Earlier in the week Paolo Pedercini, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and game developer, criticised Introversion for their game Prison Architect. He claims that the game, in its current state, is too simplistic a representation of the US prison system and the social structures that it resides in. While critical of the game - just as we were in our Prison Architect review - he does say that Prison Architect “could easily become a powerful tool to see incarceration through multiple lenses, possibly even prefiguring alternatives to the existing dysfunctional system.”
Introversion have responded to a number of Pedercini’s complaints revealing that their game is going to become a much darker simulation in the future.
First, Prison Architect’s designer, Chris Delay, and producer, Mark Morris, make clear that they had no intention of basing the game specifically on US prisons. Despite using the dollar as the in-game currency and having prisoners dress in orange jumpsuits the prisons made in the game are meant to be nondescript.
“Part of the problem is,” says Delay, “is that there is a prison myth. You see it in films all the time, in TV shows. You see prisoners with arms hanging through the bars and things like that. The orange jumpsuits have become part of the prison myth. This generalised idea of what prisons are actually like. The vast majority of it is based on American prisons.
“So I don’t actually think that we have picked America it’s just that America’s effect on the archetypal prison is so strong that it’s very difficult to avoid.”
“Their cultural output has caused everyone around the world to have these touchstones with US prisons that we just can’t avoid,” adds Morris.
“Well, it would be weird to avoid them. It would be weird not to put in the jail bars because that’s in everyone’s head as to what a prison is like.”
Pedercini also pointed to the game’s prisoners frequent recourse to violence as an issue with Prison Architect. He writes that “the continuous, frustrating, over-the-top violence suggests that we are dealing with an irrational, murderous, and suicidal horde that deserves no sympathy.”
This, Delay says, is perhaps an issue with Pedercini drawing his conclusions from a game that’s still in alpha development. “Video games are really good at fights,” says Delay. “It’s the easiest place to start with, combat mechanics. The vast majority of conventional games are just about fighting because in game simulation it’s so easy to do that.
“The underlying AI that goes into a person to decide they’re unhappy today and they're having a low mood and they don’t get enough food for dinner and a guard trips them up and they get really angry and start a fight, that stuff is significantly harder to do and significantly harder to telegraph to the player about the fact that that happened.”
“You could have their little prisoner mouths turning down at the corners but nobody would notice,” joked Morris.
“Exactly,” says Delay. “It has to work from the point of view of the player. That’s why when they're not angry they’re just quiet and going about their things and when they're getting angry they start jumping up and down and making a lot of noise. It’s because we have to telegraph that state to the player.”
So further means of prisoner expression are coming but they’re requiring a lot more work than simple violence. One such form of expression is self-harm. Pedercini correctly says that it’s absent from the game and, with it, a very real problem effecting prison populations. Introversion say that it’s coming.
“There’s always been a plan that prisoners that have been on the receiving end of too much grief, and they’re of a certain character type, will attempt suicide,” says Delay. “It is on the list. Again, it’s one of those issues that it’s fair to say we’re slightly scared of. We don’t want it to be a slider from 0 - 100 that just charges up and if it hits 100 then they kill themselves because that’s a ridiculous simplification. So the desire to have it work much better than that has meant we've not put it in the game yet.”
Finally, the controversial issue of solitary confinement. “Solitary confinement is one of the most controversial disciplinary procedures today,” writes Pedercini. “It is considered a form of psychological torture, a violation of human rights, and a largely ineffective measure. In 2013, 29,000 prisoners in the state of California organized a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement.”
Pedercini criticised the game for seemingly automatically implementing a solitary confinement policy. It saw his prisoners immediately taken to the isolation cell if they committed an infraction. Delay responds by saying “There is actually a policy screen in Prison Architect where you can set the punishment policy for any crime. It can range from no punishment whatsoever to a whole day in solitary confinement, which will have a significant psychological effect on the prisoner. It makes them very, very suppressed, which means they do as they’re told but they're not having a good experience throughout the day.”
However, there’s more to the system which has yet to be implemented: “At the moment, the fact they’re not having a good experience throughout the day has no effect really on the game other than making them move around a bit slower and making them less likely to fight. but, when we do eventually tackle the mythical ‘end game’, as in what happens to prisoners after they leave your prison, this will be a factor. If you’ve kept them locked up in solitary for the whole time, that’s going to have a substantial affect on their mental state and their ability to stay out of jail.”
There’s a good deal more in the response video that’s worth listening to but these are the key points. It all suggests that Prison Architect is absolutely a game to follow. It’s not there yet but when it’s released it could have a great deal to say about the treatment of prisoners.