People are interested in Introversion's very good sim Prison Architect because it tries to model the complexities of life inside a penal institution. People also seem to be tougher on Prison Architect than they are on more frivolous games, for the very same reason: it attempts to simulate the complexities of prison life. How do its creators feel about that ambivalence?
"By trying to do it justice, we've opened it up to being judged on that level," Chris Delay, the designer of Prison Architect, told me when I interviewed him and Mark Morris, the game's producer, for my podcast, Shall We Play a Game? "Which is exactly how it is. If you try to do something, you're going to be judged by whether you succeeded or not."
Here are three topics we covered during our conversation. You can listen to the podcast here.
Is Prison Architect about mass incarceration in America?
Definitely not, Delay and Morris say. Even though the game uses dollars for its currency, places its inmates in orange jumpsuits, and begins its campaign with a reference to the electric chair, the game is intended to simulate what Morris calls "a prison in the sky." The two men, who are British, disagree on whether they did enough to make that clear.
"When we first tackled this project, we assumed that you could isolate a prison from the society in which it is constructed," Morris said. "That was our goal. And so you think about the boundaries of the map — the bus comes in, and there's people on the bus, but the game does nothing to simulate the society from which those people come into your prison."
He went on to say, "One of the issues that often gets talked about is race, and the fact that we've not really dealt with it. And race is a huge issue in U.S. prisons. But that's because race is a huge issue in U.S. society. It's very difficult for us to build the simulation beyond the walls, if you like. We had to draw a line somewhere and say, 'No, we're simulating a kind of ideal prison in the sky.' And I think that a lot of the reviewers, certainly in the U.S., have not accepted us saying that.
"They have said, 'Now hang on. It looks like it is set in America, it smells like it is set in America. You guys have come a little too close to the wire, so I'm going to critique your game based on that assumption, which I think is implicit in the design.' And I think that's probably a fair place to come from."
Not long afterward, he and Daley had the following exchange:
MORRIS: "I think, mate, looking back, that we should have done more to distance it from the States."
MORRIS: "Chris and I chatted about this a lot beforehand. And we told people a lot that it wasn't set in America. But I certainly felt that a lot of the language was U.S.-focused. We talked about how to do it. We talked about almost a country selector, at the start, but that brings in its own kind of difficulties. What we talk about and what we delivered in the game are two slightly different things."
DELAY: "Do you think if we would have had blue jumpsuits instead of orange jumpsuits, the whole issue would have gone away?"
MORRIS: "Yeah, I do."
DELAY: "Is it actually just the jumpsuit colour? Because the jumpsuit colour is used around the world, because it is a really bright colour that means that guards can see the prisoners from a really long way away at nighttime."
MORRIS: "I think it's the jumpsuit colour, and the political language, and the currency, and all the other things that come together. But changing the colour of the jumpsuits would have had enough of an effect to have just distanced us, a bit, from the accusation."
Does the game contain a political message?
"A lot of people have this misconception that we made it to be a damning indictment of American prisons," Delay said. "That really never was our intention."
At the same time, he suggested, giving people a sense of the bureaucratic inhumanity of mass incarceration was one of the studio's goals.
"The game doesn't really let you get to know any individual prisoner," Delay said. "You never really feel like you know who anybody is. You never feel like there is any difference between any of the prisoners. And that was definitely one of the deliberate, conscious design decisions on our part. Because you are a private prison company, which exists in the real world. And we are putting you in the shoes of somebody who has to build a system that can hold hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners. And so the net result of that is that players naturally withdraw slightly from any individual prisoner's concerns and start thinking of them as a group, as a whole. I would go so far as to say that was a design aim of the game, to give you that experience of feeling distanced from the humanity of what you're trying to make."
Morris put it this way: "I wanted it to cause the player to genuinely reflect upon the nature of how we incarcerate people, how we choose to do that. And by 'we,' I mean the player as an individual."
Why are prisons so fascinating?
"It's your classic limited-resources, unwinnable scenario that human minds love trying to solve. You feel like there should be solution," Delay said. "When you have a game that can't be won, or a game that's based on something in real life that can't be won, that can't be succeeded at, it's kind of endlessly fascinating."