Pedagogy, Please: Using Papers, Please in the Classroom

I am teaching a first year English class titled Rhetoric and Composition – essentially, it’s what many people would call English 101. As teachers, we’re required to stick to the course objectives, but otherwise we have the freedom to design our own course and syllabus, and I like to get creative with my classes. I’ve taught the second semester of this course – Rhetoric and Composition II – using video games as both the primary text and as a framework for the course (gamification, sort of), but I had yet to use them to teach a first semester class. The second semester course works well using games because students are doing a lot of group work and research, and using a virtual environment for group meetings or virtual demonstrations is super useful and illustrative. The first semester course is focused on analysis, though, and I had previously felt like video games might be too ‘big’ for that, since analyzing a game, with its movement, visuals, sound, dialogue, narrative, gameplay, or any combination of the many elements that make up a video game, might be too much to handle in our limited amount of time. I’ve used horror movies to teach the course twice already, and I felt like those sections went pretty well. This semester, however, I decided to jump in and use video games. They are the focus of my research, but I very rarely study them in any of my courses. I wanted a way to not only integrate what I’ve learned about games as cultural artifacts and educational tools into what I was doing, but also to force myself to keep up with thinking about my field while taking classes that have very little to do with it. So using them for the class I was going to teach seemed a natural conclusion.

I will probably write something about my overall experience after the semester ends, but today I wanted to write a little bit about how I’m using a specific game in the class: Papers, Please. We have four main paper assignments in this class: a video game review, a visual analysis (of video game art, advertisements, screenshots, cover art, etc.), a video game critique, and a synthesis (‘baby’ research paper) paper on any issue concerning video games (violence, sexuality, intelligence, education, etc.). This structure is meant to get them from a subjective argument with relatively little close analysis (review), to close, objective analysis of static objects (visual analysis), to close analysis of a whole artifact with its many parts (critique), to close analysis of several objects mixed with some objective research (synthesis).

Being the first analysis paper, my students often stumble on the visual analysis, and this semester was no exception. So, for the follow-up paper, the critique paper, they asked for a model. I saw an opportunity to play a video game in class, since we could play a game together, take notes as a class, and then use those notes to come up with an outline. I wanted it to be a short game that we could get through a fair amount of in just one or two class periods, and while there are numerous great, free, browser-based games over at the Internet Archive, I wanted something a little more contemporary and relevant. Papers, Please seemed to be a perfect fit. The gameplay is drag-and-click, so any of my students could step up and play it in class, and it deals with contemporary issues like immigration, nationalism, and, well, certain Eurasian countries. We played for half of two different 75 minute class periods, and while I can’t speak to how successful the play sessions were on their papers (for a couple of reasons), I did want to walk through some of how things went.


The first thing we did, before they knew anything about the game they were playing, was make two lists: themes or topics that games might be saying something about/commenting on, and some of the elements of games that could be used to ‘say’ those things. Here is what we ended up with, after some discussion:

Topics/Themes:        War / Poverty / Politics / Gender / Race / Growing up / Teenagers / Maturity / Religion / National identity / College / Education / Parenting / Social status / Sexuality / Sexual preference / LGBTQ issues / Work (occupation)

Elements:        Graphics / Art style / Color / Spoken or written dialogue / Plot or narrative / Representation / Gameplay (goals) / Gameplay mechanics / Music / Sound / Tone / Setting / Audience / Advertising

I wrote each list on either side of the projector screen so that we could refer to it while we were playing, and then started up the game. The distinctively militaristic music started up and the title made its way onto the screen, marching up from the bottom to the beat of the music. I asked if anyone had played the game or knew anything about it, to which I got a unanimously negative response. “So what can you tell me about this game, just based on the title screen? What kind of game is it? What is it about? Is there a theme you pick up on just from what you see and hear?” I was hoping that they would pick up on the militaristic tone by noting that the music resembles a march and the title comes onto the screen in a marching fashion, not to mention the militaristic insignia at the top of the title. They didn’t quite get there, but they made some insightful observations. One student thought it seemed like an adventure game because the music seemed kind of exciting and action-y. One student thought it took place in Italy, because of the music, but another chimed in and said it sounded like Russian music, which a couple of other students agreed with. When I asked what the title meant, and what it might tell us about the game, there was some head scratching. When I pointed to the comma and asked if that had anything to do with direct address or implied audience, there was some visual and audible realization in several students and one student said that it must be about someone asking for someone’s papers, “like at customs,” which I was happy about.

I had a volunteer to act as the player, and I told the rest of the class to help her out and shout out opinions and suggestions about what she should do. The first day was slow, as she stumbled a bit getting the hang of how to play with little help from the rest of the class. There was some discussion at the end of the (game) day, when they realized how the game was set up: for each successful person processed, you get five dollars, and you need at least fifty dollars a day to pay for rent, heat, and food to keep your family alive and well. Oddly enough, what really seemed to get people involved was the first time she, the player, rejected a character’s passport and they cursed at her. They found that funny and started speaking up after that, helping her to look for the important information she needed to match up to make faster decisions and get more people through the checkpoint.

It was too late, however. Just as they were getting the hang of it, the terrorist attack on Day 2 cut their day short and meant that they didn’t have enough money to pay rent. They were arrested and their game was over. “What happened?” “So, the game’s over?” they asked. I responded in the affirmative, and took the opportunity to ask some questions to try and prompt some critical thinking that we might use in future discussion.

“Would you guys want this job?”
“Hell naw.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because you get thrown in jail for something you can’t control.”
“People are mean to you.”
“But you won this job in a work lottery,” I reminded them. “There are other people who aren’t as lucky as you and don’t have a job. Shouldn’t you be happy that you’re working?”
“Not if you go to jail for not paying rent.”

I’d wanted them to start thinking about what the game was saying about civilians who have to live and make a living in war zones or under oppressive regimes. I could have probably kept going with the discussion and got them there, but we were running short on time so we pressed on and they started a new game. We only got through two days before class ended, but those two days were filled with cooperation and students openly debating whether or not to let people through and catching things that other students had missed. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, which made me feel like my choice of game and approach was a big success. I told them we would continue playing during the next class and go through an outline of a possible paper using our discussion of the game that followed our play session.

I’m sad to report that only four students showed up to that next class period (as opposed to the maybe twelve or thirteen that had shown up for the first class). I have had four of them contact me since and apologize for missing, saying that they enjoyed the game and wish they could have made it, but it’s hard not to feel like it must have had something to do with the game. I may have them fill out an anonymous questionnaire at the end of the semester (to go alongside their regular class/instructor evaluation) to ask them how they felt about my choices of games for the interactive class discussions. If they had seemed like they weren’t into it on Tuesday, and/or were not interacting with one another, I might have just chalked it up as a loss and moved on, but they really did seem to be getting into it. So I’d like some answers about what might have potentially made them skip out on the second session so I can, if anything, adjust my gauge for what a positive student reaction to a game is.

That aside, the second session went alright. With a different student in control, we had to go through some of the awkward learning moments over again, and we only ended up getting through four more days in the game. I was happy that we encountered the colorful character Jorji twice in this session, and the class responded with the same level of incredulous adoration that I had, once upon a time. At some point they pointed out that each day was getting harder and you had more and more to do every day. While this was frustrating for them, they showed a determination to get through as many people as they could each day and were openly helping each other spot the various discrepancies. They breathed collective sighs of relief when a character successfully exited their booth without the ominous mechanical sound of a violation notice being printed out, and their joined frustration when they did miss something and received a violation slip was enjoyable to watch. Those who did show up were invested, at least.

Because only four people showed up, and because we didn’t make it through as much of the game as I might have liked, I cut our in-depth analysis of the game a bit short to field questions about their specific paper topics, then gave them tips on how to structure a critique paper using those topics as examples. We did talk about the game a bit, mainly circling around the ideas it presented about government control over workers (it seemed unfair that the government could imprison you for not doing a new job well enough), propaganda (getting what seemed like a government-controlled newspaper every day), and making hard choices about who to let in and who to deny when your family’s well-being is directly affected by your success at work. There was a very brief discussion about gender while we were playing, because some students thought a character looked male when  their passport stated that they were female, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Overall, I felt like it was a mostly successful endeavor. If not for the students that missed the second session, I’d say it was an astounding success, but I can’t deny that that may have been in response to the game choice. That survey I mentioned might help me figure how just how true that is. I do feel like we needed more time to play it, so in the future I go through a mini-tutorial beforehand to avoid some of the learning-curve hurdles that slowed us down. I might also have them think about organizing a bit more as a class after they play for a few days. They could have two people looking at expiration dates, two people looking at pictures, two people looking at issuing city, etc. Of course I’d love for them to do that on their own, but if it means saving time and having more time to get a sense of what the game is saying about certain issues, I can help them get started with it at least. So, depending on how the end-of-semester survey turns out, I plan on tweaking my lesson plan a little and using this game again in the future.

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