The ethics of Prison Architect
January 31, 2014 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to create a prison management game without trivializing or misrepresenting the issue of mass incarceration? So begins a critique by Paolo Pedercini, developer of "games addressing issues of social and environmental justice," of Introversion Software's upcoming game Prison Architect, currently in still in development but available as an early access beta. Prison Architect's producer, Mark Morris, and its designer, Chris Delay, respond in a lengthy youtube video.

Prison Architect, previously. Pedercini's games, previously: Unmanned, Run, Jesus Run. Bonus: prison architecture and ethics, previously. All this via critical distance.
posted by whir (38 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I've been playing video games for going on 25 years now and playing Prison Architect was the first time I've actually been uncomfortable with the content. Your typical violent game feels over the top and detached to me, but my feelings about prisons obviously run far deeper, I found that it was harder for me to justify why I would be spending my free time participating in this kind simulation.

I suppose that's really a testament to the idea that the creators didn't take the subject lightly. Maybe if they had a mod w/ the same basic content but in a summer camp instead...
posted by aviwarner at 1:08 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe after finishing a game of Prison Architect, you should be forced to play as a convict for a randomly-determined sentence before you are allowed to play any other games.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:11 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I love that games like this are being made and articles like this are being written. It's a fascinating time for gaming!
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:11 PM on January 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

I own Prison Architect, it is a very uncomfortable game to play. I did not enjoy playing it in the slightest, and I don't mean that as a criticism because it is very well designed.
posted by Apoch at 1:12 PM on January 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've done a lot of research on prison architecture and the history of incarceration in the United States in general. It's a fascinating field - there is a lot of humane and wonderful thinking being done, and a lot of incredibly barbaric outcomes happening despite that. The research we have access to in regards to the correctional system is really fascinating and has applications to all captive and semi captive groups (schools being an obvious example). We know how to reform the prison system. We know how to design prisons which use space as an element which inspires people to make better choices. We, as a culture, decide not to do this.

However, if trends in incarceration continue, things should improve in the next 20 years or so. Fewer people are going to prison, at least in the areas my research focused on. This, combined with shrinking budgets, is leading to greater creativity in punitive systems and also a real focus on reducing recidivism.
posted by Teakettle at 1:21 PM on January 31, 2014 [9 favorites]

Maybe after finishing a game of Prison Architect, you should be forced to play as a convict for a randomly-determined sentence before you are allowed to play any other games.

Can you choose which prison you go to?
posted by Apocryphon at 1:39 PM on January 31, 2014

I would imagine there was a time when movies stopped being all about simple entertainment and started to become thought-provoking and uncomfortable at times. Id be interested to know how that transition paralleled the one video games seem to be making now (this game, Papers Please, etc.)
posted by davejay at 1:54 PM on January 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Fewer people are going to prison, at least in the areas my research focused on.

Geographical areas or areas of offense...?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:55 PM on January 31, 2014

Can you choose which prison you go to?

No, we are striving for realism here.

Ahem. Anyway, listened to the video, and it was... interesting. They had some pretty solid answers to some things, but I felt they fell back on "it's just a game isn't it?" a little too much, because it's clearly not "just a game," or no one would be talking about it (and I can't believe that they aren't aware of that). They also had a bunch of points where they kind of hit behind "well, we didn't research that," and that seemed... well... even worse in a way. If you are going to tackle a project like this non-exploitatively, then you really need to do that research, don't you? Lastly, I was a little annoyed with the "we weren't modelling American prisons, everything is always about the Americans" when they used dollars and American terms and imagery. That can be changed, obviously, but skinning the game in an American setting then being surprised when people complain that it doesn't deal with the reality of American prisons is a little disingenuous.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:58 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had to stop reading when I saw the photo of the "exercise yard" because I was too angry to think rationally. The people who designed that prison should be imprisoned in it until all other prisoners have been transferred somewhere humane.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:03 PM on January 31, 2014

Jesus. What's their next project? Alabama Plantation:1855?
posted by Thorzdad at 2:14 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

An easy way for the designers to get over any alleged "discomfort" that people experience when playing Prison Architect would be to change the little pop-up profiles for the prisoners: make them all bankers and Wall Streeters and corporate CEOs.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:32 PM on January 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Of note is that the author wrote Oiligarchy, which is a good example of how cutesy games can describe a system in a way that has a definite ideological bent (intentional in that case, less intentional in the case of most other games).
posted by postcommunism at 2:37 PM on January 31, 2014

The people who designed that prison should be imprisoned in it until all other prisoners have been transferred somewhere humane.

Weirdly, the penal system is littered with ghastly things that were originally intended to be humane. The guillotine was supposed to be a more humane form of execution, but it became a more industrial form of execution. The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was meant to encourage reform by silent contemplation, but the solitary confinement proved too much for many prisoners, even before the administration started introducing blatant torture into the mix. I mean, it's no shock that the history of prisons is ugly, but....
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:39 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

make them all bankers and Wall Streeters and corporate CEOs.

Dude, they are the investors, not the prisoners! Reality should count for something!
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:40 PM on January 31, 2014

oh geez the guy doing the voiceover for the youtube vid is trying so so hard.

one semester in architecture school we focused on the design of prisons. we went to one in san diego and toured around. as part of this we interviewed prison guards and asked what they felt would better help with the design of the prison. coming in we were thinking about layout, the panopticon, types of cells and lighting and community areas... their main response is that they wanted better flooring that didn't become so slippery from the blood and other fluids that come out when they were trying to subdue violent prisoners. (let's just say i decided not to become a prison architect and went off to do residential work instead.)
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 2:42 PM on January 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's a game. Things that happen to imaginary people in games (or movies, or books) are not happening to real people. And if someone mistakes a work of fiction as a reliable source of information about the real world, then the problem lies with the consumer, not the work.

Of course, if some consumers find the theme of the game unpleasant, and choose not to play it because of that, that's perfectly legitimate. But don't assume that people who do play the game are necessarily "rah-rah prison-industrial complex!". Most people are adults of sound mind who are capable of discerning between fiction and reality. This is just an updated version of the "murder simulator" hand-wringing over FPS games.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:48 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to play Theme Hospital. I do believe in hospitals. So it's tricky.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:32 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Is it possible to create a prison management game without trivializing or misrepresenting the issue of mass incarceration?"

Betteridge's law of headlines
posted by Schmucko at 3:36 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

No, we are striving for realism here.

Oh, very well.
posted by Apocryphon at 4:00 PM on January 31, 2014

Considering our disproportionate share of the global prison population, I think it's perfectly fair for Americans to think a prison game is about us.
posted by ckape at 4:45 PM on January 31, 2014

Maybe if they had a mod w/ the same basic content but in a summer camp instead...

There's a boarding school mod.
posted by zsazsa at 5:09 PM on January 31, 2014

My son has played Prison Architect for over 50 hours. He says that the mistake most people make on the game is that to maximise profits you need to minimise expenses. In fact, he runs what he calls a luxury prison: the rooms are 5x10 meters, have televisions, phone booths, a sofa, a desk, a shower, a bed, a toilet, a chair, a window and a weights bench; they have 6 pool tables to share; no compulsory work; 8 visitor tables; and 3x three course maximum variety meals a day. The principle advantage is that the prisoners are happy and never riot so you need far fewer guards and hence wage expenses. He also takes a personal approach in that if there has been a riot he notes which individuals were involved, tries to understand why they rioted, and makes sure he fixes it.
I think as with most games, it often shows more about your personality than that of the creators of the game.
posted by drnick at 5:38 PM on January 31, 2014 [21 favorites]

Heh, I walked into the middle of a discussion of this game in the chat room the other day and for a few confusing minutes thought that Eyebrows McGee had changed jobs. :) She's really good at this game, let's page her to the thread.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:54 PM on January 31, 2014

Speaking of disturbing games, The Mary Sue just posted about this one that comes with a trigger warning. Nope.
posted by emjaybee at 7:27 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

For me, discomfort in games is directly proportional to how likely it is someone playing the game could/would do the thing in real life.

Murder simulators? Not a big deal. Hardly any gamers will ever actually kill someone. Misogyny? Very uncomfortable; a whole lot of people who play games also treat women like crap.

This game? Well, some people actually design and run prisons. But all of us pay the taxes that build and run prisons on our behalf. So, pretty darn uncomfortable.
posted by straight at 7:53 PM on January 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, Prison Architect really put me off. At first this was surprising because I've played lots of games that are objectionable in much more over-the-top ways. Maybe it's because the mechanical banality of a management sim seems too close to the mechanical banality that perpetuates the evil of the US prison system.

Or maybe it's that Prison Architect doesn't really seem invested in its subject matter. DEFCOИ was a deeply unnerving game, but it really engaged with the unappeasable, inevitable feeling of dread that comes out of mutually assured destruction. Prison Architect feels like it just deploys the visual language and tropes of the US prison system as convenient set dressing. Hospitals and theme parks and railroads have already been done -- might as well do prisons! This makes the game feel really distant from its subject, and distance from the subject of US prisons is what lets them continue to exist as they are.

It's a game. Things that happen to imaginary people in games (or movies, or books) are not happening to real people. And if someone mistakes a work of fiction as a reliable source of information about the real world, then the problem lies with the consumer, not the work.

The "it's (just) a game" rhetorical move is a played out and discredited attempt to derail any criticism of problematic games. Still, it's everywhere. It's in the first comment on the Kotaku article.

This is an attempt to play a 'get-out-of-being-part-of-culture-free' card, and it just doesn't work. Games are part of culture. They shape it and are shaped by it, and that's a totally valid thing to talk about.

What the move does do is suck all the air out of the room and prevent interesting, useful discussions about games. As someone who loves games and loves talking about them, I really wish people would stop making this move.

Maybe after finishing a game of Prison Architect, you should be forced to play as a convict for a randomly-determined sentence before you are allowed to play any other games.

Ha! Now I'm imagining what else would happen if Steam was built by John Rawls.
posted by amery at 7:55 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't know. I can certainly say "it's just a game" just like I did with The Sims when I took the ladder out of the pool and let all the party people drown.

No fan of the prison system, but also no fan of the nuclear option. Hard for me to argue on the morality of depicting either.

I like the idea that people can freely discuss and make their own minds up about things. Even though they're mostly wrong. But maybe playing a game will make a connection that Orange Is The New Black missed.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:21 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have not had a chance to watch the video (although I did read the article and was not very impressed) but, yeah, I've been playing Prison Architect. I come at this from a background of having been active in death penalty opposition for more than 20 years, having volunteered my time with the Innocent Project and similar things, and being politically active against many different aspects of the prison-industrial complex (drug laws mandating prison for simple possession, the school-prison pipeline, racial profiling, differential prosecution, inhumane prisons, lack of opportunities for felons once they get out, trying minors as adults, all sorts of things). I also taught philosophy and ethics to college students for five years and we spent a lot of time on crime & punishment, prisons, laws, etc.

So, I was prepared to really dislike the game and find it gross (I don't play FPSs because I find the idea of a murder simulator gross). But I have actually generally found it to be a fairly thoughtful game about the balancing of competing demands that a system of criminal punishment requires. For people who spend a lot of time with the issue I doubt it would be revelatory, but I keep thinking as I play it about my freshman students who were often very "lock 'em up and throw away the key!" who had never thought about the rights of prisoners before my class; I can see how it would be a really powerful teaching tool for them. Instead of me saying, "Well, okay, you COULD let prisoners beat each other up all the time, but that's REALLY DANGEROUS for the guards as well as terrible for the prisoners," they could try it in the game and actually see in their sim that letting prisoners attack each other is bad for the prisoners and the guards.

It's still in alpha and if course it is "just a game" so there are lots of ways to "break" the game (some of which will doubtless stick around because pixels are not people and you can't program the complexity of human beings, and there are always ways to mess with a game that the creators didn't intend). People do find ways to create horrific 24-hour no-sleep work camps by exploiting weaknesses in the algorithm, and to that kind of thing I do say, "it's just a game, relax." But when you're playing "fair," you're faced with choices like, I can let my prisoners work in the kitchens, which makes my prisoners happy (they like to work some hours a day, or they get bored and restless, but not too many hours a day, or they get mad) and saves me money because I can hire fewer cooks, but then I have an additional area for guards to police, I have prisoners mixing with non-guard staff (the cooks), I have prisoners with access to a frequently-opened door (where the food comes in), and the prisoners can steal things from the kitchens to make shivs. So I have a higher risk of contraband, escape, and violence ... but happier prisoners and lower cost. What is the right amount of risk to accept? Where is the balancing point between happiness/humaneness and money? The heavy emphasis of the game mechanic on the wants and needs of prisoners, and their reactions to the prison, is different than most; the money is pretty secondary to keeping your prisoners happy (or keeping them angry but maintaining a huge guard staff).

One other money mechanic that the article failed to mention is that whenever there's a riot, you get "sued" and fined. Whenever there's a serious injury or a death, you get "sued" and fined. (There's a minor game mechanic where lawyers can reduce these penalties, but they cost a lot and are mostly useless. It may be more prominent in later versions, right now it's pretty useless.) So if your prison is having "constant riots," as the article's author's, you are being penalized not just by having angry, scared prisoners, injured guards, injured prisoners, etc., but you are being financially penalized as well, and it's a fast way to go bankrupt in the game.

(I should also say, I'm from one of the few states where for-profit prisons are illegal and prison-made goods can only be sold to state entities, so the "workshop" part of the prison stands out less to me than to other reviewers; in my state those are primarily job-training with a small, secondary function of revenue for the prison. And the "money" part of the prison just seemed to me like keeping budgetary score, as any public entity has to do: you get so much money from the state, you have to run this unit of government within those funds and complete these tasks. So those of you who are faced with for-profit prisons may find this part of the mechanic more disturbing.)

The other part of the game is prison architecture itself. One of my closest friends is an actual prison architect who does basically nothing but design and build prisons, and she is obsessed with the architecture part of the game because it's very true (for a game) to what she does, ESPECIALLY the fixation on toilets as the most-commonly-damaged thing in the game, the most common vector for escapee, the most common way for prisoners to retaliate against guards (by flooding the cell block), etc. She says it's actually pretty accurate, at a high level, about the sorts of planning decisions prison architects actually make about how to make a space safe but livable, dealing with escape attempts and property damage and contraband, but creating a space where prisoners can have all their needs met (sleep, toilets, food, visitors, medical care, exercise, recreation, work, etc.), and doing that within the constraints of a capital budget for initial construction and an operating budget for ongoing maintenance and staff costs. In that way, she really likes it as an architecture sim because it's not just about "design a cool building within this budget" but also "... that people have to live/work in and maintain over time, with this operating budget." (And also, again, she loves that the game is fully as fixated on toilets as her actual day-to-day job is.)

Anyway, I'm not going to say "it's just a game!" or "it's great and important art!" and I don't think it's a game for everybody. But I do think it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking consideration of the mechanics of incarceration -- not, really, of the fact that we incarcerate people at all, but of the problems and questions society faces once we've decided we're going to incarcerate people. I think some people find the game disturbing because it doesn't deal with questions of guilt or innocence, but I think that's not the question this game is trying to ask; I think instead of focusing on that part of the justice system, it's focused on what we do once we decide there's going to be a prison (and every country has some kind of prison system). I think those are REALLY IMPORTANT QUESTIONS that we don't often ask; we spend a lot of time talking about, say, racial bias in prosecutions, but not a whole lot of time talking about how prisoners are treated in prison; once they're behind bars, they become pretty invisible. This game does a pretty decent job of opening that black box and forcing the player to think about, what kind of prison are we going to run? What decisions do I want to make, and what are the practical outcomes of those decisions? I'm sure you all know someone who complains, "Prisoners shouldn't get to watch cable TV! It's an outrage!" Well, thanks for that, theoretical policy ranting guy; here, take this sim and you try that policy out and see what happens.

Maybe that's what I like about this game; I spend a lot of time dealing with people who want to make a moral point by making a policy or law and don't look at the practical outcomes of that policy or law. ("We shouldn't teach teenagers sex ed in school! They just shouldn't have sex!" "Okay, but teaching them sex ed makes them have less sex." "But ... it seems like we're CONDONING it!") You can run your prison on any policy lines you choose, but the choices you make have actual outcomes, and the game is really good about introducing those complexities. You can take away all of the prisoners' recreation, if you want to, because you think they should be bored in prison and sit around feeling bad about their crimes. But it's probably not going to work out the way you hoped. When does the financial and human cost of your misguided policy become too high?

So, I understand why a lot of people find it offputting and have no interest in playing, and that's okay. And I could come up with plenty of quibbles about specific things in the game. But it's a lot more thoughtful and nuanced than I had expected, and it's a much more interesting and less-offensive game than I thought it would be on first glance.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:11 PM on January 31, 2014 [47 favorites]

I don't mean to be an apologist for the game, btw; I have just spent a lot of time reflecting on why I find it such an interesting and compelling game when the initial idea of it was absolutely repellant and I have been so active for so long in various sorts of convicts' rights issues. I 100% understand what people find gross about it and I'm not trying to persuade people otherwise.

So I'm not really defending the game; I'm just trying to express my personal reactions to it and how they were a lot more complicated than I initially expected ... and the game did cause me to engage in a lot of self-reflection and a lot of thought on issues relating both to prisons and to game design, which I think has been pretty productive for me. I'm still pretty ambivalent on a lot of questions the game raised for me, and they keep coming back to me and forcing me to mull on them further, so in that regard, I think it succeeded at its aim.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:20 PM on January 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Tropico sort of makes me uncomfortable at times.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:22 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tropico never made me uncomfortable. If anything, the game made it fairly hard to be a megalomaniac sort of dictator because there were too many incentives to running your country as a republic with your people constantly thrilled at the things your government was doing for them.

Sure you can be evil and have dissidents disappeared and funnel government money into your Swiss bank account, but then the resulting lack of money and support means you have fewer things to build and that's absolutely no fun since the game is essentially a city builder with a political simulation somewhat tacked on.
posted by honestcoyote at 11:17 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Prison Architect hasn't made me uncomfortable either. As others have already said, it's most interesting as a social experiment. What happens when I build a supermax for my ultra-violent criminals? Now, take the same sort of criminals and built a Scandinavian style pleasant prison, with each cell has wood floors, windows, televisions, etc., and the yard is huge with many trees, and the internal doors are not locked. What happens then? Or, your state budget for prisons has been slashed and so you have to stick the next 30 prisoners in a single holding cell and keep them there indefinitely. What can you do to make the situation as humane as possible while staying within budget?
posted by honestcoyote at 11:27 PM on January 31, 2014

**wishes she could be in Eyebrow McGee's class**
posted by emjaybee at 5:51 AM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Tropico never made me uncomfortable.

Yeah, I should have expanded on that a little; ethical strategies can be successful and are incentivised, but it's gross to have the option of playing as Amin or Pinochet. Granted, you don't have to exercise that option, but that, broad racial caricatures, and some of the DLC leaves me feeling squicky.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:25 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Prison Architect hasn't made me uncomfortable either. As others have already said, it's most interesting as a social experiment.

Obviously, playing Prison Architect does not influence the conditions of any real prisoners. There's definitely a sense in which you could describe playing the game as: "Let's take a significant chunk of time and think very carefully about the different ways we could design prisons and consider at length the possible results of those different approaches." Which sounds morally unimpeachable. Praiseworthy, even.

But I guess if you were doing that in conversation, and the other person wanted to spend hours talking at length about all the really terrible things you could do to prisoners and how amusing it would be when they rioted and died, that would feel pretty uncomfortable and gross.
posted by straight at 2:27 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to play Tropico as Dagny Taggart, and aside from an inability to get along with the Russians and a tendency to build roads everywhere (which I interpreted as sublimated desire to build railroads), she seemed to do okay.
posted by um at 2:27 PM on February 1, 2014

I too am a big gamer, very interested in Dwarf Fortress-like games.

I've played some of the earlier betas of Prison Architect and liked them well enough but think I'll dust it off and play some more now that there are more amenities available.

I honestly didn't think it'd be an issue for disgust, but I totally get why. I'm very liberal in politics and very progressive/liberal in social priorities.

My partner thinks it's sort of bad to play in a karmic-esque sense so I don't generally play when shes' around.
posted by kalessin at 12:11 PM on February 2, 2014

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