The common refrain in gaming culture is to view these products as more than just games. I believe in that statement. Video games are maturing but that means our culture should hold up serious subject matter to scrutiny.
A few weeks ago, Prison Architect came out of Early Access on Steam and was officially released. The reviews were mostly positive, but there was very interesting article at Kill Screen, entitled Design & Punish, that made me think about the nature of simulations. The main point of the criticism is that while Prison Architect simulates many aspects of an American prison and tries to humanize the inmates, the game doesn’t touch upon the wider issues with the justice system. Notably, there is no consideration given to socioeconomic backgrounds or how the justice system disproportionately punishes minorities in the United States.
It was an intriguing concept to consider: how much does a simulation owe to the subject being simulated? How accurate must it be? Should some subjects just not be in a video game at all?
One of the more prominent gaming releases in 2014 was Wolfenstein: The New Order. Taking place in an alternative world where the Nazis won World War 2, The New Order leaned heavily into some very serious territory. The game itself was a very solid and enjoyable first-person shooter, but I remember being somewhat confused by the conflicting tone. There is a particular level that takes place in a concentration camp with imagery associated with the Holocaust: striped prisoner uniforms, emaciated victims, ashes falling from the sky. It felt out of place to take something that so encompassed the tragedy of the genocidal treatment of the Jewish people and put that into an action game starring an American hero. Granted, B.J. Blazkowicz is rumored to have Jewish ancestry, but this is never fully explained or mentioned with any definitiveness. Divorcing the Holocaust from any mention of the Jewish religion or people is problematic.
In the Kill Screen article, author Will Partin notes: “The issue with Prison Architect is not that it fails to represent every aspect of prisons’ complexity, but that the aspects it omits are among the most important for understanding why and how mass incarceration is the way it is.” Black men in the United States use marijuana at roughly the same rate as whites, but are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession. Blacks are, in some studies, more likely to receive capital punishment than whites for the same crime. Prison Architect is a video game, and, thus has to make certain concessions to be enjoyable to its audience. However, like Wolfenstein: The New Order, ignoring reality, present or past, for 'fun' is becoming less of an excuse.
An accurate simulation of the United States prison system with an exploration of the disproportionate incarceration of minorities should not be impossible. To only use a historical tragedy as an opportunity to educate should not be impossible. Art is inherently political and informed by the biases of the creators. Video games can be fun, but perhaps it should strive for more.