You’d think after the years of games about murder, warfare, genocide, alien invasion and all that jazz that a game about prisons could slip by without comment, but no.
A preview of Prison Architect, a sim-management game where you have to design and maintain a prison, drew all kind of interesting comments like:
“I’m honestly shocked at the pass this game is getting from the press. […] I don’t see much of difference between making this game and making Theme Auschwitz.”
i saw dasein on RPS
Many modern games are violence-filled, narrow-minded murder simulators in which you gun down hundreds of enemies and innocents alike in the course of a level – so what makes a game about a prison so controversial?
Maybe it depends on your attitude to prisons: are they places where evil people should go to die, or are they places where people who are a danger to themselves and others be kept while they’re rehabilitated? Do people who’ve broken the law deserve a second chance?
Should your virtual prison be a hellhole where the strong prey on the weak, or a place where even the most depraved child molester can feel safe?
Most modern games don’t give you that kind of moral choice. GTA has a big, open world where you can just about choose who to work for, but there’s no moral judgement about what goes on – you can shag a prostitute in a dingy alley then beat her to death with a bat and steal her money and the game passes no judgement.
Mass Effect lets you make decisions about what to say to who, but the far-flung nature of the setting means that those decisions only really matter in the game; there’s nothing to make you think about how what you did might affect other people in the real world.
FPS games are even worse; you’re generally a one-man killing machine scything down hordes of Germans, Japanese, Russians or whatever flavour of generic Arabic-looking “insurgents” are the enemy du-jour with nary a thought for the consequences of your actions.
You’re literally only following orders, a theme that’s personified as much in the endless unimaginative linear corridors and set-pieces as it is when your cipher character receives his next objective via video comlink from four-star General Brasstacks McShouty. You shoot people because that’s what you’re there for; stopping to think will only get you killed.
Maybe modern shooters would be better if you had to think about whether cluster-bombing a small town is a good thing, but it seems like a lot of people have a blind spot for war when it comes to unacceptable behaviour. If the too-close-to-home setting and theme of Prison Architect makes you stop and think about what you’re doing – and what that would mean in the real world – then great.
The story – the why – of games is very easily pushed out by gameplay. When you’re shooting virtual insurgents in the wilds of Afghanistan it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re even there in the first place; much like in real life, I‘d imagine.
I’m all in favour of games that actually make you think about things, or push you out of your comfort zone, as long as they’re still fun. Games have potential to be so much more than the facile, thoughtless sofa-bound entertainment that modern games so often are.
It’s encouraging that Introversion, the small indie dev behind others games like DefCon, have form for making stylistic, thought-provoking games about difficult subjects. If Prison Architect can make people think again about a serious subject like prisons while still being fun then I’m all for it.