Around 4 years ago, I had my first real experience with the international immigration system. Being from the UK with an American partner, this was inevitable eventually. We had managed to avoid properly tangling with it for several years up until this point. We planned to move in  and live together in Scotland but over the course of the year prior to this, the then-Home Secretary Theresa May had been steadily making Britain’s immigration policy one of the strictest, most xenophobic around at the time. By the time the Brexit vote happened, and we were ready to return, we realized that staying long term was impossible. Since becoming Prime Minister, May had only further tightened the rules and continued to do so more and more as the years wore on. The process of moving with my partner became cripplingly expensive, deeply dehumanizing, and all but impossible to succeed at. There’s more, but I’ll spare the depressing details. And we were lucky; many thousands of people and families don’t have the advantages we do.

So what does any of this have to do with games? I think it’s important to consider because it’s a part of the human experience that’s becoming increasingly important. Despite this, it is very rarely represented in games. Given the potential for video games to communicate real human experiences, I began to wonder why so few tap into the immigrant experience specifically. Because of this, it’s worth noting those games that do and taking a closer look at the ways they do it.

Another visa denied in Papers, Please.

The first and most well-known example is the classic game of nightmarish bureaucracy, Papers, Please. Playing the part of a border guard at a checkpoint in the fictional totalitarian nation of Arstotzka, the game places you in a difficult position; you alone hold the power to decide if anyone attempting to cross the border has the right to do so. The game throws an increasingly byzantine maze of rules and regulations at you as you play, gradually mounting up the number of things you need to consider when examining people’s entry documents. It’s in balancing your sense of humanity with your fear of state reprisal, however, that the game reveals its most profound challenge. Helping those whose need is genuine quickly becomes far riskier and more difficult. As the bizarre, often contradictory rules accumulate and change by the day, more and more often you will encounter people who are simply unable to keep on top of the rapid pace of new legislation. Before long, you find yourself drawn into a constant race to keep up with the rules, and thus save your own family and yourself, without losing your soul to the grinding state apparatus. The toxicity of self-preservation and even profit making are baked into the core of your role in the game.

Papers Please does not focus its efforts on the immigrant experience itself; your interaction with these people amounts to little more than staring at a face through your booth window and scanning their stories for inconsistencies, and so is not wholly satisfying in that respect. What it does do better than any other is bring the relentless dehumanizing effects of the immigration process into sharp focus. Your actions have consequences that are not always predictable and, as simple as the dark pixel graphics are, they do an excellent job of making you feel the humanity of the people you pass judgement upon, however briefly.

Setting the immigration record straight in ICED

Beyond Papers, Please, there are a handful of small, experimental games that have been released over the past decade or so dealing more directly with the experiences of immigrants themselves. One such game, ICED – I Can End Deportation, was created by a small development team in 2007 and promoted by international human rights group Breakthrough. On its surface a simple first person collectathon more akin to an interactive PSA than anything else, ICED tells the stories of real immigrants to the US who find themselves in constant danger of deportation. Initially, the game itself seems prohibitively simple; you run around a mostly empty square map, occasionally collecting tokens that denote good deeds, answering trivia questions about US immigration policy, and making laughably easy moral choices to avoid attracting the attention of ICE officers. Occasionally, a text box will flash up revealing or confirming facts about the reality of immigration in America.

What happens next, however, is surprisingly effective. The frustration of the things you’re forced to do simply to carry on with life and the constant fear about the consequences of a mistake become an unavoidable sensation. One slip up, however small, and you find yourself hunted by an ICE agent, with the number of agents (and thus the difficulty of the game) increasing with every mistake. The points you’ve gathered from good decisions are essentially meaningless. This might sound grindingly unfair, and it is, but that’s sort of the point. The game makes this quite explicit several times; immigrants such as those in your character’s position, are not treated fairly. They have few of the rights of regular citizens regardless of their status or who they are, and they are legally held to far different standards. This is further driven home by the inevitability of the ICE hunting you. After successfully completing the game’s simple first task, you must evade the ICE for a fixed period of time in order to succeed and gain citizenship, which swiftly descends into a high pressure chase around the map as you keep mere inches ahead of pursuing agents.

Finally, there’s the detention segment where your goals shift to contacting and saving money for a lawyer to help you leave. You constantly risk being temporarily locked in “the hole”, a solitary confinement cell that essentially means you cannot move or see anything for an unknown amount of time in game. In addition, a portion of the collectible tokens are options to voluntarily be deported, scattered all around the map as constant reminders pressuring you to take the offer and end the mind-numbing frustration of this process. The game is very simple, yes, and it is noticeably dated in both mechanics and aesthetic, but it does something more advanced games consistently fail to do. It treats the immigrant experience in the US uncompromisingly and with surprising emotional fidelity, especially given its incredibly limited time frame and tool set.

Another life lost on the Borders

The third and final example I want to give is a fairly new game called Borders, a single-developer art game installation project that thrives on its mechanical simplicity. Based on the developer’s father’s own experience of crossing the US/Mexican border, Borders, like ICED, is most effective when given the chance to slowly reveal itself. It operates like an old school stealth game; your goal is to guide your character through the desert by the US border, evading the sights of the patrolling guards (indicated by a halo of light around them) and staying hydrated by collecting water bottles you find along the way. Simple enough in theory, though incredibly difficult in practice due to your inability to see what’s ahead of you, trapping you between advancing guards or impassible cacti. It’s in these moments of vulnerability that the game begins to lay its cards on the table.

Much as with Papers, Please and ICED, the odds in Border are strongly stacked against you. A single misstep has dire consequences, in this case sudden death at the hands of a border guard or of dehydration. To really drive the point home, when your character dies in game their skeleton persists on the game map. Every time you die, you leave behind a grim reminder of your failures and of the lives lost as a result of them, reminders that you will become intimately familiar with as you try to progress through the maze. These skeletons have no real mechanical effect; they exist simply to remind you of the lives lost, of how close you came before and of the consequences of small mistakes. The game also keeps a running tally of the lives lost in game on the title screen, making that truth impossible to ignore, and if you play Borders for any length of time, that number will climb swiftly.

It’s a sad fact that the games industry as a whole, even its riskier indie elements, tends to shy away from the difficult realities of immigrant life. Many cloak themselves in heroic, rebellious, even revolutionary imagery and rhetoric, yet rarely consider the human cost of oppressive politics, preferring to revel in a power fantasy of overthrowing its institutions. In fairness, there are a few high profile games that have touched on this, such as Dragon Age 2 and some of The Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, for example, features an immigrant protagonist with a vague criminal past who is constantly confronted with their outsider status. But as with almost all RPGs the protagonist is rarely truly powerless, with a wide array of weapons and magic at their disposal, and the possible support of powerful political institutions. Morrowind addresses the topic as flavour, but ignores the experiential or emotional reality of it and never presents it as a truly meaningful challenge to be overcome. My hope is that, with the human elements of international immigration policy at the forefront of everyone’s minds, this is an important issue that will draw more and more attention from developers looking to tell unique stories.

About The Author

Martyn fancies himself a storyteller, troublemaker, and all round person who writes things. He'd probably call himself a raconteur if he had just slightly less shame. He's also one third of the DN8-Bit Podcast, social media Illuminati-lizard-person for Podhaven, and occasional guest on other things. Check out his personal writing at or follow him on Twitter @FrieFrieburger

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