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  • Writer's pictureZack

I Taught With Papers, Please

What's going on everyone?

Every year I teach about the history of immigration in the United States. We always spend a chunk of time discussing the challenges that immigrants face and the racist laws that were created to limit immigration to the United States. Papers, Please has become a staple text in this unit. Papers, Please, created by Lucas Pope, tackles issues of mass migration and border security. You play as a border security agent in the fictional country of Arstotzka and decide which people get to enter your country. You can find my lesson for Papers, Please here.

One of the focal points of this unit is covering the Immigration Act of 1924, which placed massive restrictions on immigration to the United States. Specifically it limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States per the national census. This basically meant that larger amounts of white immigrants from Europe would be able to move to the United States while severely limiting immigrants of color from South America, Africa, and Asia. While the game does not include the exact same restrictions as the Immigration Act of 1924, it lets us play with overall theme of immigration restrictions/issues that we still face in the United States today. The game tasks you with observing documentation of incoming migrants and deciding whether or not they are legally entering the country. You can follow the rules, or you can begin letting in people who are not legally allowed to enter. You make real choices that will have lasting effects throughout the game. Do you turn away everyone, including refugees, or do you show compassion for those who need entry? Doing so however, will put you and your family at risk.

One piece of added context is that I have been teaching remotely since March 2020. I have literally not set foot in my classroom in over a year now and have been teaching exclusively through Zoom. We all know that remote teaching has its challenges, especially when it comes to keeping students engaged. I have found that playing games does a really good job at getting students to participate and talk to each other over Zoom. I know I'm not the only teacher that often has a class full of blank boxes where students only talk in the chat instead of speaking out loud. This is especially true with my students who are all non native English speaking students. They are all still learning English and speaking out loud over Zoom is often nerve-racking.

I ended up buying one copy of the game for a student of mine. He then shared his screen with the rest of the class over Zoom and we all played it together. Usually when I play games with my students, we play together as a class. You do not need to buy individual copies for each student. Assign one student as the player and the rest of the class discusses what happens on screen. The class can also work together and vote on what to do next. My student, who was playing was constantly asking the watching classmates what he should do next. And it was absolutely wonderful to finally hear all of my students yelling again. I also used the Zoom annotation features as we were playing. That way I could help out as needed or highlight important points being made.

Here you can see two student samples of the first page of the handout. Remember that English is not the native language for any of my students.

They were really entertained and interested in the game and loved that they were given choices instead of just following the rules exactly as told. These first three questions I asked were more focused on comprehension of the game rather than making connections to real life. The game can be somewhat confusing so I wanted to make sure that everyone was following along. For the most part, students followed along perfectly well- although not everyone fully answered question two, in which I asked if the actions of the government were justifiable.

Here you can see the second page for the same two students above. You can see that the game also got them thinking about what realities they saw in the game despite it being completely fictional. I especially loved one student's use of the phrase "legalized racial profiling" when discussing the immigration restrictions placed on certain countries. More importantly, the game got the class talking about the challenges of immigration relating to issues that they have studied in class and to experiences that all of my students lived first hand as they emigrated to the United States. And this all happened while on Zoom. I have heard so many stories from teachers over the past year about how students are completely disengaged or quiet over Zoom. Students not wanting to speak has definitely impacted my class this past year. This lesson was really the first time that everyone wanted to participate.

Papers, Please is a non-threatening medium to get students discussing and interacting with these issues. While I used it to further cement the immigration restrictions created by the Immigration Act of 1924, the lesson can easily be modified to fit a number of different topics. One teacher already mentioned to me that they would love to use the game when teaching about various refugee crises.

I definitely recommend this game. It went really well in my class and a couple of my students even went and bought the game for themselves. There is a free beta of the game here if you don't want to purchase the whole game. I believe the beta has the first eight levels which is more than enough gameplay. I have never actually played through the entire game with my students. It's about 8 hours total and it can be tough to dedicate that much class time to a game. But for the sake of this lesson you really only need to let them play the first 40-45 minutes. Let me know if any of you get around to teaching with it.

Thanks for reading,


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Very cool!

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