Last week, Waypoint focussed on the intersections between gaming and prison in the US, with our At Play in the Carceral State series. Our good friends at Critical Distance wished to complement that today, with selected articles from the last few months that have, in different ways, explored relationships between game development and the prison system.
Some of this is writing about games that represent the criminal justice system, such as Virginia and Prison Architect. But there have also been interventions by players to incorporate jails as part of their own unique play style, such as prison servers in Minecraft, or playground games where children pretend to be undocumented immigrants.
Journalists have also profiled developers who work with children in juvenile detention centers, teaching them how to make games and use them as a creative outlet. For some, games offer a way of showing other people how they became incarcerated. For others, it's a medium for rebellion.
Last year, in a fascinating piece of investigative games journalism, Robert Guthrie uncovered the authoritarian ambitions that drive participation in highly-controlled Minecraft servers.
"[P]rison servers aren't so much giving you a "prison" experience as, well, a sort of savagely objectivist one. Prison servers present a world where the richest wield essentially unlimited power and everyone else strives to join their ranks. This is reinforced not only by the in-game mechanics of the mines, but also by the donator structure that makes it essentially impossible to advance and compete without opening up your wallet."
In December, Reid McCarter examined techniques used in Virginia to symbolize oppression and resistance, including surrealist imagery and bureaucratic language.
"There are many reasons Virginia ends up falling short as a truly impressive discussion of this topic, but most pressing is its decision, as this montage ends, to cut to credits. Having established the scale of a tremendous, vital problem, the game ends apparently content to leave its audience reeling in confusion, apathy. This isn't enough. Right now, it's of increasing importance that we do more than throw up our hands at the enormity of systematic failures and resign ourselves to cynical indifference."
In March, Nathan Grayson spoke with educator Dana Ruggiero about her work using games education to empower youth offenders to cope with the strict systems they live within.
"[The prompt is], 'Can you create a game about a social issue that led to you being in prison, and can you make this for somebody younger than you?'" said Ruggiero. "We tend to motivate them by saying, 'Think of your younger cousins. Think of your younger brothers and sisters. What would you want to teach them about the reason that you're here that would help them not make the same mistakes you would make?'"
Henrique Antero uncovered an astonishing story about games, art, education, and anticaptialism in Brazil; part of this story concerns how teaching in a youth detention center has affected the radical game design of Pedro Paiva.
"Pedro Paiva told me that one of his students, in a playful mood, once said that he would distribute the games he was making while drug-dealing. I thought it was a funny scene. The administrative personnel weren't so appreciative of the project's humor, though. One day a police officer entered Pedro Paiva's class without notice. "
"The fact that the game so easily combines reform and suppression in the interest of profit shows how the logic of rehabilitation is used to justify prisons as a fundamentally necessary part of our existence, like air. The punishment versus rehabilitation dichotomy of Prison Architect dismisses the possibility of abolition, the idea that prisons are fundamentally wrong."
Gaby del Valle has used children's play as a lens on politics and culture, observing how the narratives of "cops and robbers" chase games have come to include a fenced-in "detention" area for children role-playing as undocumented immigrants.
"It's a Trumpian take on the playground game "cops and robbers": one student plays "Trump," another is "Pence," and the rest play "Mexicans" who must escape the threat of deportation by being tagged. The students are as young as nine years old and this is the playground at a New York City elementary school in predominantly Latino East Harlem.
Once tagged, the "Mexicans" rely on their friends to free them from "detention" (a fenced-in play area) otherwise Trump and Pence win, one parent whose child participated in the game said. This oddly politicized game of tag has some parents wondering how students have incorporated notions of immigration and deportation into otherwise innocent play, and just how much they know—or don't know—about the new president and his policies. "