Featured Articles

Checkmate: The Dystopian Game of Control


Classic dystopias like George Orwell’s 1984 serve to both critique totalitarian regimes, such as Stalinism and Nazism, and warn of what life could be like if citizens hand over human rights to a government. Governments in this genre of fiction tend to encourage citizens to accept a lack of privacy by claiming to grant security, safety, and prosperity. In the beginning, life feels like a utopia. Crime rates decrease, political enemies are destroyed, and happiness swells within a united community. In reality, the government keeps its people under control with fear, and as history is rewritten, people forget what life was like before the constant surveillance.

Living in a dystopia is like playing a game – an incredibly unfair game, stripped of fun, in which every time you try to change the flow of the game, your opponent counters your move.

Living in a dystopia is like playing a game – an incredibly unfair game, stripped of fun, in which every time you try to change the flow of the game, your opponent counters your move.

Control is the name of the game in dystopias; whoever holds all the cards dictates the direction of the game. Dystopian fiction frequently portrays a protagonist at odds with a powerful body that regulates the flow of information for its own gain. We have protagonists like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, a young woman who has struggled to survive in a poor environment and ultimately has to play along in the Capitol’s game to save her family. We also have protagonists like Aiden Pearce of Watch Dogs, a hacker with a criminal past who can control a city’s central operating system for the goal of protecting his family. In one case, a character has little information compared to the antagonist, and in the other the character has so much control over information that the people traditionally with the power are terrified.

Let’s take both of those and put them together.

“Papers, please.”

In the “dystopian document thriller” Papers, Please, you handle physical information. Selected in a labor lottery, you play as an immigration official in a booth at the border of an Eastern bloc-like country named Arstotzka. In this game, the player has power over the citizens and travelers seeking entry to Arstotzka, but at the same time the player has to follow a list of instructions – discriminatory ones at times – from the government.

Life as the inspector isn’t black and white. Your loyalties may lie with any number of groups, ranging from a revolutionary group, family, comrades, government, to Arstotzka itself. Staying steadfast to the government’s wishes is an option, but most government officials and workers aren’t unflinchingly dogmatic. Coworkers and senior officials will ask the player to accept visas for friends who shouldn’t be granted entry. A great deal of people working for the government are like you – just trying to survive.

Let’s say you toe the line and do your job without getting mixed up in revolutionary business: In the end, you continue your “good work.” On the other hand, you could overthrow Arstotzka’s government. Depending on your actions, two little words will be added. “Glory to (the new) Arstotzka.”

A great deal of people working for the government are like you – just trying to survive.

Either way, Arstotzka remains the same. It is entirely possible the revolution brings about no real change. We see this in browser game The Republia Times, set in the same universe as Papers, Please, in which you play as a newspaper editor. If you choose to help dissidents foster a revolution, nothing changes other than the country’s name. With this in mind, it’s entirely appropriate to interpret that particular revolutionary ending of Papers, Please as a cycle of handing off government powers from one group to the next. In this interpretation, the player has no control over the future of Arstotzka despite the large number of endings. In the dystopian Arstotzka, the inspector, though he has control over information, has no control over society and politics. The point is not all revolutions bring about change. Some revolutions exist only to cement a different dictatorship in control.

The real beauty of Papers, Please comes from an ending in which you flee from Arstotzka. For the twenty-some days you’ve been stamping “approved” or “denied,” for the first time someone else tells you, “Papers, please.” Now all you can do is hope the “kachunk” sound comes from the use of the “approved” stamp. The role reversal is so striking because this is the only time you are the one being examined. With the knowledge that his passport is fake, he gives up control over his (fake) information by physically handing it over because it’s the only option. This is the only way to get out of Arstotzka. Sometimes giving up control is the right choice. Taking this gamble comes from a surge of hope that things can be better.

Papers, Please isn’t the only piece of fiction that addresses hope and what it inspires. The president in the young adult dystopia series The Hunger Games is well aware of how too much hope can inspire change. To keep people under control, two children are selected from each district to fight in a government-sanctioned fight to the death. While the violence is an important aspect of control, so is presentation. The game begins the moment Katniss shouts the words, “I volunteer!” to take her sister’s place in the fight. From then, everything about her is twisted into a script for reality TV. The flow of information becomes about making a show.

While the violence is an important aspect of control, so is presentation.

With the Hunger Games designed as gladiatorial fights, the wealthy Capitol citizens participate in a game of bets, sponsoring candidates who can move their hearts. It’s not until Katniss learns how to manipulate her image that she starts to understand what the Capitol wants – and it isn’t the truth. In part, the audience controls the direction of the game, too. It’s a combination of different forces – the designers of the game, the participants of the game, and the viewers of the game – influencing each other.

Katniss realizes what the rich citizens want to see: “Star-crossed lovers desperate to get home together. Two hearts beating as one. Romance.” Katniss evokes an emotional response in the audience, symbolized by a kiss with her “love interest” Peeta, to gain items she needs. Katniss later plays the Gamemakers by threatening double-suicide with Peeta, thereby robbing them of a victor as only they remain. Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane thought he was in control of the games, but Katniss turns things around thanks to her understanding of the audience. It’s frantically rooting not for her survival, but the survival of “romance.” The government controls the TV show, but it cannot control how people react to hopeful images. With Katniss’s acts inspiring a rebellion, are the Hunger Games even a reliable way to control a populace? The government has to expend an immense amount of energy to keep the angry citizens from rebelling. Control through violence and fear yields short-term results and breeds discontent. The government tries to control its people through mass media and fear, but mass media can also portray hope.

Katniss, as an underdog, inspires change; Watch Dogs‘ Aiden Pearce inspires fear from both the people in power and everyday people, depending on the player’s actions. The alternate Chicago in Watch Dogs uses ctOS, a central operating system, to control things like traffic lights and ATMs. With free WiFi and lower crime rates, people are supposed to be happy, but they have no privacy. As often seen in dystopias and warned of today, this technology is designed to make people’s lives safer, but in doing so it takes away people’s freedoms.

He puts citizens in traffic accidents, steals their bank information, and watches them from surveillance cameras.

Not only does the government spy on people, but so does the main character. Aiden works for no entity. He’s just a guy seeking revenge. Aiden is a threat to corporations because he can control their technology. Even though he exposes people manipulating the system, he puts citizens in traffic accidents, steals their bank information, and watches them from surveillance cameras. He’s as much a threat to the people in power as he is to the people out of power.

“They think I’m a man out of control. But I’ve never had so much control,” he grunts. Aiden is completely different from the Papers, Please inspector and The Hunger Games‘ Katniss because he has so much agency. As Aiden, the player takes down the corrupt, but the amount of information at Aiden’s disposal is just as frightening as it is for the Bloom Corporation to essentially own the data on everyone in Chicago. Aiden is neither the government worker working within his confines nor is he a symbol of rebellion. Even when the inspector has physical information on people seeking passage into Arstotzka, because he is working within a bureaucracy, he is subject to authority. Even when Katniss has the audience eating up the fake image she’s presenting, the government can send her back in for round two of the gladiatorial games. Aiden’s narrative is one of revenge, and with access to the digital blueprint of anyone in Chicago, his level of control over information rivals that of a corrupt government agency.

In the world of Papers, Please, the inspector appears to have the game stacked in his favor compared to every passerby, but his superiors can see almost every card he holds. The Hunger Games‘ Katniss can participate in the ebb and flow of control over her situation, but in order to influence the outcome she has to be someone she’s not. In Aiden’s case in Watch Dogs – well, he’s got enough control over an operating system that he’s laying his opponents to waste, but is constantly up against a wall. With these three very different circumstances, we can see how dystopias have one thing in common: fighting against an impending checkmate.

About the author