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What Games Can Learn from the Engagement Layers of Papers, Please

Papers, Please layers reward structures, forcing players to choose consequences they are willing to accept in order to get the reward they seek. Games should employ this tactic to foster internal conflict, engagement, and meaningful choices in the player.

Cory Johnson, Blogger

December 10, 2014

12 Min Read

Papers Please is a gem of a game that I couldn’t recommend more highly. However, instead of reviewing the game or nerding out over the themes, art style, or gameplay, I’d like to dive into how Papers, Please remains engaging and enjoyable when it seems on the surface that it shouldn’t. I've often tried to discuss this idea of designing to foster internal conflict, but have never had such an ideal example to explain how to do so. And then came Papers, Please. You see, on paper (no pun intended), Papers, Please sounds like a premise that should be 100% devoid of fun. But Papers, Please is interesting and engaging from start to finish, and there is something there that I think other games can learn from that because it acheives that engagement by putting the in-game rewards at odds with each other and forcing the player to resolve that conflict internally, by ultimately choosing what kind of person they are going to be in this fictional world.  

WARNING! This post contains spoilers, but not enough spoil the game. You should still play it if you haven’t.

In Papers, Please, you play as a citizen of a fictional eastern block country that has been assigned to work at an immigration checkpoint and determine whether people wanting to enter the country have sufficient documents to enter legally. The gameplay is very simple, you have two stamps – Accept and Deny – and you must look at each person’s set of papers and decide whether to let them into the country or turn them away. If you are correct in letting people through you earn money to feed your family, and the faster and more accurately you can correctly see if they should be allowed through or not, the more money you can earn. However, when you incorrectly let someone pass or turn them away, you are given a citation, which ultimately results in a dock in pay. The reward structure is simple and binary; do things right and you get a reward, do them wrong and you get a punishment. It’s a classic Skinnerian feedback and reward structure

At least that’s how you think it works.

A common criticism that researchers pin on games and gamification is that both rely too heavily on Skinnerian reward structures to drive engagement. They sell the user on the opportunity to perform an action, and then either be rewarded or punished depending on whether or not he or she performed the action correctly. 

For readers less familiar with B.F. Skinner’s contribution to Psychology, he is most well known for clearly demonstrating the idea (that we now take for granted) that says the pattern by which people react to rewards could be used to train people to do things. By giving rewards for correct behavior and punishments for incorrect behaviors, we can ultimately change how organisms behave. He trained rats to push a lever in order to receive food, and it seems like we believe – based on how widely those who are striving for player engagement have adopted his ideas – that this a good model for engagement. Engagement is about mental involvement and enjoyment. By using Skinner's model for rewarding behavior to increase engagement we must assume that because that rat continues to push that lever to get his food, he must be thinking in his mind “I am loving this!” Or by association, do we assume that the people who click the button that says “Watch video for a chance to win an iPad Air” are thinking to themselves “I am loving this!”?

No. There’s just no way.

However, it seems in both cases we are implying a belief in Skinner’s core philosophy - that the emotional and mental context of the participant doesn’t matter. What matters is that the rat keeps pushing that lever – for as long as we can make him. To my mind, this sounds like the opposite of engagement – instead it sounds like mindless participation. Sure we can use this model to get students to play an educational game for hours, but that's quite different from them actually utilizing their mental faculties to make connections and process information with a level of attention to make it meaningful. The main goal of engagement should be to push students and users to use their brains in as many unique and as deep of mental processing tasks as we possibly can, and you can’t get that from simple Skinnerian reward structures. On the other hand, tasks that require deeper thought and consideration, or more personal and varied interpretations are interesting and fun. But how can education, games, and educational games foster this type of deeper introspection and conflict resolution.

Back on Track

Let’s look again at Papers, Please.

Did I say that the reward structure and decisions in Papers, Please were simple? I lied; they’re not. Papers, Please presents the player with an ordinary and binary decision: accept or deny this person entrance to the country.

Then, onto that it layers a reward system: do it correctly, get money; do it incorrectly and lose money. By this model we are still in Skinner’s wheelhouse – simple, binary rewards and punishments.

The correct answer gets a reward, incorrect gets a punishment

However, Papers, Please still has several twists to throw our way. The gameplay is broken into days – each day takes about 15 minutes. On day 4 a woman tries to gain entrance to the country in order to see her son. Her papers are not correct but she pleads to be able to enter anyway. If you deny her access you earn your money, same as always, but if you have the guts to fight the system you find something else remarkable – there is another reward structure in place for doing good deeds. If you allow her entrance, you still get the same citation and no extra money, but the game rewards you with an in-game achievement – a type of gaming currency to reward players for extraordinary actions.

So then our reward model has to change. You still have a binary decision to make, only now we’ve uncovered that there are some instances where following our gut and being compassionate will yield different rewards. Another layer of rewards is present and these rewards are at odds with the previous reward layer so there is no way we can get both simultaneously.

But Papers, Please isn’t done. On Day 8 a member of a group of revolutionists informs you that you are being watched and then provides a list of people you must allow to enter the country.

So the reward structure changes – this new entity will reward you for breaking different rules, which sometimes also go against your new “Good Samaritan” way of playing as well as the initial reward structure of money and citations. Another layer of rewards is now at odds with the existing reward structure. 

On Day 9 a guard bribes you to detain more people – so we can add another layer of rewards.

On day 12 the organization you work for informs you that you are being watched and so any actions of terrorism will get you arrested. This is another layer of rewards and punishments that the player must weigh with each decision to accept or deny people entrance.

Finally, every day the player must choose how to use the money they earn, allocating money for food, rent, heat, and medicine. This is affected by how much you earn during the day, which is often determined on how many bribes you accept, as well as the primary reward of completing your job well. Every day you make the same silly little decision, but the longer you play, the more difficult it becomes to make the "right" decision because there are so many consequences for each little decision that need to be weighed. 

There are more issues that arise and complicate how the player makes decisions within Papers, Please, but this much is enough for our discussion, and will help limit the amount of spoilers I include. When viewed in this light of conflicting reward structures, the method that Papers, Please uses to drive engagement starts looking less and less like a Skinnerian program of regular and predictable consequences and more like balancing and deciding what bad consequences one is willing to live with in order to obtain the rewards that are most meaningful or important. For that, there is another prominent psychologist whose theories can explain what is going on:

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin was a social psychologist that explained the types of internal conflicts that humans can face when navigating difficult decisions. For him, the choice between an action that would provide a reward and one that would provide a punishment was not a conflict – there was nothing to decide because everyone would always choose the reward over a punishment. Conflict, for Lewin, would arise inside the minds of people forced to choose between two rewards when wanting both, two punishments when wanting neither, or between two situations that present a collection of both rewards and punishments where he or she must select which set of consequences to accept. These internal conflicts were how he postulated we made meaningful choices - by first understanding the nature of the conflict surrounding a given decision, resolving our own internal conflict, and then finally making the decision.

This is useful from an engagement perspective because resolving internal conflict is inherently more meaningful than performing actions to get rewards because the final “reward” is us no longer feeling conflicted. This reward comes from inside, is more personal, and requires deeper thought than responding to a Skinnerian reward structure. It is more engaging. Papers, Please takes this engagement to its limit by finally rewarding you for your personal choices, with the game branching into 20 unique endings depending on how you play your 30 days as a document inspector.

However, just to prove that this model for understanding and designing engagement is not limited to Papers, Please, consider instead another engaging interaction provided by video games: Super Mario Bros. If we were to think of Mario in terms of rewards and punishments, we would probably miss the main engaging factor of the game – the thing that makes it more than just trying to get coins and not die. Think about the red mushroom.


Is it a reward, or a punishment?

In reality, it’s both and neither – the paradigm of rewards and punishments doesn’t accurately describe what it is.

Just like with Papers, Please it is easier to understand the engaging nature of a red mushroom when you think of it as one of Lewin’s internal conflicts. When a red mushroom pops out, the player knows it’s good and that they should grab it, but immediately it flees in the opposite direction and forces the player to run towards peril in order to catch it and obtain the reward. Every time a red mushroom comes on screen the player needs to make a split-second evaluation whether or not the prospect of getting “big” is worth the risk that the mushroom presents. They need to solve internal conflict, and then act. Without that decision-making process, the action would be meaningless and would fail at engaging the player. 

If, instead of designing games or gamification around the idea of rewarding and punishing players for specific behaviors, we tried to create small moments of internal conflict and then help the player resolve those moments, I believe the result would be more engaging player experiences. Sure, simple rewards and punishments do get people to act a certain way, but they don't get people to care. On the other hand internal conflicts are something we all care about and we are naturally driven to resolve. Papers, Please gets players engaged in the idea of document fact-checking by designing more than just a reward structure, but layering rewards to weave a complex and difficult context around making a very simple decision. Thus, engaging interactions seem to not just be about giving users rewards that they care about, but also layering the experience with several levels of interaction and evaluation in order to make each decision more difficult to unravel and thus more intrinsically rewarding to solve. 

What do you think? Is internal conflict a good and replicable approach for designing engaging interactive experiences? 

The original blog post for this article can be found here.

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