If you’ve ever fantasized about running a private prison, we have just the video game for you—it’s Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax, a “surprisingly sociological video game” that’s reviewed in the current issue of Contexts (summary only available online).
The Supermax player-as-warden builds a private prison from the ground up, choosing “when and where to build cellblocks, industry, recreation, educational and medical facilities, a chapel, dining halls, staff quarters, guard towers, and fences.” Then the real fun begins, with the day-to-day management of the prison—and that’s where this “remarkably mundane” game is particularly true to life behind bars.
“Prisons are boring,” the Contexts reviewers explain, especially since, over the past couple of decades, their focus has shifted from rehabilitating inmates to simply managing them (and, in the case of private prisons like the virtual ones in Supermax, profiting from their incarceration). So it’s appropriate that Supermax’s “primary game-player tasks are strikingly tedious, involving little more than creating schedules and allocating inmates to particular cell blocks and workplaces.”
The Supermax player must balance the same profit-minded motives as private prison companies today: “Such companies can’t spend too much money on rehabilitation programs, security staff or facilities,” the magazine writes, but they must also “maintain order and avoid escapes (something we never did figure out with Supermax) so they don’t lose their government contracts. Without governments providing a steady stream of clients to fill their facilities, profits would evaporate and their businesses would fold.”
There’s no exciting victory at stake here, the reviewers note; the marker of success is simply that you get to keep playing.
"In real life as in Supermax, then, the success of private prison entrepreneurs in the new era of the new penology isn’t marked by the ‘correction’ of prisoners, but by control and profitability," Contexts concludes. "In this respect, they, too, 'win'—not by rehabilitating prisoners or reforming the penal system, but only by continuing to play the game lucratively."