Of all the power fantasies that games offer the world, none is so often referenced as the fantasy of escape. Games transport us to far away locations, they let us travel from ancient temples to distant space stations, they give us unimaginable freedom of movement. Even within the realm of daily life, games offer a respite of delineated leisure time: 15 minutes of moving candy around on a phone; an hour of shooting aliens with your friends halfway across the country; a ten hour exploration of selfhood that would be otherwise hard to justify; "board game night." And as any bored commuter counting red cars can attest to, even noncommercial, informal games can offer a little escape.
But this fantasy does not exist in a vacuum, nor is offered evenly to those who seek it. "The fact," write VICE's own Jonathan Smith and Matt Taylor, "that we host a wildly disproportionate share of the world's incarcerated population—nearly 25 percent—is a stat that's tossed around so much it's easy to tune out. But it is a startling reality nonetheless, and an embarrassment for a country that considers itself a paragon of freedom."
There are over two million prisoners in America—men, women, and children who are confined to prisons, jails, or detention facilities. And despite the fact that they cannot walk to a GameStop or load up Steam, many of them play games. This week, Waypoint is devoting a substantial portion of our publishing schedule to exploring this part of games culture. We're calling it At Play in the Carceral State.
Why not something simpler? Why not "Prison Week" or "Games and Prisons: A Series"? Well, besides the fact that these simpler phrases feel almost light-hearted, the truth is that we're not only interested in prisons. Instead, we're interested in the wider American culture of discipline which includes surveillance, private security, prisons, and the larger criminal justice system. This is the "carceral state," a living array of infrastructure, institution, and policy that transforms the world into one of rules, borders, and confinement.
All week, Waypoint will be exploring how games intersect and engage with the carceral state through a collection of new articles and essays, key material from the archives, and a new documentary that picks up the thread of my favorite stories that we've published.
But the cornerstone of this investigation are a series of articles about the culture of play at Guantanamo Bay's detention camp and naval base by journalist and war crimes researcher Muira McCammon, whom Waypoint sent to Gitmo earlier this year. The first of these pieces, which digs into the status and history of the games library that is available to those people currently detained at Gitmo, is now live. It will be joined by a new piece that looks at a different angle of games culture at Gitmo every day this week.
When I've explained this series to people, one of the most common responses has been a sort of awkward bewilderment. Games and... prisons? Play and the... 'carceral state'?
On first blush, they're an odd pairing, but a closer look reveals that games are a natural locus for this contention. They are concerned with boundaries, limitations, and rules—the hand of cards you're dealt; the empty energy meter that prevents you from using your powers; the invisible walls and infinite, uncrossable seas which border otherwise vast open worlds. Yet they also enable players to experiment, explore, and defy expectations as they respond to those limits. And it's that tension where games are at their most powerful—perhaps even their most utopian.
More than anything though, we are delving into this topic because it's an under-examined part of games culture. When we announced Waypoint, I wrote that we wanted to investigate how and why people play games.
Today we're restating our commitment to that goal, and we're reminding ourselves that such investigations cannot be limited to feel good stories of indie developers, smash hits on our smart phones, or the latest thing on store shelves. Games culture is built by the diverse and surprising world of real people, and that is where we'll find our stories.