For those behind bars, video games are a rare but welcome escape

A new essay published on Longreads explores the value video games hold for prison inmates past and present, as well as some of the quandaries that come from letting prisoners play escapist games.
"I do get so focused that I lose myself in the game…I do forget that I am in prison for a short period of time but can’t stay out of focus for too long because of the unpredictable nature of where I’m at (in prison.)"

- Ed, who's serving ten years in prison for possession of a stolen firearm.

Games are often designed to help players escape into worlds with new places to explore and systems to master. So is it a good idea to let prisoners play or design them, when part of the reason we imprison someone is to keep them from going anywhere? 

That's part of what's addressed in The Art of Escape, a Longreads Exclusive essay from writer Ryan Bradley that explores what games mean to people serving prison terms. It's a rare look at how prisoners past and present relate to games, especially valuable to developers insofar as part of the art of making games is knowing who's playing them and why. 

According to Bradley, most people in correctional facilities aren't playing video games, though the reasons for why aren't especially clear in light of the fact that sports and other physical games are typically allowed.

"I don't know why they don't," parolee Brendan Jay told Bradley, recalling how games weren't made available during his time behind bars. "It would be so helpful. To cope. To maybe feel not normal but not, there."

One inmate who Bradley spoke to was allowed to play games by signing up for a computer class and coming into the computer room at off-hours, which he proceeded to do on a regular basis despite the fact that none of the computers had Internet access or contemporary games.

"I usually use the computer to play games for a couple hours a day. Usually but sometimes more if I have spare time," the prisoner, described simply as Ed, wrote to Bradley. "They are educational but so what...we're both escaping something."

You can (and should) check out the rest of the essay over on the Longreads website.

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