Sans-Papiers, the Immigration Game

Sans-Papiers is a role-playing game about being an undocumented immigrant in France. French president François Hollande officially inaugurated the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration last December, and there’s been a mix of stories about immigrants in the French news lately: in March, a young undocumented Albanian man won the prestigious “best apprentice in France” medal; France is taking some serious criticism for its treatment of Roma people; and of course, the far-right nationalist party known as the National Front has gained a surprising, or alarming, amount of political ground over the past year. There have also been a staggering number of deaths at sea of immigrant hopefuls trying to cross the Mediterranean in small, fragile crafts.

Left: “With this pair, too, I’m still seeing a lot of Blacks and Arabs.” Right: “We may need to operate.”

This game is intended to personalize something that can feel generic and anonymous to talk about, especially when it’s on the other side of the world. It is not intended to suggest that there is an obvious course of action when it comes to immigration. The truth of immigration is that no solution exists that works in everyone’s best interests, and many compelling stories will end tragically. The game does not address the problem of regulating immigration or the moral questions that surround human suffering under various economic and political conditions.

To begin, each player generates a character by rolling three six-sided dice. Characters have multiple traits: they might come from Cameroon or Vietnam, they might be 25 years old or 60, they might be responsible for children or not, they might have some education or speak some French, or be starting essentially at educational square one. Players choose whatever traits they wish, but each choice costs points from their die roll, so they must quickly prioritize the traits that will help them the most during the game. They choose a name from an appropriate language, and the game begins.

Each round, players must find work – often illegally – and spend money to support themselves and any dependents they have. At the end of the round, a die roll determines a random event, such as the razing of any bidonvilles (shantytowns) where players are squatting or the distribution of integration cards, which offer chances to improve a character’s level of education – for a price. Finally, a single choice card is revealed, and all eligible players choose one of its two options.

Each character has an integration score (which starts at zero) and a culture score (which starts at ten). The choice cards are the main opportunity players have to improve their integration rating, but integration often comes at a greater cost of fidelity to their culture of origin. Integration and culture have the same value at the end of the game, but sacrificing culture for integration makes it easier to achieve the in-game goal of naturalization.

My students played three iterations of this game as it evolved. Many of them were not familiar with table-top role-playing games and were using ten- and twenty-sided dice for the first time, but they learned quickly how to apply modifiers to their die rolls and how to use the tables in the rule packet to determine their options in the game. Some students became quite invested in their characters – one declared, “Her victories are my victories” – while others were frustrated by bad luck and uncharitable companions. Students remembered the details of their characters’ experiences and identified with them: one student, who had named her character Esmeralda, turned down an advantageous integration point when a choice card offered the chance to adopt a French name for +1 integration.

I sent the game off to Isaac Joslin at the University of Denver, who is teaching a course on immigration in France this quarter, to have his students play with it and see how it serves his course material. With any luck, Isaac will able to tell us about the experience in an upcoming post.

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