MEMBERS ONLY: 'Prison Architect' Is a Video Game Whose Gameplay Is All Too Real

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Someone just got shoved in the cafeteria line. Tempers flare, fists are raised, and soon two orange-suited inmates are fist-fighting while guards rush to separate them. Tazers are drawn, and soon there's two men twitching on the ground while the other prisoners stand motionless, their arms raised. One of these men will rot in solitary confinement for the next week, while the other is dragged off to the infirmary.

Welcome to the world of Prison Architect, a delightfully uncomfortable new game by Introversion that asks gamers to keep a rowdy crew of prisoners in line. It's still in alpha, but already it's one of the deepest simulation games of this decade.

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Introversion isn't an American developer, but the game pretty clearly takes its cues and inspiration from the U.S. prison system. This is a game that takes its thematic inspirations from films like Natural Born Killers or The Shawshank Redemption. It derives no small share of its entertainment value by taking this mythos of hard time, pain and suffering and transposing it onto cartoon prisoners. But it would be a shame to mistake the seeming incongruity as a cheap trick to draw attention, because beneath the bright orange jumpsuits and exaggerated sprays of blood lies both a surprisingly intricate simulation of a correctional facility and a lot of deep thinking on uncomfortable social problems. It's Corrections Corporation of America, the game.

Entire prisons can be run like clockwork automata. Prisoners are shuffled around by heavy steel doors that open and close on timers, with their movement restricted by security classifications and harsh adherence to a tightly controlled daily schedule. Metal detectors, security cameras and drug-sniffing dogs enable a skeleton staff of guards to keep the flow of contraband like drugs and weapons under control with minimal human interaction, if not eliminate it entirely. Aspiring tyrants are limited only by their own imagination and available funding, and with enough time and effort can construct everything from a literal panopticon to a prison where inmates are segregated into futuristic self-contained domes.

It's a game that forces you to think about the way in which physical space and reminders of omnipresent authority can be used to terrify and control people, even supposedly hardened convicts. But not only does the prison need to be designed to simultaneously impose a regime on each individual prisoner yet remain easily navigable for staff, it needs to be designed in a way that anticipates the problems inherent to managing a captive population that can be just as eager to vent their frustration on each other as the guards.

They will, too. Inmates in Prison Architect have more in common with the characters of The Sims than the interchangeable drones that waltz around your park in Rollercoaster Tycoon. They have personalities, rap sheets, and a pretty basic range of needs. They need to be fed around twice a day, or they'll begin to starve. They need access to showers, clean laundry, recreational activities and have visitation rights. Treat them poorly, and they'll lash out by complaining, throwing fits of anger or even rioting, at which point your guards apparently have no choice but to get their hands dirty.

It's a reminder that prisoners, who are popularly stereotyped as a bunch of vicious crooks and thugs, are actually a vulnerable population of people who deserve the same respect and dignity afforded to others. Introversion makes you responsible for the safety and security of this population, but from the start it's clear that your under-funded prison isn't likely to change the lives of anyone sent there for the better. More likely, you're digging a hole for the dregs of society to be thrown into and forgotten about.

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It's possible to manage their needs effectively by providing the appropriate facilities and staff to ensure that no goes hungry, sick or deprived, but debugging is costly and difficult. It's hard to turn around a malfunctioning prison when the inmates are already pissed off.

Instead, it's much easier to simply suppress them with harsh methods like lengthy stints in solitary, the threat of violence or constant searches and pat-downs. Done correctly, prisoners who would previously (and in all likelihood, legitimately) voice their concerns about violations of their rights by raising trouble become depressed shells of their former selves. They'll slouch their heads or sob in solitary, where sometimes an unfortunate prisoner will be tossed in the hole before he's been treated for a grievous injury.

If this disturbs you, it should. In real life, California runs many of its prisons the exact same way. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, about 3,600 inmates are in long-term solitary confinement throughout the state:

Here, they eat in their cells, their food slipped through a slot. They get no phone calls, except in emergencies. Visits with family and friends are strictly no-contact. Social interactions, even with other inmates, are limited to nonexistent.

Critics call this solitary confinement. Prison officials use the term Security Housing Units.

Some less resilient convicts will even submit to becoming a snitch, offering information about contraband smuggling routes, planned escape attempts or other inmates' backgrounds. Willingly selling out to the authorities earns these particular inmates a reprieve from punishment, but also puts them under suspicion when they're gathering information in the prison's general population. Incompetent prison managers will get confidential informants killed, usually by acting on tips in an obvious manner. If Prisoner A tells the guards that Prisoner B told him he has a shiv hidden in his bed, ordering the staff to search that particular cell will out the C.I. At that point there's little to do but transfer the snitch to protective custody, where inmates who are ex-law enforcement or sex offenders have to be kept far away from prying eyes and well-hidden shanks.

If constructing a secure facility to keep prisoners in protective custody is too expensive, then too bad. There will always be a time when they're alone, whether they're working unsupervised in the laundry or taking a shower away from the watchful eyes of guards.

These various problems all demand a devious, carefully considered response.  For example, inmates of the same security classification all need to eat meals at the same scheduled time, meaning they'll be entering the canteen at once. If inmates all arrive from the same direction, they'll quickly form an unmanageable crush at the first obstruction - like a locked door. Perhaps a guard is late to his scheduled post, or a door timer is set incorrectly. Maybe they're just overcrowded. No matter the cause, though, a group of 30 pissed-off inmates all demanding to be let into the cafeteria at once is a high-pressure situation that can explode at any second.

Prisons in 17 of America's 50 states are overcrowded. Federal prisons now regularly shoot past their maximum capacities. No surprise, then, that many correctional facilities in the U.S. are considered more dangerous than those in Third-World countries.

Another issue in the world of Prison Architect is contraband, which has to be smuggled into the facility and is on a regular basis. Sometimes it's unknowingly brought in by workmen, hidden in a shipment of food or building materials. Other times it's handed off in visitation. Things like tools can be stolen from workshops, or drugs from the infirmary. It's too pervasive to prevent from happening - but with the right controls on movement, occasional shakedowns and a guaranteed beating or time in lockdown for inmates caught with banned materials can make possessing contraband a difficult, risky or dangerous process for the prisoners. Deterrence is key.

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If all of this wasn't uncomfortable enough, the game makes the amorality of your situation clear. In the demo level, the CEO of your private prison corporation assures you not to lose sleep over a contract to build an execution facility for a convicted murderer with this questionably reassuring advice:

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Workshops powered by prison labor systematically churn out inmate-made license plates and even furniture. The game euphemistically refers to the practice as a way to equip inmates with the training and job skills necessary to obtain employment out in the real world when they eventually leave your facility. But as you watch the little guys sweat and toil in a metal shop for hours a day, seven days a week, it becomes perfectly clear that claims about recidivism are a smokescreen for your for-profit operation using the modern equivalent of slave labor. Players have the additional option of instructing their accountants to hide the profits in offshore tax shelters.

Prison Architect imposes yet another obstacle by reminding you that keeping your inmates in a constant state of discomfort and mistreatment is exactly what taxpayers want. Your facility's valuation fluctuates according to its daily profit, as well as the degree to which its residents are either "reformed" or "punished." While reform sounds good on paper, the game continually reminds you that allowing prisoners too much free time or pampering them with reform programs, therapy and education are all seen as weaknesses by public opinion. The player, having a little more direct knowledge on just what that actually means for the daily lives and wellbeing of your human chattel, should be deeply uncomfortable with this situation. But then they wouldn't have gotten into the business of building for-profit prisons in the first place, right?

Real life isn't so far off. When I worked as a summer work crew supervisor for my alma mater in Sarasota, I learned that many of the dormitory furnishings were originally produced by convicts at a Florida state prison. In 2008, Mother Jones reported that California inmates process nearly 700,000 pounds of beef each month and millions of eggs, as well as huge amounts of other agricultural products. Prisoners there and in other states make, package and recycle innumerable other goods, from Victoria's Secret lingerie to consumer electronics. With around 1.57 million Americans incarcerated nationwide, the U.S. has more people locked up in prisons than any other country in the world. This captive labor force is busy producing many of the products Americans use each day.

Prison Architect might make a game out of this system of human misery, but at least it looks it square in the eye, unflinching.