Build Your Own Prison – ‘Prison Architect’

‘The Gamer’s Hub’ recently previewed UK Introversion Software’s Prison Architect, on display at the Eurogamer Expo at Earl’s Court, London. It’s a game about building prisons: “In it, you’re handed a prison warden’s truncheon and the responsibility for managing the day-to-day to-and-fro of the goings on within your jail…. the aim is to build an economically-viable business, while meeting the needs of inmates and investors alike.”

Gamers create a prison in their own image, giving the institution the facilities it needs, “from cells and generators to toilets and adequate lighting” with the opportunity to construct “an execution chamber for a waiting inmate, guilty of the murder of his wife and her lover”. Whilst the gamer designs the space, “he and a priest sit in one of the cells awaiting the inevitable. As you complete each rudimentary objective, brief flashbacks of his path to the pen are recalled – polaroid snapshots and comic-book stills capture the moments before his arrest, as the prisoner tells of his motives, malice and regret.”

One of the designers behind the game, Mark Morris, admitted in a recent interview that Introversion hadn’t really given a lot of thought to the contentious nature of prisons, especially in the US: “I think they have a very different view on incarceration than we do in the UK… We’re not trying to stamp down on our own views of prisons and incarceration, but we want to make an accurate-ish model where you can explore punishment vs. rehabilitation, those sorts of things. Learning quite quickly that we didn’t have an understanding of all this, we reached out to quite a prevalent rehabilitated prisoner and currently serving prison officers to talk to them about whether there was anything ridiculous in our game. We’re not trying to make a serious model for the Home Office. It’s a game. But it’s also an interesting and in-depth project.”

Human geographers have recently begun to explore virtual worlds such as Second Life, with for example Li et al (2010) discussing the notion of the ‘multiple spaces’ in which we live, some of which are virtual social worlds far beyond computer games. In their paper they examine the interplays and connections among these different spaces, and their social implications. In terms of Prison Architect, although the potentially controversial nature of the game’s subject matter appears to have escaped the attention of its designers until rather late in the day, perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. Although in its early stages of development and release ‘Prison Architect offers few variations on a predictable theme of prison design, apparently as it develops further there will be more ‘political’ choices to make; the Games Hub reviewer was told by the designers that “we can expect much more licence to build a slammer in our own moral image further down the line…we can expect anything from Darth Vader style dungeons to left-wing, liberal holiday homes – whichever best suits your mood.” However, the overall logic of the game seems to remain the economic viability of the prison…

Prison Architect raises interesting questions about the view of prisons and imprisonment held by the general public, and the extent to which the game panders to ‘presumably punitive’ public opinion. In a special issue of the Prison Service Journal on representations of imprisonment, in January 2012, Tony Kearon examined the ways in which fictional accounts of imprisonment intersect with dominant narratives within news media, and in his editorial to the special edition, Michael Fiddler points out that many contemporary media challenge the messages projected by ‘standard’ representations of imprisonment, forcing us to ‘look anew’.

For carceral geographers interested in the construction and the experience of carceral spaces, and understandings of them outside of the context of imprisonment, Prison Architect is a not just a representation of prison life created as spectacle for the entertainment of an audience, with the potential to shape the views and opinions that they hold: it requires the active and interested participation of the audience in active designing the penal space itself; arguably the experience is reflexive, enabling experimentation and reflection. In any case, this game offers the opportunity to consider virtual carceral space as a one of the ‘multiple spaces’ in which we live, the interplay and connections between this and other lived spaces, and the social implications of that interplay.