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In 1971 the Stanford prison experiment was held to see what relationships formed between prison guards and their prisoners. The experiment would show some of the controversial and shocking results ever found on a college campus. Abuses of power were rampant and “prisoners” were mistreated in inhumane ways in hopes of maintaining order. It revealed that despite a person’s personality traits, the situation could often dictate your actions. We tell ourselves we would always treat others with respect and dignity, but Prison Architect challenges those base assumptions and gives you the warden’s keys to the prison. The game moves beyond the typical gameplay of sim/management games and challenges your emotions and morality while making gameplay decisions. Will you improve the prisoners who walk through your gates or will you be the iron fist that keeps control and security?
Prison Architect is still under development, but Introversion Software, the developers behind Darwinia and Defcon, have taken some big steps towards a more complete product since going into Early Access. I love management and world building games, but after awhile you think you’ve seen them all. City building, island settling, Dwarf Fortress copycats, and space colonies can only be built so many times. Gone is the age of SimAnt, SimCopter, and SimSafari where Maxis, once king of simulation games, could experiment with whatever came to a designer’s mind. Prison Architect gives you that familiar formula in a new setting that challenges not just your usual simulation strategies, but also your personal morality.
Every prison in Prison Architect has its requirements. You need power and water, you need fences and jail doors, and you need guards and personnel. You’re given the power to design these elements however you’d like. Are your offices separate from your prisoners? Do you allow prisoners to mingle in the showers, or the yard? You place your buildings and the prisoners stream in and almost immediately, especially if you’re new to the game, problems occur. Prisoners escape because you didn’t notice a gap between two buildings. A prisoner stole a knife and attacked a guard. A prisoner dug a tunnel and ran away before the morning meals. You built this little prison and the residents are doing everything in their power to thwart your efforts. They need discipline.
Going into Prison Architect I assumed I was a reformer. I personally thought most prisoners who did time could be changed and released back into the world. Education and hard work could lead to parole and early release. If a person really put forth the effort then surely they deserved a second chance. The further along I play, the more I reveal a personal moral grey area. All prisoners share a desire to be free of their shackles. Some do focus on books or prayer. Others lie in wait for their opportunity to escape. I found myself lashing out at those few whose desire was to break my delicately designed system rather than rewarding the rest whose desire was only to reform.
After hours of watching prisoners run away I cracked the whip. Enough was enough and I would no longer be taken advantage of for focusing on luxuries over security. Guards now searched every cell, every night, and anyone caught digging a tunnel was placed in solitary confinement. Prisoners were kept separate based on their crimes both in and out of prison. I hired a half a dozen guards whose sole purpose was to patrol and catch any prisoner breaking any rule and punish them. My little prison was now safe for its employees, secure for its prisoners, and absolutely falling apart. What grace and peace that was created by my army of guards and strict regiment only lasted a small period of time. Then the prisoners revolted.
I had lost sight of what my goal was as warden of this digital prison. I had spent hours building up the perfect prison in hopes of keeping the peace only to watch a few bad eggs ruin everything. They were taking advantage of my hard work in order to cause violence and mayhem. I had felt a connection with my guards and other employees. My decisions and policies were directly hurting them and I felt the need to protect them at all costs. The prisoners were now on a low tier of concern for me, my guards and employees were more human to me than anyone in an orange jumpsuit. My guards were keeping my system together even while exhausted while these prisoners were wrecking what I had spend a lot of time creating for them. When I punished them it was because alerts went off in my prison and I became stressed. Each tunnel meant I needed to further my efforts to stay ahead of those few in my prison who wanted to create problems. My hours of preparation were being erased and I quickly lashed out at my prisoners, sacrificing time and money to keep them in line and to keep my prison calm and orderly.
Reform can only go so far. While building the new classroom or expanding the lunchroom my prisoners would riot. My prisoners had become restless so I gave them a way to focus their energy, a place to work. I started a work program where select prisoners could spend a part of their day away from bars and wire fencing and be productive. For most prisoners it worked, they were calm and fit back into the apparatus of the prison. Others stole from their places of work and used these tools as weapons. My good intentions had been twisted, a process that would repeat with kitchen work programs and janitorial jobs. I was betrayed despite having continual good intentions. Whenever I leaned towards making the prison a better and safer place for everyone the prisoners only fought against me. Even when I spent an hour or so creating what I thought would be a better and safer prison the prisoners would always be the ones to ruin it. Soon their needs were no longer my top priority.
I began to allow the prisoners to be mistreated in my prison. Most simulation games are based all around balance. Resources and expenditures must find a happy medium or you’ll find yourself overextended and out of money. Your prison and prisoners need that same balance but with security and reformation. For every tunnel dug it could be traced back to tools stolen from another part of the prison. Every violent prisoner is probably missing his family or craving some more exercise or a fresh pair of clothes. Changing their daily schedule to give these prisoners more time to use the pay phone or lift some weights in the yard would transform them from aggressive to content. I went from an influx of maximum security prisoners requiring more security, more guards, and more money to calmer, happier, and nicer prisoners.
At just around 40 hours, according to Steam, I’m still making discoveries about my Prison Architect style of play. I had never put windows in any cell ever before. Does that make my prisoners happier? Am I bad for thinking not every prisoner needs a view of the outside? I had kept most prison doors locked so prisoners couldn’t wander around the prison unwatched. But would giving them access to a pay phone or a pool table keep them happy enough or can I afford the security risk? Do prisoners need the added luxury of a school house or library? Or does the added expense of education make a safer prison? It’s a balance of morality I feel shifting with each prison I create. Even when I feel I’m doing a good job I still have the urge to make a better penitentiary for everyone. It’s a frustrating but personally interesting moral spiral I feel within myself.
Prison Architect isn’t just a min/maxing paradise. You aren’t managing resources, you’re managing people. The Stanford experiment exposed that anyone can be driven to do questionable things. Even when it comes to a video game you’d be surprised what you’re willing to do just to keep order, just to show those prisoners who’s really in charge. I found myself wondering how far I was willing to go to keep control of my prisoners. After hours of trying to set up the perfect system I still find myself questioning my choices. I still don’t know if I’m right to restrict a prisoner’s rights for being violent or if the blame falls on me for not giving them enough to fulfill their lives. I’m still navigating murky moral waters of Prison Architect, but for now my balance is between a smarter more vigilant security force rather than a massive, oppressive, one. Cameras replaced my patrolling and deployed guards and for now my prison runs with quiet efficiency. That is until the next outbreak of violence sends me back to the drawing board and back to questioning if security or reform is the path or me.
It’s been 50+ hours with Prison Architect. I still want every prisoner who enters my penitentiary to walk out a whole human being one day. I now begin my prisons with more luxuries and only basic security. I separate the problems from the pack and give them all ample time to work and to learn in hopes of serving their sentences in peace. Not every prisoner will fall in line and I’ll always be ready to deal out justice. But for those digital sprites who strive to be free and follow the rules, they’ll get to walk out of the fences and pass through the bars to freedom.