The Architecture of Suffering

My newest prisoner, “Robinson”, is currently in solitary confinement after stabbing a guard with a plastic fork. His cell is just about as large as he is, and he’ll be there for a couple hours until he cools down. I basically lock him up, bash him up and then deprive him of food. Welcome to Prison Architect, the prison administration simulator by Introversion (UK). Based on classic simulation games like Theme Park and Theme Hospital, the game’s premise is that you, “the architect”, need to construct and administrate a prison. Prison Architectpunishes failure by devaluing your prison if anyone escapes. In this way, the player is positioned in opposition to the prisoner population, even before construction begins.

When the game’s tutorial features an execution by electric chair, you begin to realise the scope of these moral challenges. It’s particularly discomforting to watch a prisoner get executed in a room you just helped construct, on an electric chair you just re-routed power to, and on a floor you just decorated with pretty wooden floorboards. In this way Prison Architect enhances, rather than severs, the connection of the player to the fictional prisoner. It challenges the very nature of desensitization so prevalent in the video game industry today. As Introversion creative director Chris Delay told The Guardian, “You’re not just killing a little sprite, you’re killing a character who you’re not entirely convinced deserves to die.” Leading up to the execution, competing views on capital punishment are offered. A priest argues, “All men deserve forgiveness”. A guard suggests that the man “Deserves every volt he’s gonna get,” and a distant CEO offers, “It’s not our place to decide if he deserves this. The law has made that decision. We’re just here to do a job.” Despite all reassurances, a lingering discomfort remains. The player could feasibly build a dozen execution chambers and make his or her prison a death camp. In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Chris Delay admits, “I’m slightly scared of what the players will produce after [we add the electric chair to the toolkit].” Now that the chair is added, a death camp is a real possibility.

As the game unfolds, so do the moral dilemmas. Should I hire four guards to beat prisoners into submission, I wonder, as I watch my prisoners start a riot with plastic forks stolen from the prison canteen. Currently, violence is the only way of resolving disputes. I hire more guards and they attack the prisoners. A few are taken into solitary confinement. Solitary confinement itself is contentious. The solitary confinement cells have no size restrictions; the player can make them ‘box’ size, just large enough to fit a prisoner. Here Prison Architect’s realism slides. In Prison Architect none of my prisoners suffered mental health problems, even though solitary confinement almost always guarantees mental deterioration in real life. A Californian study found that, of 100 randomly selected prisoners in solitary, 91% suffered anxiety, 77% chronic depression, 41% hallucinations and 70% “impending breakdown”. Almost every other study has confirmed solitary confinement produces negative results. The effects of solitary are due in part to prisoners requiring social interaction for healthy brain function, to light deprivation breaking down the day/night cycle, and to solitary cells’ capacity to restrict movement.

The second issue of contention is race. While Introversion is based in the UK, it is clear the game’s developers are largely reflecting the American prison system. The game was inspired by a visit to Alcatraz, and some of its features, such as tunnel escapes, draw from popular American ‘entertainment-prison’ fiction, like Prison Break and Shawshank Redemption. With that in mind, it is noteworthy that the developers have taken a colour-blind approach to race. As I understand it, there’s a 1/3 chance of a prisoner/staff member being White, Black or Hispanic. One prison I loaded had a 90% White prisoner population, and a majority black ‘Guard’ population. This distorts the reality of US prisons, where 40.1% of male prisoners are African-American. This departure from reality is perhaps only as troubling as reality itself.

The game’s internal psychology and incentive structures eerily mirrors Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. In the game, it becomes increasingly frustrating to see hours of hard work spent building a prison completely ruined by a few violent inmates. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, participants, assigned as either “guards” or “prisoners”, soon began to embody their role, and consequently became increasingly hostile to one another. “Guards” in the experiment became frustrated at prisoners “rebelling” against mistreatment and blamed the previous night shift for being “too lenient”. At Stanford, the guards enacted a violent retaliation; they used a fire extinguisher to break into a barricaded cell, stripped prisoners naked, and threw the ringleader of the “rebellion” into solitary. Similarly, Prison Architect’s solution to “rebellion” is violent counter-measure. It becomes natural – even necessary – for the player to hire more guards, build more solitary cells, and side with authoritarianism over prisoner needs. To give some credit to the game, violent abuse of prisoners generally leads to full-scale riots and the ultimate destruction of your prison. The player, however, quickly becomes subsumed into their role of doing anything necessary to stop prisoners escaping, including the infliction of violence.

Despite these moral quandaries, or perhaps because of them, Prison Architect remains a thoroughly rewarding experience. Even when confronted by game mechanics, which steer the player towards oppressing prisoners, you can still endeavour to make your prison a liberal haven. And hey, if the game becomes too confronting you can just bash down a wall and let all the prisoners escape. There’s always an easy way out.