The punishment and rehabilitation of the convicted in prison video games

A review of two studies on prison video games.

I bought Prison Architect from Steam's Holiday Sale, although that was shortly after I saw a study on Prison Tycoon written by Anna Oleszkiewicz (University of Wroclaw) and company. A few weeks later, another academic article on prison video games showed up, written by criminologists Steven Downing (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) and Kristine Levan (University of Idaho). The article specifically examined Prison Architect's alpha development. Piqued by these articles, I started playing Prison Architect before I delved into the articles and I needed a lot of rest after serving a sentence called the dissertation.

The Alpha phase of Prison Architect

Downing and Levan got interested in Prison Architect when someone posted this question in the game's forum: "Is supporting it by buying this game really ethical? Not to mention the whole victimless crime issue?" To the authors, the question prompted the idea that video games could potentially engage people on social/political issues. Specifically, Prison Architect players could play it seriously and critically discuss about incarceration and of the current prison system in the US.

The authors decided to analyze the developers' videos during the development stage, from Alpha 1 to Alpha 23 (September 26 2012 - July 31 2014). The researchers got to stop at some point, who could predict when the developers will complete the game? The alpha videos gave the authors insights about the developers' thoughts about incarceration, their motives in adding or not adding features in the game, and responding to critiques from players and journalists. This is evidenced by Wesley Yin-Poole in Eurogamer (2012) and Paolo Pedercini in Kotaku (2014).

The authors examined the developer's videos in how Prison Architect reflect the five pains of imprisonment theorized by criminologist Gresham Sykes. (1) Deprivation of liberty: Given that the prisoners' freedom have been taken away, they can be even restricted further into their cells, by the presence of armed guards and solitary confinement at the discretion of the player, making the prisoners' compliant, but moving more slowly and less likely to complete reform programs. Another reflection are contacts with the outside world, such as telephone calls, mail and famil visitations, lessening the deprivation of liberty. I should point out that prisoners' needs for freedom and family reflect such deprivation.

(2) Deprivation of goods and services: The players' decisions in attending or not the prisoners' needs, such as bowel, clothing, recreation, exercise among others, reflect such deprivation. The basics in Prison Architect is to provide shelter/incarceration, food, and toiletry. Anything beyond these needs are perceived as privileges, which is reflective when I noticed that certain random events in the game would have the mayor ordering players to remove certain items because of public opinion. These random events point out how prisons face political pressure and its impact on prisoners, something worth to expand on in the game with other political forces, such as prisoners' rights groups or scientific groups. The authors' noted that the developers want to give players freedom in how they run their prisons reflective in the policy reports, such as how much time in solitary confinement. An interesting observation from the authors are inmates who are paroled or finished their sentence, they leave in their prison clothes. Although, the developers had earlier thought of having inmates leaving in their civilian clothing, the authors noted that leaving in prison clothing is symbolic of their continued identity as convicts from the community.

(3) Deprivation of heterosexual relationships: The authors found very few mentions of heterosexual relationships, such as relationship with a heterosexual partner. It seems to be a very contentious area for the developers IMO. When asked by Wesley Yin-Poole in Eurogamer (2012) about the inclusion of sexual assault, the developers did not include as it might be a step too far. The authors noted that homosexual relations were not directly discussed in the developer videos. Nevertheless, the developers made the game with good modding capabilities that lets players address these issues, such as a modded conjugal room.

(4) Deprivation of autonomy: The surveillance and the concept of the panopticon in Prison Architect reflect the deprivation of autonomy. The surveillance impacts prisoners' sense of autonomy as they're being watched, leaving little room for privacy. The prisoners' activities are controlled by prison regime set by players. The regime can be used to punish or provide rehabilitation through workshops, education, or therapy. Pedercini (2014) remarked the use of prison labor as a contemporary form of slavery, but from a different perspective, the developers argue that workshops provide skillsets when prisoners are released.  

(5) Deprivation of security: This relate to whether the prisoners feel safe from each other, the most salient are prisoners' reputation that makes them targets of violence (i.e. snitch, ex law enforcement, ex prison guards and cop killer). The authors mentioned gang affiliation as a factor and Prison Architect implemented such feature in Alpha 34. An interesting observation from the authors is how cell blocks are structured, certain designs may foster greater sense of security through a better relationship between prisoners and their guards.

The authors noted how well the game pay details to rehabilitation in the game, they suggested further exploring into other real life prison practices. First, the exploration of restorative justice practices. The practices involved rebuilding inmates relationship with the community, such as visitations from victims and the community at large. Another suggestion is form the Alternatives to Violence Project which are workshops on conflict resolution and communication skills. Given how moddable the game is, these real life practices would be interesting for players to create and share in the steam workshop.

I have contacted Downing and Levan on their thoughts of the recent inclusion of female prisoners in the game. Downing praised the inclusion as more than a re-skin and that the developers have tapped into some of the real life issues for female prisoners. Furthermore, I would be interested in how the developers deal with long-term incarceration and aging. As of this writing, the inmates do not age, thus they fully serve their sentence and return to the community. How do players deal with elderly inmates who die in their prisons and to have not step back into the community is something worth to talk about. Levan rightly added that prisons would have to deal with increasing medical care and costs as a reflection of caring aging inmates.

Levan posed an interesting question is "What is a successful prison?" Levan thinks that many would say success is from rehabilitation of inmates and providing meaningful opportunities. But the realities of US prisons of warehousing large numbers of inmates makes rehabilitation more difficult and expensive.

Downing  posed an interesting question is whether Prison Architect could evoke sympathy to prisoners? "Would it be better to have students, for example, play a game that is graphically realistic and involves more role playing - would this evoke more empathy?  What about teaching people to consider structural and institutional problems - could a macro-level, top-down perspective, like in PA, be best for this?  We don't know, but these questions could be empirically explored."

The player-warden's personality and their treatment of digital inmates

Whether Prison Architect evoke sympathy to prisoners is an interesting question and how players manage their prisons might reflect their attitudes towards inmates.  Given that Prison Architect and the Prison Tycoon series are management games, these games give considerable freedom in creating prisons and managing inmates, from a rehabilitative-focused to a punitive-focused prison.

Anna Oleszkiewicz (University of Wroclaw) and company examined the relationship between people's personality and their play patterns in Prison Tycoon. The personality factors they examined is the Five-Factor Model of personality, the model with Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism or OCEAN. There were a few studies that found a relationship between OCEAN and attitudes towards criminal justice, such as Openness among men and Agreeableness among women negatively correlated with support to the death penalty. Whether such relations exist from people's play pattern in a prison management game is what Oleszkiewicz and company undertook.

The authors had 90 Polish participants (42 men, 48 women; average age is 29) come play Prison Tycoon 2: Maximum Security. The participants were given a tutorial on the game and afterwards they were instructed to build a prison with an initial budget of 100,000 $, for 50 inmates in one hour. The initial budget was not enough to build all buildings, so the participants had to prioritize what to build.

The researchers categorized the buildings into three: rehabilitation (e.g. playgrounds, exercise yards, education, training, health centers, factory, and multipurpose amenities), punishment (e.g., fences, gates, surveillance, buildings for prison guards, armories, security, and dog kennels), and neutral (e.g., dorms, administration, cell blocks, and canteens). The researchers counted how much the participants spent on these buildings.

When their play time is over, the participants completed the 60-item NEO-FFI which assessed their OCEAN personality.


The authors did found any effects from gender or age on personality nor on their play patterns. They did found significant correlations between Neuroticism (r = .27, p < .01) and Openness to Experience (r = .32, p < .01) with expenses on rehabilitation. Conversely, they found a negative correlation with expenses on punishment, Neuroticism (r = -.24, p < .05) and Openness to Experience (r = -.23, p < .05).

They conducted further analyses with regression analyses by inputting OCEAN together as predictors. Their results for expenses on rehabilitation found Neuroticism and Openness to Experience as significant positive predictors. However, Neuroticism was the sole significant negative predictor for expenses on punishment.


The results supported previous findings in that people high in Openness to Experience held less positive attitudes towards harsh punishment. The authors argued that open people are more likely to believe that other people can change, which may explain why they build rehabilitation buildings. As for Neuroticism, previous studies have mixed findings about its direction on criminal justice, some found that it predicted greater support for harsh punishment and rehabilitation, lower support for capital punishment. The authors argued that people high in Neuroticism were more likely to support what others believe in rather than their own personal beliefs.

The study is pretty simple and I think it's a good step in assessing how people would want to treat prisoners. How their actions in prison games reflect their attitudes towards criminal justice remains to be seen. A limitation of  the study did not assessed participants' attitudes towards criminal justice, such as whether they support rehabilitation, punishment, prevention policies. Other factors to consider include political ideology, education, exposure to news, crime dramas and reality cop shows, their fear of crime among others (see Rosenberger & Callanan, 2012; Kort-Butler & Hartshorn, 2011).

I have spent a good amount of time playing Prison Architect, although I have yet to play a prison with gangs, just need more money to build a big complex. I can see a lot of ways that researchers can use Prison Architect in correlating people's attitudes and beliefs towards inmates with in-game behaviors and metrics. So this is going to be a bit random. Treatment of minimum, medium vs. max-security prisoners. Do players treat max-security differently from min-security and how so? How about protective custody prisoners? Do some player-wardens don't care if a prisoner was killed, if there was no penalty? Something that Downing and Levan mentioned is the player-wardens' cell block designs as some real life designs make prison life easier or harder. So how big or small the cells are, what about amenities, like TVs in cells. How they treat female prisoners? How often do wardens search prisoners for contraband and how do they punish them? Which player-wardens construct the electric chair and execute a death row inmate?  The allocation of time in their regime, say free time, lockup, work, etc. I am going to stop now and end with an observation from my playthrough: I want to parole as many prisoners as possible with all of the reform programs I can spend and I have not changed the parole settings (it's at the default setting), because I get money for paroling inmates and it frees up space for more prisoners, at this point it seems that I have revolving door thinking of prison management. I also get a lot of thrills in catching prisoners digging escape tunnels during the night.


Downing, S., & Levan, K. (2015). Pains of imprisonment in a ” lock em' up” video game: implications for a peacemaking discourse through new media experiences. Contemporary Justice Review, (pp. 1-21).  DOI: 10.1080/10282580.2015.1101690

Kort-Butler, L. A., & Hartshorn, K. J. S. (2011). Watching the detectives: Crime programming, fear of crime, and attitudes about the criminal justice system. Sociological Quarterly, 52 (1), 36-55. DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2010.01191.x

Oleszkiewicz, A., Kanonowicz, M., Sorokowski, P., & Sorokowska, A. (2015). Attitudes toward punishment and rehabilitation as perceived through playing a prison tycoon game. Games and Culture, (pp. 1555412015618818+). DOI: 10.1177/1555412015618818

Rosenberger, J. S., & Callanan, V. J. (2012). The influence of media on penal attitudes. Criminal Justice Review, 36 (4), 435-455. DOI: 10.1177/0734016811428779

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