'Prison Architect' Has No Room for Political Action

'Prison Architect' models building well, but it fails to strike at a system that routinely abuses prisoners' rights.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d7pw7x/prison-architect-has-no-room-for-political-action
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An excellent piece!

I also think that Prison Architect misses the mark in a lot of ways, but my feelings are less informed by a wider discourse about prisons and more from a very specific gameplay experience I had.

I played the game during the public alpha, and it was a strange experience. Most of the “upgrades” weren’t in the game, and it was mostly a building simulator with some light goals. You imported prisoners, attempted to make a profit off of them, and tried to run the prison to the best of your ability. To be clear, that’s mostly what the game is now.

However, during this early release, it was impossible to turn a profit. Without the ability to use prisoners as functional indentured servants, eventually the cost of running the prison became so high that every inmate who was brought to the prison was essentially a debt that the prison was taking on.

This is obviously not intentional. It’s a glitch, or a case of a system that wasn’t developed far enough for actual gameplay. But it was also the most interesting thing that Prison Architect could say about prisons.

In that alpha state, the game was accidentally making the compelling argument that prisons only work in the United States because of a heavy influx of capital from a wide array of actors. This is the carceral state that this week is all about at Waypoint – there is a wide alliance of money, groups with power, legislators, and public interest the keep prisons afloat in modes that do not originate in the prison itself.

Prisons are a product of both a society and its economic relations, and what the “broken” alpha demonstrated is that you cannot abstract one single prison from this wider set of conditions in the social world. There are no prisons; there is a carceral state with individual manifestations.

But, of course, that was all on accident. The game turned toward final release, the inevitable failure that existed in the alpha was “solved,” and now we have a game that argues for the social and economic benefit of prisons. Just what we needed.


reading this has made me suddenly very interested in seeing a game like Prison Architect but set in country without private for-profit prisons where the philosophy of corrections is more in line with what I would argue is correct and humane.

Imagine Prison Architect but you’re state funded. your loss condition is not looming bankruptcy as in most Tycoon games but rather being shut down by the government. maybe your funding is partly dependant on how successfully the government things you are running your prison. Instead of the goal being to milk as much money from each prisoner as possible you are trying to actually rehabilitate inmates, provide effective addiction counselling, build a prison that trains healthy, functioning members of society with the goal of reducing recrimination and increasing successful paroles and reduced sentences… I’d be very interested in seeing what a game like that would look like.


I am huge fan of Inroversion, and of the two main influences on Prison Architect, which are the classic Bullfrog tycoon/‘Theme’ games and Dwarf Fortress. I’ve followed PA all the way through early access and post-release, I’ve put more than 100 hours in to it in that time.

I’ve also watched all of the developer diaries posted by the game’s designer and producer, and I have been consistently impressed with how thoughtful they have been about the subject matter of their game, and how nuanced their own views on incarceration are. When Waypoint first put up this article I enjoyed it but there were a few things in it that didn’t really ring true for me as someone who had played a lot of the game, particularly the discussion of forced/coerced prison labour, which seemed out of place because the prison jobs in PA are all presented as being voluntary and optional for inmates.

In the Prison Architect Dev Diary that went up following the initial publication of this article, the game’s designer and producer actually discussed it in great depth and showed once again that they are taking the subject matter of their game seriously: https://youtu.be/ciTkI6FqZqw?t=662

I am pretty disappointed that Waypoint decided to republish this article completely as-is without engaging with Mark Morris and Chris Delay, since it seems pretty clear that they are willing to talk about this kind of thing, and because they took issue with some of the points made in the article.

As an aside, I will note that one of the most recent feature updates to the game gave prison staff the ability to strike if they are neglected for long enough, although prisoner strikes are still not in the game.

To respond to your specific point BananaSam, Prison Architect is a sandbox game, so if you want to make a prison that focuses on rehabilitation and minimizing re-offending rates you can absolutely do that. There are mechanics in the game that support this approach, and running such a prison is definitely feasible within the monetary constraints that are placed on you. This is one of the places that the Dwarf Fortress influence really shines through: Prison Architect has no ‘win’ conditions, only failure states.

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It’s a bit odd to not just add a quick link to Introversion’s youtube response that the above poster wrote, either in the article or the forum post if you were going to republish it. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with their response, it’s at least worth letting people know that a response does exist, I think.

Also I don’t think every game ever made can be expected to fully consider the American cultural context of its mechanics if it isn’t made by Americans, unless that’s the specific aim from the beginning. Sometimes I feel like we get games from all over the world, but the criticism is still so focused on the American context. I’d love to see a similar piece analysing Prison Architect from a British POV.

At this point I have to assume that somehow no-one at Waypoint has seen the Introversion response to their article. It seems odd that word of it has never reached them, but the alternative is that they know about it and simply don’t care, which would be rather out of character for what this website is trying to do. If you think the subject matter of an article is interesting enough that it is worth publishing twice, you should be engaged enough to at least acknowledge the discourse (dot zone) that was triggered by the initial publication, even if you don’t respond to it.

I’mma bump this one more time cos it’s Monday and I would still really like SOMEONE at Waypoint to have seen Introversion’s response. I rarely wish I was on Twitter but this is one of those times.

Hi there!

While we really appreciate the perspective in your post, bumping the thread in this manner to garner attention from Waypoint staff for a response isn’t appropriate as mentioned by Rule 3 in our Rules and Code of Conduct for the forum. We, nor can anyone, force staff members to take notice of comments on their pieces unless they choose to do so out of their own volition. The same can be said for any response made by them in regards to it.

Thank you for understanding!

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