Prison Architect and Dehumanisation in Games

So, this last week I returned to a game I first played in 2015. Prison Architect is a management simulation game where you run all aspects of a prison. The game might be comparable to games like SimCity or Cities Skylines on a much smaller and more violent scale. The game represents figures in the world in a style akin to stick figures. Initially, when I played Prison Architect I was very particular about caring for individual prisoners. I think I even had a good sense of prisoner names and the troublemakers. Now I treat them a bit like cattle in an abattoir. So that’s what I wanted to talk about. When is a human not a human in games?

Games are in a fascinating position. In a game, you can occupy a person’s mind absolutely. They can be a fantastic tool for empathy because you can embody a figure and have their actions be your actions. On the other hand, they have an incredible capacity to dehumanise the world around the player as if the world is made of cardboard and you’re the only real person. For example, Stardew Valley is set in a town with a host of interesting characters. Each has their own story and their own likes and dislikes. However, you can become friends with everyone by simply finding what they enjoy, mass producing it, and gifting it. This can feel very transaction like. Give x, receive friendship. Although I will say, if someone presented me with my favourite meal every day I’d enjoy that person’s company. This dichotomy in Stardew Valley can lead you to feel like Truman as he realises his world is totally fabricated.

In contrast, I’ve been watching a playthrough of Undertale recently. Undertale is a game about a human who traverses the underground and encounters various monsters. There is the option to fight or befriend the monsters. The world of Undertale presents this world where humans kill monsters and thus your position as a lost human presents an interesting perspective when it comes to the paths laid out in front of you. In Undertale, the trick to befriending the monsters is by learning what they’re interested in and using the correct actions to avoid killing them in the game. Every type of monster has a distinct personality. Perhaps why the game was so popular was because it played against the typical RPG experience of kill monsters, get loot.

Looking at traditional experiences in genres, there was a period of time in triple-A games where you played Soldier Joe and your job was to kill the evil foreigners. When I get around to playing those older games, I might delve into first-person shooters and their relationship with the war on terror. Anyway, out of this grew a subset of the genre. The Far Cry series and the Just Cause series share some DNA, at least in terms of setting. Far Cry 3 and Just Cause 2 are notable as you’re a foreigner dropped into an environment and find yourself embroiled in the local conflict. In Far Cry 3, you fight Vas and his pirates. You play as Jason Brody, a rich kid who got stuck on the island after drunken rich people partying went awry.

In these games, you’ll fight waves of people native to the world while you are an outsider. You could fight these enemies endlessly. My point is not to shame anybody for liking these games. However, it’s worth thinking about how we relate to the NPCs in this world and how playing a game where you are the only person with autonomy and agency can shape your worldview if you play enough of these games and are susceptible to this idea.

Returning to Prison Architect, it occupies an interesting space in games. It might be described as a ‘god game’. These games are where you oversee a world of people and interact using only your tools. Operating this prison puts me in mind of two strange things. First is the TV show Prison Break, which I watched for a couple of seasons. That is my main point of connection to prison, a TV show where the heroes fight against a massive conspiracy to put a lady President in power. The initial season and Michael’s attempts to escape prison are put into my head whenever I discover a tunnel or garden shears in my game. The second is Foucault’s idea of the Panopticon.

The Panopticon was originally conceived as a prison concept. A prison where every prison was always in sight of a singular tower. This created a situation where the prisoner may be observed at any time and would then theoretically acts as if they were always being watched. Foucault used this idea to talk about the nature of power and how institutions employ the same mindset of constant vigilance to decrease deviance. After all, in Prison Architect I am the all-seeing eye of God overseeing hundreds of prisoners and half as many guards. Am I the Panopticon?

You might have guessed where all this is leading. I chose to look at the way games skew in favour of the individual because I believe there are some disturbing trends amongst the community of those who play games. Movements like GamerGate and other harassment engines that spawn out of games come out of the way many games establish conflict. The individualist nature of games can influence those who are predisposed to see the world as an extension of games. Not full of thinking, feeling people but full of cardboard NPCs. The anonymising on the Internet certainly plays into that. I struggle to think of a solution to this. We could create games that create a deep empathy but there will always be a safe game for these people to return to. I think about how I could very easily have become one of these gamergate folks. The world at one point seemed to be made of cardboard to me. What pulled me out of it? I was exposed to ideas outside my previous understanding of the world. When I acted shittily, people I cared for expedited me out of their life. People digging deep in on my flaws and shaming me for them caused some real introspection. Maybe harsh words from someone you trust is what people need to expand their horizons.

 

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