Prison Tycoon: the Broken Promise of Simulation

This article is part 1 of a 2-part series on prison management games, and the controversies surrounding them. You can read the introductory remarks for the series here.


Apparently, Prison Tycoon isn’t much fun to play.

“Apparently”, because even though I’ve played it myself, I wasn’t seeking entertainment. In fact, I turned to Prison Tycoon (PT) as a result of Trevor Owens’ call for submissions at Play the Past in August 2013. I found the premise of relating prison-themed management SIMs to our contemporary prison culture a worthy mission to undertake.

So this intrepid reporter got himself a copy of Prison Tycoon 4 and Prison Tycoon 5 (ValuSoft, 2008, 2010), and plugged through the oft-reported bad user experience, and overall lifeless SIM experience that the series delivers.

Read anything about Prison Tycoon, and you’ll find, like I did, that few people have anything good to say about the series. The response to the various instalments of Prison Tycoon has been overwhelmingly negative. In fact, unless you’re deliberately seeking out the game, chances are you’ll never stumble upon it on the great algorithmically-enhanced grapevine of the Internet.

So why then, should we take interest in Prison Tycoon? I’d like to suggest that we should look beyond surface game design and marketing flaws to understand the ideological failure of the series, and by extension, the limits of the SIM genre. Otherwise put: the alleged neutrality of the Tycoon genre – the idea of a themed business simulation sandbox – becomes politically charged when we use a prison theme.

PT5 - Failure Screen

Thinking inside the box

Part of the tension inherent to the SIM form is that it is not a “pure” entertainment format. SIMS have one foot in the logic of simulation, the other in popular entertainment. From the perspective of the player, the simulation part of every SIM is akin to a black box – an arcane algorithmic puzzle that mimics “real-world systems”. As every box has an inside and an outside, you could say that the simulation mechanics are the inside of the box, and the theme and story are the outside.

Metaphor #1… care to look inside?
Metaphor #1… care to look inside?

In a way, this axiom applies to every game, digital or analog. Game themes and stories are just “skins” that one can apply to game designs, engines and mechanics. But, as I will attempt to show here, this tension between theme and mechanics is more “acute” in SIM games because of the procedural claims of simulation themes – namely, the idea that a game can simulate real-life processes.

In simulation, theme and mechanic are tightly coupled. This dynamic can mask the essentially interpretive nature of simulation, i.e. that so-called real processes (from space gravitation, to biological processes, to economic simulations) that SIMS are simulating are themselves models of reality. In fact, this transformation of reality into an experimental model is the constitutive move of every simulation.

Computer simulation has historically covered a broad range of real-world models, and many of these genres, from transport simulators, to war and economic strategy games, have had an enduring success in the consumer marketplace. At the heart of every successful simulation lies the historical promise of computing itself: to procedurally represent a real-world system, and provide new forms of computer-enabled agency back onto the real world.

Serious gamers

With these issues in mind, it will be interesting to review some of the design innovations that made simulation a mainstay of popular entertainment, and show how Prison Tycoon toes the line of SIM “orthodoxy” – to an uncomfortable extent.

Historically speaking, computer simulation has its roots in the Cold War. Like every slow-moving iceberg, the Cold War kept only its smallest point in plain view: the PC revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. With this familiar peak in view, let us begin our SIM rewind with three Big Names in bright lights: Will Wright, Sid Meier and Peter Molyneux.

photo credit: Will Wright, by Trevor Owens.
photo credit: Will Wright, by Trevor Owens.

Will Wright holds the honour of being both one of the most lauded innovators in video game history, and the creator of the seminal series SIM City and The SIMS. Throughout a career spanning over thirty years, Wright has been at the forefront of the popularization of the SIM genre. A few of Wright’s design innovations: construction mechanics, complex game economies, user-centered design. Summing up, one could say that Wright is an expert model-builder – one of the cardinal necessities of SIM game design.

Sid Meier is the namesake of many popular PC strategy series, namely Civilization, Railway Tycoon, and Pirates!. One of the notions that Meier was able to popularize with his strategy titles is the idea of “playing History” (with a capital “H”), to imagine alternative outcomes to real-world events recorded in history books. For this reason, his games continue to receive critical attention; Play the Past authors, for one, have on many occasions reviewed Meier titles for their procedural expression of History. Meier’s contribution to the Tycoon genre began with the Railway Tycoon series, which combined construction mechanics with business management, operating in a toy universe. He is famously credited with the game design axiom “a game is a series of interesting choices”, revealing his preference for the thinking part of player experience.

Peter Molyneux might seem a misplaced choice for this troika (considering his front-man role in game development) but the influence of landmark Bullfrog titles in the 1990’s on later SIM game design and Real-Time Strategy game mechanics cannot be overstated. The SIM genre as an entertainment format owes its current success to a savvy blend of management mechanics and the appeal of the God game genre; titles such as Populous, Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper have had an enduring influence on generations of game designers who have contributed to the evolution of the SIM genre. In a nutshell, Molyneux’s Bullfrog made the God perspective fun cheeky, and above all: teeming with life.

Notable factoid: both Wright and Molyneux had a childhood fascination with ant colonies. It seems God games and ant colonies are somewhat of a natural fit.

Sim Ant-full

Our friendly ants beckon that we now venture into the more subterranean reaches of SIM history: cold war simulation. In his post Seeing Like Sim City, Rob McConnell identifies the “high-modernist thinking” (or, top-down management view) that lies at the procedural heart of every SIM game. A chilling logic diagram for a military counter-insurgency simulation, reminds us that our beloved SIM games once cut their procedural teeth in real-world military applications.

Burrow further, and it gets even more serious. In his Origins of Serious Games article, games scholar Julien Alvarez maps out the institutional nexus of the military-industrial complex that made early strategy simulations possible. Alvarez’ research also points to civilian applications of military simulation. In the 1950s, the Research Analysis Corporation (RAC) developed the first computerized economic simulations for business audiences:

“Alongside such military-related games, the RAC also designed training computer games for civilians. For example, in 1956 they built a series of games called American Management Association Games. This collection of turn-based strategy games casts the players as managers of a product firm. They compete against each other in order to earn as much money as possible within 40 turns of play (Harrison Jr., 1964).

Obviously, none of these games was available to the general public, and the little information we can find about them today comes from unclassified military documents. We can however consider them as being the ancestors of the simulation video games that appeared on personal computers in the 80’s, either with military topics (Dunnigan, 1992) or not (Wolf, 2007).”

This slow, patient work of anonymous cold war ants, working on their model ant hill, finally led to – circa 1970 – two major precursors of the Tycoon genre: The Sumer Game (1968, also known as Hamurabi), granddaddy of Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and the mother of all educational economic SIMS, Lemonade Stand (1972). The Royal Road to Tycoon games was thus open – just in time for the PC revolution to kick in, and our SIM stars to make their first appearance.

Prison simulation: it’s for profit

I now want to return to my initial claim, namely, the cognitive dissonance provoked by a Prison Theme for a Tycoon game. I will demonstrate this by looking at the fourth the fourth and fifth instalments of the Prison Tycoon series, and how both games push the embedded assumptions of the SIM genre to the surface through gameplay experience.

Let’s start with the most recent title of the franchise, Prison Tycoon 5: Alcatraz (PT5), the only game in the series with an actual historical theme.

Beyond my negative preface above, one thing PT5 has going for it is in its conjuring up of a famous, real-world prison as a play space. You fire up the game in sandbox or campaign mode, and you’ve got a nicely decrepit 3D rendition of Alcatraz, with appropriately tarnished period piece UI.

PT 5 Alcatraz

The campaigns offered up by Prison Tycoon are set in WWII, at a time where Alcatraz was rising in fame and controversy. You’ll have up to seven “mandates” to choose from, ranging from raising the security level, to prison health, to preventing mass escapes and rioting.

PT 5 Newspaper

It all sounds good, but PT5 gameplay falls flat on its face as soon as the game clock starts clicking.

For one, it’s very difficult to control anything in PT5. You can spend money on construction, hiring, and restocking of essential commodities. But once this is done, the only thing you can do is to “manage”, i.e. appropriately assign prisoners to tasks, and give the occasional order to a “busy” guard. That’s it.

Construction and management mechanics are so bare that there isn’t a single novel start-up configuration (i.e. the campaigns) that can offer any real variety, or challenge. The game scenarios are just different iterations of inmate population/state configurations, upon which the player must throw the same limited set of moves and resources.

Ironically, the extreme bareness of gameplay makes for a game that draws attention to its own mechanics. PT5 is a simplified (and botched) construction/management SIM. You can build a few special staff buildings on certain available areas of the island. You have your standard Tycoon budget that you blow on construction, purchasing and wages, and slowly regain through inmate productivity: not much fun here. Clunky and unwieldy camera controls allow you to fly around the island and provoke real seasickness. And triggered events allow you to respond by sending guards, purchasing commodities, and hiring appropriate staff.

It’s dangerous being a guard on Alcatraz.
It’s dangerous being a guard on Alcatraz.

Beyond the extremely limited gameplay, many standard features of the Tycoon genre are also missing from PT5. There’s no terrain modeling tools, nor any terrain modifiers to gameplay. No resources other than money are required to build/destroy vicinities. NPC’s may have mood and health indicators, there’s nary a thing the player can do to act on this information.

Most importantly, the bare-bones currency system forces the conclusion that prisoner exploitation is at the heart of a functioning prison. Bonuses and penalties for player performance are meted out in dollar values. It’s a model that gets suspiciously close to early proto-industrial capitalism.

If PT5’s predecessor PT4 “Supermax” offers a more complete SIM experience, it gets just as close to the bone. For one, PT4 allows the player more freedom to build a fully functioning prison economy. Whether in free-build or campaign mode, the player can access a build menu from which he can deploy certain categories of buildings (cells blocks, amenities, admin, guard, visitation, etc.). Within these building types, the player can then purchase fully-furnished rooms, or deploy bed specific configurations to meet the needs of the prison population.

“bad prison labour manager, bad prison labour manager…”
“bad prison labour manager, bad prison labour manager…”

Beyond the “builder” mode, the real challenge of PT4 lies in prisoner management. Prisoners are managed in two ways: assigning cell, work and leisure activities through the management menus. Second, schedule activities in the prisoner view.

PT 4 Prisoner Management Panel

And it is here that PT4 makes its core procedural claim: gang management is the heart of PT4’s economic engine. Randomly assigning prisoners to cells and activities will get the player in trouble in no time. As the prison population increases, it becomes paramount to manage the prison schedule with gang affiliation in mind, and to ensure that rival gangs are merely crossing paths, and not occupying the same space at the same time.

Bad gang management will make your Prison chapel unruly.
Bad gang management will make your Prison chapel unruly.

This administration model is reinforced by currency bonuses and penalties (as per PT5). If you prisoners are appropriately assigned, you’ll be able to bring in profits through effective labour. If you let a prisoner die, you get docked in $$. The daily “parole roll” also displays a cost/benefit rationale. At the end of each day, the player is presented with prisoner profiles deemed worthy for parole. The player then makes a judgment call based on tell-tale indicators of prisoner behaviour, a record of previous incarceration, and the “possibility of reoffending” for each prisoner in the roll call.

PT 4 Parole Dialog

The catch is that if a player lets a prisoner out on parole and “makes a wrong call”, he’ll be penalized in dollars. If the player’s judgment call is good and the prisoner has been successfully reformed, he gets a cash bonus.

We don’t have to delve too far into the premise to see the storytelling potential of prisoner NPCs in PT4 is regularly trumped by cost/benefit logic of gang management and prisoner “rehabilitation”. As fun of a challenge as this may be, the player of PT4 has a pill to swallow: you can only expand Prison operations – and make the game more fun – by optimizing each “reformed” prisoner for his resale value.

It’s a good thing that prisons aren’t like this in real life.

Conclusion: it’s just a game

So there you have it. We live in a world of for-profit prisons, and broken prison SIMS. It is perhaps unwelcome that a game should come to model this reality, let alone inspire it in the minds of seekers of light entertainment.

But, as I hope I have shown, it just takes a change of skin to show the man behind the curtain.

This problem, at the very heart of prison SIMS, inspired Paolo Pedercini (of Molleindustria fame) to call for more trenchant game design decisions in SIM design. He has, correctly I believe, found the team at Prison Architect busy at the task. And so, in the second (and final) article of our Prison SIM series, I will show how SIM video games can be a natural place to retire popular management theories – a place where every dream of optimal inputs and outputs can spend its dying days in the “frictionless”, crystalline expression of the simulation space.


  1. A long while ago I wrote about an earlier version of Prison Tycoon on Play the Past, arguing that such simulations—no matter how poorly they play—can influence how we think of their real world counterparts. The fact that more games in the Prison Tycoon series have been released in the interim shows there’s something oddly alluring about prison management games.

    And then of course there’s Prison Architect. What’s interesting to me about Prison Architect is not so much the game itself (the most recent alpha is nearly unplayable), but how it found a paying audience on Steam and in the indie community. A simulation about prisons just follows the cultural logic of simulation fever, which demands that every real world system have a simulated version of itself. But a crowd-funded simulation about prisons—fully-funded before the game is even complete—now, that says something completely different, and even more disturbing.

    1. Author

      @Mark, thanks for sharing your 2011 article, and thoughts on the topic.

      I started this series on a hunch: prison sims cut to the heart of this “simulation sensibility” that you talk about, this idea that anything can, and should, be simulated. They do this by showing us how simulation is a very peculiar way to look at the world, oddly distilled in the theme of prison management. A previous article of yours references this, by identifying “games of confinement” and “games of control” – and putting the “Sim” genre squarely in the control category.

      In the end, if virtual prisons inform our view of real prisons, they also inform our view of simulation. My next post will look at how Prison Architect keeps us darkly amused with the Simulation End Game, and how Introversion Software has tapped into our strange fascination with play prisons, to creative effect.

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