The prison-building simulator that makes you part of the problem

​It wasn't supposed to be this way. I started off with altruistic intentions. I was going to create a spacious, roomy penitentiary. I was going to double the minimum size of cells. There was going to be a big yard, with a pool table and TVs. This was going to be a decent prison; a social service. But then I ended up blowing the upfront from my grants on all that square footage – plus, I needed guards, a warden; then, when the money started to tighten, an accountant to find tax loopholes – and the next thing I knew I was in the red. Look, there's Andrew Brown, in for 23 years for arson. He has four sons. And now he has no choice but to to use an open-air toilet in the center of a holding cell because I'm too cheap to build walls around it. I've stripped this little avatar of his dignity. I'm starting to feel ashamed.

Then it dawned on me: This isn't a resort; this is a prison. It's big business and I'm its architect, and I'm losing because I took my eye off the prize. I need to be focused on selling my prison for profit, not getting bogged down in frivolous niceties. And, I suspect, that's exactly what Prison Architect, a PC strategy game from Introversion Software, wanted me to feel.

If you're looking to build a prison dedicated to rehabilitation, go play some kind of Norwegian prison simulator. This is America, and prisons are for profit: In 2010, total government spending on corrections was pegged at around $80 billion, a hefty slice of which goes to private prisons. The two market leaders in this regard are The GEO Group, and the Corrections Corporation of America -- they posted $1.69 billion and $1.65 billion, respectively, in total revenues for 2014, of which they pocketed $471.7 million and $225 million in net operating income. These companies would be considered definite "winners" in the logic of Prison Architect, which quickly strips the player of compassion and replaces it with a profit-driven mindset. After all, the game's "victory" state is to sell your prison so that you can start the next one with a bigger capital investment.

A smoothly functioning prison

That said, Prison Architect doesn't forget it's a game above all else, and that's how it sucks you into its subtle, slow-burn criticism. Like creating a functioning city in SimCity, or building thrilling roller coasters in Roller Coaster Tycoon, Prison Architect is a strategy "builder" game based on the interplay of systems. Available as a pre-release alpha on Introversion's site and subsequently in early access on Steam since 2013, the game finally emerged as a full release last month in a slick, coherent package. The clever campaign mode introduces the mechanics of the game by tasking you with building the execution chamber for Edward Romsey, an otherwise ordinary man who committed a double murder in a moment of passion.

As the campaign unfolds, the complex circumstances of his murders are revealed and the character is given depth, but far too late for poor Ed, who paid the piper in your first mission. Of course, the campaign is skippable and you can get right into the incarceration business from the main menu with nothing, but a plot of land, some workers, and eight prisoners on the way. From there, you build walls, doors, cells, showers, hire guards, start cooking meals and ultimately set "policies" that determine the severity of punishments and the diets of your prisoners.

British developer Introversion Software knows what it's doing when it comes to addictive, but morally questionable gameplay. Its 2006 game, DEFCON, was sub-titled "Everybody Dies." It was a brief, fun real-time strategy game that tasked you with racking up a Cold War killcount in the gigadeaths.

A not-so-smoothly functioning prison

Prison Architect quickly strips the player of compassion and replaces it with a profit-driven mindset.

In Prison Architect, that video game itch gets scratched when things in your prison start to work in harmony: Your kitchen is cooking, your prisoners have a rec yard to blow off steam in, a chapel to help them with spiritual guidance, and your guards are all well-rested. "Hey! I'm getting the hang of this," you start to think. But the next thing you know, you're looking at a full-scale riot bleeding out of the canteen and roaring down your carefully designed marble-tiled halls.

That's because the genius of Prison Architect is not in its systems, but in its fundamental commodity: the prisoner. He wants, above all else, to GTFO. In my biggest prison, a riot was sparked by a contraband shiv that I had no idea was smuggled in. Turns out, tensions over my harshest "policies" (i.e., several days in solitary for even minor infractions, plus low-cost/low-quality meals to keep me in the black) had been long-simmering. The harmony was shattered: Fences were torn down, prisoners ran free, and much money was lost. Next time, I'll need to authorize guards to use lethal force. Bonus: That would also help with overcrowding.

Though it springs from such a controversial space, Prison Architect doesn't moralize on the deeper issues of racial politics, unfair drug laws or electable judges; in fact, it has nothing to say about those issues at all. It is austere and objective in how it presents you with the issue. It achieves this by reducing the problem down to its essence by presenting you with only one path to "win": You must effectively confine human beings to tiny spaces in order to earn profit. By keeping things this simple, the game hooks you with a satisfying progression of "builder" gameplay. You accommodate your first intake, grow for the second, receive another grant, build another cellblock, etc. -- all the while becoming more complicit in every aspect of the for-profit prison industrial complex. From the warden and shareholders, to the accountant and the guy with the hardhat forced to lay out fencing, you are, with every click, responsible for the problem.

And so that's how I got here – with toilets shamefully placed in the center of an overcrowded room of little imprisoned avatars. But how did it come to this at all? How did I get to these kind of ethical quandaries in a video game, of all places?

Prison Architect is certainly not the first critically minded video game – in fact, the 50-year-old medium of gaming has, since its inception, always had a countercultural dimension by allowing players to assume different personas and alternative viewpoints, like in early text-based adventures from the 1960s. That later gave way to full-blown virtual worlds and moral (or immoral) decision-making as found in the Ultima series in the 90s, or, more (in)famously, Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series in the 2000s. But Prison Architect is riding a recent wave of explicitly "socially conscious" games that create more critically nuanced and thoughtful experiences in the way that only games can: By either immersing you in the situation as the victim, or putting you in control of the oppressor.

Prison Architect doesn't moralize. It simply reduces the problem to its essence by presenting you with one path to win: Confine human beings to tiny spaces to earn profit.

Papers Please, a 2013 video game by Lucas Pope, has a likewise mundanely evil premise: You are in the role of a Soviet-era immigration officer tasked with enforcing the party's shifting and arbitrary immigration standards. You feel bad denying entry to a poor immigrant without a visa who was just searching for a better life, but your job is to enforce the rules. In the 2014 survival game This War of Mine, you manage a group of civilians trapped in a war-torn city trying to scrape together an existence among the ruins. You cower in fear of sniper fire and duplicitous strangers while trying to live through just one more night.

You'll need a big facility to make the big bucks

But these two games demur from their subject matter in crucial ways. In This War of Mine, you play the victim of a nameless war that may as well be a zombie apocalypse. Its focus on challenging gameplay makes it too much of an engrossing game, more than anything deeper. And in Papers Please, your player-character has a family life he's working desperately to provide for. He's as much a victim of the system as the immigrants he's forced to hassle. As the immigration officer, you have a moral out.

Prison Architect, on the other hand, offers no outs. Your warden has no family he's providing for; and you don't play as the warden, anyway. You play as the odious system in its entirety – you take up all roles. After just one hour with Prison Architect, you'll get the sense you're doing something wrong with your gaming time. You'll get that sense that you are part of the problem. And that's the point.

Image credits: Introversion Software