Prison Architect: The Dark Heart of Every Sim

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


Playing Prison Architect almost always cheers me up. Is that bad?

PA Alcatraz Cantine

When I play the game, I’m always engaged. Sometimes frustrated, often puzzled, but generally enjoying the flow of things, having a laugh as my little prisoners complain, riot, and get into nasty tussles with the guards. I scratch my head when a pipe or door I’ve tasked for construction just lingers in the task list. As I complete prison grant objectives – build a new cellblock, implement prison labour, enact inmate education programs – my prison complex expands, and I need to keep a constant eye on my prisoners. Recalling Will Wright’s analogy, playing Prison Architect is like gardening, a combination of zen-like creative design and attentive micro-management – in this garden the “weeds” really matter. And when I feel stuck or uninspired, I go check out prisons published in the Steam Workshop by other Prison Architects, looking for solutions and comparing their achievements to my own.

And then it happens: my high security ward goes up in flames! I scramble in the fire brigade, going crazy with concern over the fate of my prisoners caught in their cells, strangely laughing at the extent of the disaster.

Raging fire in your ward? Sleep it off.
Raging fire in your ward? Sleep it off.

It’s only when I sit back and ponder my enjoyment that I’m taken aback. Why was I laughing? This game is a Sim and it’s about prisons, of all things. These little cartoon prisoners are real convicts in the real world. Real prison disasters do happen, and they’re tragedies!

Now I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve come to this conclusion… are you ready for it?

Prison Architect is not a serious game.

To say it with more pugnacity: Prison Architect might well be, in fact, an anti-serious game. That is, a computer game, which, though it handles serious issues, resists being pigeonholed into either mere entertainment, or utility.

Serious games, as they are commonly understood, are games that are made for purposes beyond entertainment, for example teaching. Of course, Prison Architect will not train you to become a prison warden, nor a prison profiteer – though you may act as both inside the bounds of the game.

Beyond this, I did say Prison Architect was an “anti-serious game”, which is a strong statement. This means that I believe the makers of Prison Architect have taken a stance, with their funding model and design decisions, about the way games about prisons should play out. Hopefully I am not too far off the mark in assessing their intention, which seems to me to make games in which players tackle dilemmas – strategic, creative, moral, etc. – from a “strange fun” perspective, for critical effect.

In a nutshell, it is my contention that the team at Introversion feel that an open-ended interpretive approach is more productive for debate than any “serious game” stance on the same topic – even the activist approach. How well they succeed at this, and how they go about it, will be the thrust of this article.

Failure Conditions

As recounted by the developers in a Rezzed session in 2012, the concept for Prison Architect emerged out of the ashes of another game, a 3D high-tech stealth puzzler called Subversion. If Subversion worked as a concept, it did not as a game. In 2011, after a long hard look in the mirror, and a much-needed vacation, Chris Delay, Introversion’s game designer and developer, returned with a fresh game in a sketch pad, inspired by his visit of the historic Alcatraz prison site in San Francisco.

Basically, it went like this. With Subversion, we created a tool for constructing architectural forms. Why not hand over the level design toolset to the player, making design and construction the fun part of the game, like SimCity. Next, in the manner of Dwarf Fortress, we make a game where the player cannot directly control characters, and must micromanage elaborate tasks and activities, and respond to complex, emergent in-game events.

Let’s make a construction and management Sim. About… prisons!

After Subversion, Introversion’s next challenge would be in initiating and sustaining this new development effort. Luckily for them, a new model of indie game financing was emerging in the digital distribution marketplace: crowdfunding. In this short video interview, Chris Delay explains how Introversion adapted the Kickstarter formula to its long-term development needs.


Their strategy seems to have worked out extraordinarily well. Introversion has so far raised $10 million (crowdfunding and digital sales combined) for a game still in its Alpha stage. As of May 2014, the Prison Architect Alpha is in its 20th iteration, with substantial improvements and game features added into each monthly release. Full disclosure: your intrepid reporter is a name-in-the-game contributor, and is happy to see the game flourish.

Name in the game, shame in the name.
Name in the game, shame in the name.

Prison Sim Success Formula

As much as we can attribute Introversion’s success to indie experience, intelligent choices and good timing, Prison Architect (PA) has one elephant in the room: it has reached a level of mass appeal. This was noted by Play the Past contributor Mark Sample after my first article on this Prison Sims series, and I will devote the remainder of this article to analyzing the factors that have gone into making PA into as “early access” hit, with implications for the debate surrounding our “prison culture”.

Ingredient #1 – Build a game on the shoulders of giants.

The shelving of Subversion and a failed attempt at franchising (Darwinia+ and Multiwinia) may have triggered a strange existential response in Mark Morris and Chris Delay of Introversion. Albeit with no department heads to roll and barely any staff to “let go”, Morris and Delay chose… to review their ideas about good game design. If Subversion wasn’t fun, why was that?

The only place to get answers was with critically acclaimed titles appreciated by Introversion’s core fan base. It is no coincidence, therefore, that PA’s pedigree includes Bullfrog’s popular Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper, as well as the very niche PC-gamer hit Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarf Dwellings, or Inmate Cells?
Dwarf Dwellings, or Inmate Cells?

Introversion’s borrowing from these titles isn’t mere hipster referencing. PA’s core mechanics are heavily derived from its spiritual predecessors – Theme Hospital’s scope and setting for tycoon-style management mechanics, Dungeon Keeper’s dungeon sprawling, minion tasking, and “Evil Overseer” vantage-point, Bullfrog’s tongue-in-cheek use of humour, and Dwarf Fortress’ fortress design creativity and emergent gameplay. In the course of PA’s development, these three landmark titles have been referenced over and over again in Introversion’s Alpha release videos and on the PA dev wiki, attesting to their importance in the development process.

Why does this matter? In an industry busy rehashing the same old “innovations”, Introversion tempered its entrepreneur’s gamble with a revamping of some of the best PC God games of the past two decades, ensuring it had strong design footing for the protracted game development that lay ahead.

Ingredient # 2 – Leverage your crowdfunding strategy with a topical game.

Developers wishing to replicate Introversion’s success will have to consider the many factors behind this success: reputation, timing, smart use of PR, a tailor-made crowd-funding formula, and a development cycle that rewards early access users with regular scheduled updates, etc.

And a lot of special sauce.

Here’s where things get interesting. This build-your-own prison toy is a runaway hit. We’ve mentioned the specific business and design factors that have gone into the early access version of the game, and yet they don’t, by themselves, explain the Prison Architect phenomenon.

The secret behind this phenomenon, in my opinion, lies in the “mindset” that the game enables.

In the first article of this series, we looked at the flaws and resistances to prison-themed games in the Tycoon genre. We saw how the prison theme as a simulated business enterprise provoked negative reactions, because of the focus on management and profitability in Tycoon games. With PA, the theme somehow becomes more palatable. Despite being more controversial in its content than titles from the Prison Tycoon series, PA has been generally seen as thought provoking instead of being in bad taste. Why is that?

In my opinion, this is because PA lets the players define the scope of controversy around prison management, as they wish to approach it.

Prison Architect Deployment View
Prison Architect Deployment View

As with any simulation, the scope of play in PA is bounded within a particular model of prisons that exclude “externalities” – in this case: civilian life, the court system, politics, and criminal activity itself. The single road that traverses the sandbox vertically represents the conceptual limits of the simulation: whatever comes into the playspace is part of the model, whatever leaves it, leaves the game, “into society”.

Out of sight, out of mind?

Within the bounds of the model, the player is basically left to discover the inner workings of the prison microcosm. The player’s choice of grants provide short- mid-term objectives to help prioritize construction and regime management choices, against which the game system will push back in a set of overlapping feedback loops: construction tasking, schedule and activities, and NPC behaviours. Later on, when prison operations reach a certain scale, the player may begin to express his/her ethical preferences in prison regime and policy. Are we aiming for a facility that punishes high-risk inmates, or a regime that encourages prisoner reform and rehabilitation?

Less a prison, more like a fishing net with a huge hole in it.
Less a prison, more like a fishing net with a huge hole in it.

Prison grading metrics and failure conditions (new in Alpha 20) provide aggregate benchmarks against which a player must measure his/her facility design and prison management: Punishment, Reform, Security and Health. Somewhere between micromanagement and high-level policy, each player thus carves out his/her own unique “path of controversy”, different for each prison, and even each play session.

This interplay between micro and macro views in PA, with the added element of extreme time compression, is what gives the game its unique identity, somewhere between simulation and art.

Ingredient # 3 – Blur genres, or invent new ones.

Prison Architect is a simulation. Prison Architect is a comedy game. Prison Architect is a tool for activists. Prison Architect is… a new visual art form?

There is an inherent difficulty to critiquing video games, which have to do with assessing games as cultural objects. In How To Do Things with Videogames (2011), Ian Bogost employs the media ecologist’s toolkit to look at the “uses” of play from a broader cultural perspective. According to Bogost, we play videogames to experience Art, Empathy, Reverence, Pranks, Transit, Kitsch, Relaxation, Titillation, etc. to name but a few of his explorations.

Videogames are finite programmatic experiences that lend themselves to tightly bound, yet infinitely varied, recursive play. In turn, what meaning we ascribe to this play, Bogost argues, can end up subverting the content and mechanics of the game.

In the case of PA, we have, strictly speaking, a sandbox-type builder game, with Dwarf-Fortress-like management mechanics, with a prison theme to contextualize the player’s experience. Yet, you only have to visit the Steam Workshop and look at the published mods and Prisons to see another side of PA: the creativity of the “architects”.

Or should I say painters? Like machinimists, Hardcore PA fans derive much aesthetic pleasure in their elaborate creations. By including a time-lapse feature into their first shipped Alpha, Introversion was no doubt aware that this dimension of gameplay would be a key attraction to many players.



(For a couple of other nice examples with sound, try DominArsen and yawnRepetition).

So if grandmothers still make beautifully elaborate macramé and quaint landscape paintings, their grandsons today paint live miniature digital prisons, with a similar artist’s sensibility.

Ingredient # 4 – Take conscious control of what your mechanics “say”.

Now, of course, this is an interesting phenomenon in itself. But you can only amuse yourself with your Sim paintbrush for so long before someone comes around to point out the connection between signifier and signified.

Prison Architect is not a painting application. It’s a Sim-type game about prisons. And the team at Introversion have thought long and hard about the implications of their chosen topic.

This is not to say that the game wasn’t open to distorting the reality of prisons, and prison life: it’s a simulation. In a December 2013 Kotaku article video game designer and art activist Paolo Pedercini wrote an incisive article about PA and its mechanics, in the hopes that the developers would ship a game that wasn’t a one-dimensional take on prisons.

Introversion took note of this discussion, and even published a considered video response to the article, giving their take on each issue presented in the article.

If 2013 was the year where the key game systems were put in place, 2014 is looking like the year where the bounds of the simulation are to be addressed. We have seen a number of features implemented since early 2014 that give depth and dimensionality to NPCs, objectives and prison management. From the weapon options of guards, to prisoner experience profiles, reform and training programs, prison financing and profiteering, and the new prison grading and failure conditions, PA is headed for more granular depth, structural clarity and controversy into the foreseeable future.

How will the game ultimately treat the topic of punishment and reform? How will the “real society” that is external to the simulation come to impact the game’s prison microcosm? These questions are likely to remain unanswered for some time still, as Introversion’s successful “early access” campaign has made it possible to continue to implement major features in the game with no definite release date in the foreseeable future.

Ingredient # 5 – Face the Zeitgeist. Escape it.

Finally, we look at what goes into Prison Architect’s secret sauce.

To be sure, there’s nothing fundamentally amiss in what we outlined above. But there is one key point about PA that we haven’t looked at yet.

And that would be you, Mr. Sim, playing a game about you, on your computer. And millions of other Sims doing the same thing, too.

In fact, the whole PA phenomenon was prefigured by another blastingly famous “prison” Sim: The Sims.

The Sims 3: Build it, and they will come.
The Sims 3: Build it, and they will come.

If that sounds a little counterintuitive, consider philosopher Matthieu Triclot’s account of playing The Sims:

The Sims is based on a dynamic, interconnected system of parameters: status bars that express basic needs and character satisfaction (food, sleep, comfort, but also social relations, entertainment, etc.). A Sim is but a hub of indicators, and every object in the game world a set of parameters. The game consists of nothing other than groping around for an optimum: the greatest possible satisfaction for my Sims through the suitable objects and activities. You can always plug in a cheat for quick results; nevertheless, as soon as you enter the logic of the game, it is impossible not to follow the dictates of indicators, respond to alerts, and aim to maximize happiness, profits, friends, and love. You may well try to sabotage your Sim: when you finally succeed, the game simply stops dead in its tracks.

The Sims does in a small way what computers do in a big way: take any situation, reduce it to a neat set of data and parameter and manipulate remote actors based on all available information. The game is not just a metaphor for how information passes through us, but as an invitation to practice, to experiment with new definitions of the self. Which Sims player has never considered his/her own life, after a game session, as a set of parameters to be met? That which is not number has no name; that which is not number does not exist. In the act of playing The Sims, I am imperceptibly transformed into human capital.” (Triclot, 2011)

If this sounds suspiciously like the Quantified Self, it’s because we’ve been staring at The Sims for so long that the game has come true. And unlike past forms of surveillance, our Brave New World of user-centered technology will be the first regime of surveillance that is truly total, made possible through our consent.

Why, and how, did we buy in to it? Could we not see our becoming-Sims, the millions of us who have played the game?

One of the core assumptions of the Quantified Self, lies in the so-called “objectivity” of biometric data, a “true picture” of one’s biological patterns and life habits, which one can then, with personal biases “removed”, leverage into powerful self-knowledge and action. Intimate tracking technologies (i.e. your smart phone) thus begin to resemble the “needs metrics” as originally devised in Sim-type games, such as The Sims, and of course, in PA.


Within this rigid and unquestioning view of our technological selves, how then, as Bogost suggests, could we “use” Prison Architect as a tool for liberation?

I will end by saying that we should play Prison Architect the way some of us play The Sims: darkly. Play to create dazzling prison complexes, and then play to fail spectacularly. The Sims might well let you harbour the illusion of autonomy and consent on your way to self-objectification, Prison Architect will not. The only moment you will experience direct control is when you will have failed in your prison experiment. You will then be inserted into your running prison complex as a hapless little inmate, inextricably tied to the regime you have not only “consented” to, but also endeavoured to build to high levels of art.

Then, and only then, will your true needs escape quantification. But it will be too late. The ultimate blending of genres: Life, and Prison. Thank you, Prison Architect.



Bogost, Ian, How To Do Things with Videogames, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Triclot, Matthieu, Philosophie des jeux vidéos, Éditions Zones, 2011.

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