Play this: 'Bad Paper,' a journalistic choose your own adventure story about debt collection

Adi Robertson

In this week's New York Times Magazineauthor Jake Halpern falls deep into the seedy, ethically questionable, and extraordinarily lucrative world of debt collection. His piece follows a firm in Buffalo, NY as it judges what debt packages or "paper" might prove lucrative, when bought for pennies on the dollar from banks and other businesses, and what debtors are most likely to pay up. To accompany it, Journalist Felix Salmon has developed Bad Paper for Fusion, a TV channel and website that he joined earlier this year. It's what he calls the first of his "post-text" projects, moving into different forms of digital storytelling. More practically, though, it's a "choose your own adventure" story where you play either a debtor trying to beat the system or a debt collector trying to get paid.

Bad Paper sets up scenarios designed to explain what exactly debt collectors can legally do, what kind of tricks they use, and just how much they're making when someone pays them thousands of dollars to settle a debt they bought for orders of magnitude less. In some ways, you can think of it as a much more fun and informative version of the PSA quizzes meant to teach you about things like safe driving and moderate alcohol consumption. "Winning" isn't actually as interesting as changing up your answers and seeing what the game tells you. The flip side is that by its very nature, it feels almost falsely reassuring. There's one very specific way to beat debt collection, and as far as I can tell from the accompanying article, it's a pretty solid one. But the inherent limit of multiple-choice storytelling is that there is one story with a limited number of endings. There are no random calamities or special circumstances. Find a way to win once, and you'll win every time.

While much of Bad Paper's charm is in its layout and illustrations, structurally, it shares a lot with more lo-fi Twine games like Depression Quest, and thematically, the debt collector portion ends up sounding a lot like Papers Please, which also casts you as an everyday person in a loathsome job. The major difference is that whereas those feel distinctly like fiction, this comes clearly from the investigative, journalistic side of storytelling. Also, you'll probably never have to learn how to be a border guard in a dystopian society. But there's a good chance you're one of the 35 percent of US adults with a credit history that the Urban Institute estimates have a report of debt in collections.

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