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Asher Wright
Asher Wright

Prison Architect (

Your first task as a prison architect is to execute a prisoner with an electric chair, but there's a lot of details you have to figure out before you flip that deadly switch. You'll need to build a separate structure, with an execution chamber and holding cell, where you can put in a window and bookshelf if you're nice. Each room needs to be a certain size and use different types of floors. Each room also needs to be connected to the prison's power grid, and the electric chair causes a spike in energy consumption, so you'll need to build a few more capacitors for your generators.

Prison Architect (

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By the time you execute the prisoner, the act seems like just another item on your ever-growing "to do" list: build more cells, expand the mess hall, establish a common room where you can start a drug rehabilitation program, fix the pipes for the showers, and oh yeah, execute this prisoner.

Chris Delay, creative director at developer Introversion Software, told me that it deliberately picked the darkest part of prison life for the first chapter of the game. "It would be very easy to think of it as building a hotel or something," he said. "Right from the very start, we knew we had to let the player know that this was a different experience, he has to think differently about it."

Raphael Sperry is an architect, Soros justice fellow, and president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR). He's also pushing the American Institute of Architects to prohibit the design of spaces that inherently violate human rights in their code of ethics, namely prisons.

"If you're pouring concrete to build a prison cell, each additional square foot of space creates more wall, ceiling, and floor area you need to pay for," Sperry said. "Construction costs are generally looked at in per-square-foot terms, so there is a direct correlation between the size of prison cells and the budget for the prison. If cells are smaller, other things can be bigger: the warden's office, the kitchen, the security fence."

That last point is also reflected in Prison Architect. Just like real life, a prison gets its budget according to how many inmates it has, so while building a psychologist's office will allow you to open programs that will improve a prisoner's life and reduce his chances of being imprisoned again after release, that office comes at the expense of more cells, which bring in money.

He explains that the "podular" prison design, where cells are arranged around a big "dayroom" in the center, minimizes staffing costs by allowing less guards to watch more prisoners. That cost is reduced even further if the dayroom doubles as a "chow hall," which in older prisons used to be a different space.

"Supervising the movement of a large number of people in a prison takes a large number of guards, so it was a clever idea to have people stay in the pods, even though that leads to an incredibly boring daily routine," Sperry said. "In this example it's clear to see how humane conditions are sacrificed in order to minimize operating costs by design."

Though the idea of the game was sparked by Delay's visit to Alcatraz in San Francisco, Introversion managing director Mark Morris told me that he and Delay didn't do a huge amount of research on real prisons while developing the game.

As Morris explains, the similarities to real prisons are a result of the deep systems in the simulation. These include everything from the electrical grid, to guard salaries, to prisoners' basic need, which much like The Sims are based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid. At the most basic level, prisoners have psychological needs, but they also need safety, love, and self-actualization. If you simulate enough systems with enough depth, and add a profit incentive, you end up with something that's hauntingly real.

That means that you can't create a perfect prison either. Prison Architect has been available through early access for three years, allowing Introversion to carefully layer more systems and complexity into the game, and see how players respond.

In the last three years players have uploaded thousands of prisons for other players to download. Some of them are monstrously inhumane, and monstrously profitable. When they give demos to the press, Morris and Delay often bring up one user-made prison that has 12,000 solitary confinement cells for the entire prison population. It's demented, and it's only the logical endpoint of a for-profit prison.

On the opposite end of the scale, even if you managed to pay for a prison that's overwhelmingly reformist in its approach, with rehabilitation programs for prisoners, more space to exercise, and so on, you wouldn't be able to create an ideal prison. The simulation won't allow it. The small percentage of very violent prisoners will take advantage of lax security, and there will be consequences. Other prisoners and guards can die.

"You might decide therefore that you'll only take minimum security or gen pop prisoners, people of non-violent background, but then you're actually kind of socially selecting which prisoners you're willing to try to reform, and then you've given up altogether on the really violent prisoners," Delay said.

You can try to be kind, but it will never work perfectly. When I asked Sperry for tips on how to build the most humane prison possible, he said that I'd have to change the entire criminal justice system first.

"I'd remind people that racism is a huge factor in how law enforcement treats people and who goes to prison, as the Black Lives Matter movement is pointing out," Sperry said. "Frankly, I don't believe it's possible to build a really humane prison if it is being built on the basis of racial fear and hatred and it will be filled with people who wouldn't rationally be in prison at all."

And that's a problem that's beyond the scope of the simulation. Prison Architect assumes over-incarceration, and as long as that's the case, you'll never be able to build a humane prison, in the game or in real life.

Technically, Prison Architect (opens in new tab) has been around since 2012, as it spent several years in an alpha state and in Steam Early Access. But today marks exactly five years since Introversion Software's prison management simulation officially launched, and to celebrate, it's free to download and play (opens in new tab) for the next five days.

Once into the game proper and beginning with a ready-made prison, the campaign goes about tutoring players on everything that they need to know to construct their own grey bar hotel in addition to being able to maintain it once the groundwork has been lain. First off, the campaign impresses the need to create foundations for your various buildings, before attaching access to them such as doors and other optional things like windows and pathways to name a couple.

Speaking of which, there is the people factor to consider too. Staff need to be kept rested or else they become exhausted (a staff room can help with this), while arguably the most important and difficult group of folks to keep happy are, somewhat expectedly, the inmates themselves. Clicking on each of your prisoners gives you a full breakdown of their personal demographics, neatly informing the player on everything from their name and crimes committed, to the length of their stay and the sort of security that they require.

Its important to note that while you may have plenty of guards and staff, you can't directly control any of them. Eventually, you're able to set up patrol routes for the guards, but there is no clicking and sending them to a location. What you'll find is that most guards just hang out in the holding cell (which is only used for prisoners about to be transferred to a real cell) or out in the yard. I don't know if that was done on purpose or what but ... well, it's an alpha.

Another great tool at the player's disposal is the 'regime' tab. There, you are able to schedule your inmate's day. All 24-hours of it. You tell them when they sleep, when they eat, when they shower, when they work and when (if) they have any free time. Tinkering with that changes the mood of your prisoners (which can be good or bad) and can help your prison run more efficiently.

All that is fairly easy to figure out, but there is a great deal of strategy with the game that makes it an almost constant struggle. As you play (and restart when you mess up), you start figuring out strategies and the best ways to lay out your prisons. There is an huge community for this game discussing how to build the most effective prison, or in some cases, the prisons strange enough to be dreamt up by Dr. Seuss.

My second prison was a much tighter ship. Big fences. Tiny cells. Bad food. I set the game to send me maximum security prisoners, so I figured these were the worst of the worst. I was going to make Guantanamo look like a Club Med. I lasted about two days. Two riots in one day, the first during the inmates' "yard time" where they spent an hour outside. The inmates killed the guards there with them and then beat one another senseless. The only thing keeping them from breaking into the main prison was a single wooden door that somehow stayed on its hinges. I'm very much assuming that was a glitch.

The second riot happened in the cell-block right outside the showers. I only had two guards left, and both were busy bringing people to the doctor's office or to solitary confinement depending on their part in the first riot. I didn't have enough money to hire any more. When the alarm sounded, the guards dropped what they were doing and raced over. Right outside the shower, there was a man that had somehow smuggled a clothes iron back to his cell (I do not want to know how he managed that). He was killing everyone. The two guards that remained were killed, and my prison descended into the reign of King Iron.

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