The Process Genre in Videogames: Papers, Please

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Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

On the docket for today: Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (3909, 2013), a simulation of being a border guard in the fictional Soviet-bloc-style nation of Arstotzka in 1982. As you scrutinize people’s documents, weeding out the undesirables, stamping the passports of some travelers and detaining others, there is plenty of opportunity for political drama—in particular, do you do your best as a servant of your obviously oppressive government, or do you quietly aid rebel factions? But there’s also just the matter of making enough money to keep your house heated, your son fed, and getting medication for your elderly uncle. Since you’re paid by the number of entrants you correctly service, this means being good at your job: memorizing the bureaucratic rules, getting good at both quickly and carefully examining documents, and keeping your desk clean and orderly. It is, all things considered, as much a game about a desk as it is about a family, or a nation.

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Series: The Process Genre in Videogames

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Ian here—

This post inaugurates a series of posts, of as-yet indeterminate length. All of them riff on a term developed by Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, a scholar who I’ve had the privilege of knowing (if only on a casual basis) the past few years.

The term in question is the “process genre.” Films in the process genre are films about labor—and not in an abstract thematic sense, in the way that Godard’s Tout va bien (1972) is about labor. Rather, process genre films are very specifically about watching the stages of a production process, from its beginning to its ending. There most salient characteristic is what Skvirsky describes as “careful attention to processes of doing and making.”[i]

We see the roots of the process genre all the way back in things like Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (UK, 1934), and the genre finds perhaps its most emblematic manifestation in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, Belgium, 1975), with its lengthy and hypnotic food preparation scenes. Latin American cinema—Skvirsky’s own special focus—gives us more examples. Araya (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959) is about the processes of mining salt by hand. Aruanda (Linduarte Noronha, Brazil, 1960), is about the processes of cotton-harvesting and ceramic-making. Quilombo (Vladimir Carvalho, Brazil, 1975) is about the process of making quince marmalade. Much more recently, Parque vía (Enrique Rivero, Mexico, 2008) is about the processes of custodial work and groundskeeping. Some of these films are documentaries; others present fictional narratives. What binds them all together is a rapt fascination with the way humans busy themselves, and produce things.

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