Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Prison Game

A big part of being online, whether through email, IM, a web browser, or through a MPG (multi-player game) like World of Warcraft or the Sims, or through virtual worlds like Second Life, is about "building community." You are interacting through an interface with a bunch of other people. A lot of those interactions are unstructured. For instance, conversations in email or IM are not (in the US anyhow) controlled or monitored and there's no predetermined content. In games, there are more or less explicit goals and usually a controlling presence which lays down ground rules for the "development" of characters and incentives and punishments. In Second Life, there are laws and money, but beyond that, the interactions are pretty much unregulated.

Over the weekend, I had a long conversation with a friend about how the Internet both connects and isolates people. She's in the mental health field and a thoughtful and spiritual person and worries about what the Internet does to us as humans. Even though I spend about 26 hours a day online and/or in front of a computer, I too harbor some doubts about whether the whole thing is a good idea or not. If I can paraphrase, she was concerned that all online communication--email, instant messaging, games--lack all of that crucial non-verbal information and are by their nature isolating and alienating. Worse, immersive video games and the Pornucopia of the web suck certain kinds of people into all kinds of bad trouble. They feed our worst fantasizes and help to breed the worst kinds of thoughts.

Unfortunately, our conversation bred in me the worst kinds of thoughts. I started thinking about structured and unstructured interactions and community and displacement and isolation and it occurred to me that the perfect subject for a multiplayer game is prison. More specifically, a maximum security prison in the United States, of the kind featured in such documentary TV series like Lockup.

I figured that my idea couldn't be too original, so I did a little checking. Surprisingly, I found only a couple:

http://www.prisonserver.co.uk/

http://www.theprisoninmate.com/

(Strangely, both games appear to come out of the UK. I'm not sure what that means.)

They seem sadly typical of any video game in the mode of Grand Theft Auto or other anti-hero gangster games. In other words, there is interaction and structure, but no community. In these two games, you play a prisoner in prison, competing against other prisoners: stabbing, dealing drugs, etc. From The Prison Inmate:

Your daily routine will include smuggling drugs and weapons, exercising in the gym, getting high, as well as attacking other inmates. Win, you earn respect. Lose, you become somebody's bitch.

All pretty single minded, shocking, even glamorized stuff. All criminal and no law. Prisonserver at least claims to offer a little more realism:

Muffins? No! Hotdogs and chicken fingers. Make someone cook for you. Master the oven, the pot or the frying pan. Or teach yourself to sew, or some chemistry, or mechanics.

See, that's what I'm talking about. Now we're starting to get to some real juicy stuff. I want to see the day-to-day. The grind. The tedium.

Unfortunately it descends into the usual crap:

You'll also learn jewelry, a secret to improve weapons and armor that you must find in the forests that surround the prison.

What the hell is that? Forest? Armor? We're now back in D&D land again. It's elves vs dwarves. Back to square stupid.

My prison game is a lot better because it is both about creating an anti-social community and is enforced by the inhabitants. If you're a guard, you guard prisoners. If you're a prisoner, you're imprisoned. Within and between those groups there is interaction. Everyone in the game is subject to rules, and also enforces rules.

Because both the prisoners and the guards are players, and all they have to do is live their roles, it's a game about community. There are no monsters to fight. There are no goals or anything to achieve. All of the inhabitants create a reality together. Perhaps it becomes a happy paradise. Perhaps it becomes a vicious sinkhole. It's up to the players.

You start at the bottom in either role. As a guard, your duties include standing around on the prison yard, watching the cafeteria, searching toothpaste tubes for razor blades, and cleaning up toilets backed up in angry rebellion. As you ascend, you get more exciting duties, like cell extractions on the violent and insane ward, where you carry a plexiglass shield or a video camera to record the event for legal purposes. You perhaps get to be on a disciplinary committee, reviewing prisoner crimes, or decoding illicit coded messages sent in elaborate drawings through the mail. If you get really advanced, you get to be in the guard tower, prepared to shoot wooden blocks or even lethal force against rioting prisoners. If you do kill someone, you may have to face an investigatory board, which might even find your actions illegal (okay, some outside structure). Then you start again at the bottom, watching men in showercaps scoop meatloaf onto plastic trays.

As a prisoner you get in with some sort of crime, which will have a lot to do with your destiny. As a big-time drug dealer or something, you get a lot of influence. As a pedophile -- watch out. You can take a couple of routes: try to stay out of trouble, or try to ascend the ladder by being a tough fellow. You can deal drugs, make shanks etc. All the stuff any video game player would expect. All the fun stuff. If you attack a guard, you get points, if you attack some guy because a gang leader tells you to, you get points. If you refuse to kill someone, you get attacked and maybe killed yourself. If the guards catch you doing bad stuff, you can get solitary confinement. Then you stay in your cell 23 hours a day and get to walk around in a concrete pen for the remaining hour. Yes, you might also get to be someone's bitch. My game still has that glamour factor. It's got everything.

You can also convert to Islam or Christianity and stay out of trouble. You might even get moved out of the more maximum security parts of the prison and into less restrictive quarters where you can sit on your bed, read, watch TV, and play card games with other prisoners. You can learn to make license plates, or sew clothing, or provide call center travel services for the tourism board of whatever state has incarcerated you.

In fact, part of the funding for the online game could come from the players themselves. For instance, say the prison decides to create 1-900 sex lines to increase revenue and rehabilitate prisoners. Bingo: the players can make some extra money in prison currency. If they can monetize it through contraband or services rendered within the prison, the player in real life gets to keep the money.

Tedium and stupidity are part of real life. Why not intentionally build them into the online experience? The multifaceted Penn and Teller had an awesome idea for a video game called Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors many years ago (an unreleased Sega-cd version of the game has actually re-surfaced and can be found out on the net for download).


In one segment of the game, your task is to drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas. Your bus goes only 45 miles per hour. The trip takes 8 hours. There is no change in scenery, there are no other cars, and your passengers do nothing. Nothing happens. Your bus has a slight cant to the right, so you can't just leave it running, because you will crash the bus and have to start over. When you make it to Vegas, you get one point and start over again, driving back to Tucson.

In my game there would also be the potential for genuine psychological damage among the players, but at least we'd be up front about it. Unlike the unimagined dangers of MPG inhabitants binging for days and dying of sudden heart failure, the dangers here would be explicit. Even better, perhaps our entire incarceration system would go online. Real people would be imprisoned in a virtual world and conduct their crimes virtually. Gangs would become obsolete. The cruelty of an ever swelling penal system would be made imaginary. And imagine the cost savings! This is one system which could be made to scale.

Of course, let's not forget the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. This experiment showed that my idea can work. Take a bunch of normal people, tell them that some of them are prisoners and some of them guards, and voila! You have a prison.

(from http://www.prisonexp.org/)

Then we could package the game as a tv channel for spectators and sell advertising. In a world where we pay for cable to watch television shows about rich people eating food and drinking alcohol, or average humans attempting to raise themselves from the mire of wretched addictions why not provide an interactive means of immersion in maximum tedium and discomfort?

One last thing: my game takes place in real time. If you get twenty years, you sit in front of your computer for twenty years. If you get life, you sit in front of your computer for life. Which is kind of happening already, I guess.

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