E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design
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What We Can Learn From “Papers, Please”

First and foremost Happy Holidays to all! This is my favourite time of year and I am wishing all of you a very Merry Christmas. Instructional designers, gamification gurus, gamers, you’re all due your rest this year I’m sure!

I’d actually like to start this post with an apology, they say to never start a presentation with an apology but I feel this deserves it. I’m going to be looking at Papers, Please (PP) this week and using it as a reference for how we can change traditionally “boring” systems training. However that’s where you’re due an apology – Papers, Please has a very depressing tone running through it and if you couple that with the fact we’re looking at systems training you may just be tempted to turn to the mulled wine and shut down already. BUT! There is a saving grace, as a result of this you should be able to take some fantastic ideas forward to revolutionise your systems training approach and the way we can use gamification to drastically improve the learners experience.

So let’s start once again with a brief overview to what Paper, Please is and show the dark colour scheme prevalent throughout.

What is “Papers, Please”?

The gameplay of Papers, Please focuses on the work life of an immigration inspector at a border checkpoint for the fictitious country of Arstotzka. The player inspects arrivals’ documents and uses an array of tools to determine whether the papers are in order, for the purpose of keeping unwanted individuals, such as terrorists, wanted criminals, or smugglers, out of the country. When discrepancies are discovered, the player may interrogate the applicant about the discrepancy, and possibly demand further information, such as fingerprints or a full body scan. There are opportunities for the player to have the applicant arrested and the applicant may, at times, attempt to bribe the inspector. The player ultimately must stamp the individual’s papers to accept or deny entry and then call for the next person in line; only at this point is the player told of any mistakes they may have made by way of a warning slip. Generally the player can make two mistakes without penalty, but subsequent mistakes will cost the player as a monetary demerit from their day’s salaries. The player has a limited amount of real time, representing a full day shift at the checkpoint, to process as many arrivals as possible.


This game is a little different to the way Prison Architect unfolded (a game I covered a couple of weeks ago available here) as PP is in fact a relatively simple game. Users are given instructional information in the form of a leaflet on their desk before they start their morning shift.

However this post is going to cover the system training mechanics we can take away from this game as instructional designers or those using gamification.
Have you ever been given a project on a systems approach, perhaps asked to create something to recreate a new system put into place in a business. Traditionally these are static images with hotspots thrown over to replicate how the a user interacts with the new system.

There are two ways of presenting systems training:

  1. See and then Do – Essentially it boils down to – you show the user what to do with the system and then allow them to practice what you have just shown them.
  2. Task based approach – Personally, a much preferred approach. The learner has tasks to complete and can use the system in a safe manner with no ramifications to mistakes. Systems can be recreated and fictional scenarios depicted covering a huge range of real life situations.

Papers, Please gives some great inspiration for how we can adopt this more task based approach.

“Papers, Please” Interface

The interface for PP gives a fantastic basis to start from, in front of you there is a customer area, a rulebook, an area for closer inspection of documents and finally  an overview screen with a “Next” button. For the rest of the post I’ll be breaking down these areas so we can look at how to take advantage of each of them.

Here’s the ideas that can be taken into a gamified instructional design approach:

Customer area


You can see from this screenshot the way customers appear in the window of your station. Instructional designers can absolutely take advantage of this area. The vast majority of systems training usually has “customers” (used loosely). Why not use cut-out characters to fill this area with a real scenario that the learner has to process. By using a customer window displayed in a neat manner like PP the opportunity for real scenario resolution grows immensely.

A Rulebook


PP uses the rulebook to slowly introduce the new mechanics into the game. When you start your first day the only rule printed in there is “Entry is restricted to Arstotzkan citizens only.” Whilst by the time you are at your third day of work the instructions become more complicated – “Entry for non-citizens is now regulated. All foreigners require a valid entry ticket.” (Of course along with a valid passport). You also have to cross reference this rule book to find out certain details about the issuing countries of passports along with numerous other pieces of information – it becomes a necessity.

Already this is a great feature we can strip out for systems training, what about introducing the content into small meaningful sections so that the information is broken down and learners feel rewarded from completing early challenges. In systems training it’s usually monotonous and difficult to see the end goal, this approach helps to inspire learners through seeing positive changes the system can make on their working life. We can also introduce real resources such as the original guide that comes with the system (SMEs will love this!)

In PP you quickly have to begin efficiently scanning documents to ensure all their passport details are correct; photo match, issuing country, entry ticket, visa. I found myself becoming incredibly astute at picking out the smallest discrepancy, something that in a traditional systems training approach would have no doubt taken a lot longer.

Area for Closer inspection of documents


In PP this area is key as without it you cannot determine if the documents you examine are counterfeit or not. You drag and drop the documents to this area to inspect whilst cross referencing with the aforementioned rulebook or customer’s face. As you can see from the above image traditional passport information is displayed on here for your inspection.

This area can be used for double checking details or receiving assistance in systems training. What about if you were confused over a certain term or process – you could drag a document or perhaps phrase to this area of the screen to reveal helpful information on how it can be used. Another use for this area would be for displaying customer orders, next commands or even throwing in scenarios which are designed to “catch out” the learner – much like PP. Finally there is also the option to instead display the system screen in this space, this allows the learner to have direct contact with the system whilst keeping everything on one screen.

Overview screen/Next Button


The overview screen allows you to see the queue outside of your immigration control booth whilst clicking on the small tannoy above your station calls forward the next customer. It is essentially acting like the next button in an eLearning module – but have you ever thought about displaying that in an approach that fits your system training? There is a plethora of opportunities for using a button like this especially if it’s coupled with the previous approach of having a customer/staff/user window. When the user is happy with the section they are able to control the pace of their own learning by calling forward their next scenario.

Wrap up

So let me quickly give an example of how adopting a PP based system can be used in instructional design/eLearning.

Let’s say for example that I’m designing some training around a new till system for a store.

  • I recreate a basic area around the till from store photos/basic graphic design. These include the areas in PP (of course recreated with a little more colour!)
  • I have a customer area where I can display a customer along with their request.
  • I then use a “rulebook” to put a staff handout under the till that the learner can click at any time to receive further information or advice on a particular aspect of the new system.
  • The document inspection area instead becomes the till interface that can be clicked to zoom in on the system screen (or if possible the system screen would be increased in size so it sits comfortably on screen.)
  • Finally when I’ve dealt with the customer scenario I can call the next customer forward by clicking a button, this could be a queue control device for example in a retail store.
  • The learner receives achievements based on how many customers they manage to serve correctly in a row or how they dealt with a particularly angry customer.
  • Using an approach like this allows me to control the flow of learning for the user whilst presenting an incredibly engaging and gamified approach to introducing a system.
  • I have the option in this example to allow the user to do basic purchasing transactions first using cash payments, then progressing to refunds, then part exchanges etc through changing the customer needs and scenarios.

I could go on forever about this approach to systems training and I’ve got to say I was incredibly pleased with the interface that PP uses, but this post has now gone on long enough! Papers, Please is currently out on iPad as well as PC and I would urge anyone to go and have a look at it. Instructional designers, elearning developers and gamification gurus should definitely check the game out as a small outlay can ease many hours of racking your brain for the next systems based design approach.

I hope this instalment of “What we can learn from” has given you something to think about over the new year and when you start your next project.

Once again I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year. I will see you next year where we’ll hopefully have an exciting and inspiring 2015 together.

All images copyright of Lucas Pope.


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