Prison Architect for education (Think:games blog #6)

This blog post will be a short discussion of a specific game, namely the prison simulator Prison Architect by Introversion Software. Because I don’t know yet whether there’s enough to it for a complete article, I’ll keep it short and describe two ways I think it could be used in education.

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Prison Architect
Prison Architect, like its name suggests, lets you build but also maintain your own prison. The choice whether this is a male or female, large or small, low or high security prison is up to you. The game offers you a lot of freedom, but is a proper simulator in the sense that it has much of the complexity of real prisons to it. While the game was not meant as a completely accurate simulation, this great article by Motherboard explains what makes it so real anyway:

the similarities to real prisons are a result of the deep systems in the simulation. These include everything from the electrical grid, to guard salaries, to prisoners’ basic need (…). If you simulate enough systems with enough depth, and add a profit incentive, you end up with something that’s hauntingly real.

With ‘hauntingly’, the author refers to the fact that if you want to get the cash flowing, the best thing to do is take on thousands of prisoners, lock them all in isolation, and don’t waste time and money on extra facilities. The main drill is making choices with the limited amount of money you have, and finding out sooner than you’d like that the perfect prison can’t be made. The Motherboard article demonstrates this point:

When I asked Sperry for tips on how to build the most humane prison possible, he said that I’d have to change the entire criminal justice system first.

In this sense the game is surprisingly realistic. The figures representing prisoners may at some point make you think of their real world counterparts, stuck in an institution that has the same budget questions (more cell space or more fence?) as you, playing the game. It may even get you wondering what prisons are for again.

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Your cells have minimum requirements for size… Unless you hire a lawyer and pay him enough, then you can confine them to small solitary cells permanently.

Education about prisons
The basic educational potential of this game occurred to me quite quickly, because I realised I didn’t actually know a lot about prisons, and even less from my time in school. Like it or not, prisons are one of the most important institutions of society. Yet most people have no clue what it’s like “on the inside”. What kind of facilities does a prison have? How is a prison funded? What happens when you break the law when you’re already in prison? These are questions about basic facts about prisons, the answers to which I didn’t get in school, but which you’ll pick up quickly when playing Prison Architect.

Discussing the social and ethical dimensions of prisons
In many classes, including but definitely not limited to social studies and philosophy, you’ll have opportunities for debate, and prisons as a subject will get the discussion going for sure. Studies keep showing the adverse affects of prisons as punishment, but the institution largely remains in place because of the popular image of justice being served. Since its role in society is so large, and its use so debated, it will be a good subject to discuss with students. I know teachers who already do this, but use prison movies (The Shawshank Redemption, Hunger) to get the discussion started. Prison Architect could serve a similar purpose, because it shows the complexity of effects prison policies can have on prisoners (including their reoffending rate), and has many of the same reocurring problems as real prisons.

Do you agree that discussing prisons in class is a good idea? Do you see use for the game Prison Architect for this or for another education purpose? Let me know in the comments!

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