and dying on whether I think their work succeeded artistically.
That said, if there’s one flaw in Voter Suppression Trail it’s that it has a deeply limited scope. The importance, the game tells us again and again, is that everyone be allowed a vote. This is of course a noble goal, but the message of the game — it is important to combat systemic abuses of power — and the solution — so be sure you cast one vote that we all kind of accept is unimportant in aggregate — do not really line up. In the end of Voter Suppression Trail, it’s fair to think a player might stop and think “well, wait, what’s it matter in the end?” And if the answer is “everyone should have a fair shot, so fight for that,” then great. But the point stands — voting isn’t exactly changing the world.
Papers Please, on the other hand, offers no solutions. It gives no hope and presents no clear way out. It’s depressing and bleak and essentially paints you into a corner of corruption and depression. But it does this through a convincing representation of the world we live in and its structures. Yes, it’s set in some 1982 simulacrum of a Soviet country, but the precarity of the game’s occupation is such that it hardly matters when or where it’s set — it’s about the here and now. And in representing the moment of the here and now without a goal, the game provides a more profound message to its player: there is no out, no choice to make that makes this better. But just think how awful you feel right now. Wouldn’t you like to change that?
And that’s basically what Lukacs gets at: reportage makes you change one thing; portrayal gives you the justification to change everything. It’s why honest portrayal is so difficult and why it can be so valuable artistically and politically. Whether either game comes close is up for debate, but I think Papers Please is the most complete effort toward Lukacian portrayal I’ve yet seen, and it deserves to be recognized for that, even as we celebrate Voter Suppression Trail for writing the story that needed to be written at this specific moment in time.