The punishment and rehabilitation of the convicted in prison video games

I bought Prison Architect from Steam’s Holiday Sale, although that was shortly after I saw a study on Prison Tycoon written by Anna Oleszkiewicz (University of Wroclaw) and company. A few weeks later, another academic article on prison video games showed up, written by criminologists Steven Downing (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) and Kristine Levan (University of Idaho). The article specifically examined Prison Architect’s alpha development. Piqued by these articles, I started playing Prison Architect before I delved into the articles and I needed a lot of rest after serving a sentence called the dissertation.

The Alpha phase of Prison Architect

Downing and Levan got interested in Prison Architect when someone posted this question in the game’s forum: “Is supporting it by buying this game really ethical? Not to mention the whole victimless crime issue?” To the authors, the question prompted the idea that video games could potentially engage people on social/political issues. Specifically, Prison Architect players could play it seriously and critically discuss about incarceration and of the current prison system in the US.

The authors decided to analyze the developers’ videos during the development stage, from Alpha 1 to Alpha 23 (September 26 2012 – July 31 2014). The researchers got to stop at some point, who could predict when the developers will complete the game? The alpha videos gave the authors insights about the developers’ thoughts about incarceration, their motives in adding or not adding features in the game, and responding to critiques from players and journalists. This is evidenced by Wesley Yin-Poole in Eurogamer (2012) and Paolo Pedercini in Kotaku (2014).

The authors examined the developer’s videos in how Prison Architect reflect the five pains of imprisonment theorized by criminologist Gresham Sykes. (1) Deprivation of liberty: Given that the prisoners’ freedom have been taken away, they can be even restricted further into their cells, by the presence of armed guards and solitary confinement at the discretion of the player, making the prisoners’ compliant, but moving more slowly and less likely to complete reform programs. Another reflection are contacts with the outside world, such as telephone calls, mail and famil visitations, lessening the deprivation of liberty. I should point out that prisoners’ needs for freedom and family reflect such deprivation.

(2) Deprivation of goods and services: The players’ decisions in attending or not the prisoners’ needs, such as bowel, clothing, recreation, exercise among others, reflect such deprivation. The basics in Prison Architect is to provide shelter/incarceration, food, and toiletry. Anything beyond these needs are perceived as privileges, which is reflective when I noticed that certain random events in the game would have the mayor ordering players to remove certain items because of public opinion. These random events point out how prisons face political pressure and its impact on prisoners, something worth to expand on in the game with other political forces, such as prisoners’ rights groups or scientific groups. The authors’ noted that the developers want to give players freedom in how they run their prisons reflective in the policy reports, such as how much time in solitary confinement. An interesting observation from the authors are inmates who are paroled or finished their sentence, they leave in their prison clothes. Although, the developers had earlier thought of having inmates leaving in their civilian clothing, the authors noted that leaving in prison clothing is symbolic of their continued identity as convicts from the community.

(3) Deprivation of heterosexual relationships: The authors found very few mentions of heterosexual relationships, such as relationship with a heterosexual partner. It seems to be a very contentious area for the developers IMO. When asked by Wesley Yin-Poole in Eurogamer (2012) about the inclusion of sexual assault, the developers did not include as it might be a step too far. The authors noted that homosexual relations were not directly discussed in the developer videos. Nevertheless, the developers made the game with good modding capabilities that lets players address these issues, such as a modded conjugal room.

(4) Deprivation of autonomy: The surveillance and the concept of the panopticon in Prison Architect reflect the deprivation of autonomy. The surveillance impacts prisoners’ sense of autonomy as they’re being watched, leaving little room for privacy. The prisoners’ activities are controlled by prison regime set by players. The regime can be used to punish or provide rehabilitation through workshops, education, or therapy. Pedercini (2014) remarked the use of prison labor as a contemporary form of slavery, but from a different perspective, the developers argue that workshops provide skillsets when prisoners are released.

(5) Deprivation of security: This relate to whether the prisoners feel safe from each other, the most salient are prisoners’ reputation that makes them targets of violence (i.e. snitch, ex law enforcement, ex prison guards and cop killer). The authors mentioned gang affiliation as a factor and Prison Architect implemented such feature in Alpha 34. An interesting observation from the authors is how cell blocks are structured, certain designs may foster greater sense of security through a better relationship between prisoners and their guards.

The authors noted how well the game pay details to rehabilitation in the game, they suggested further exploring into other real life prison practices. First, the exploration of restorative justice practices. The practices involved rebuilding inmates relationship with the community, such as visitations from victims and the community at large. Another suggestion is form the Alternatives to Violence Project which are workshops on conflict resolution and communication skills. Given how moddable the game is, these real life practices would be interesting for players to create and share in the steam workshop.

I have contacted Downing and Levan on their thoughts of the recent inclusion of female prisoners in the game. Downing praised the inclusion as more than a re-skin and that the developers have tapped into some of the real life issues for female prisoners. Furthermore, I would be interested in how the developers deal with long-term incarceration and aging. As of this writing, the inmates do not age, thus they fully serve their sentence and return to the community. How do players deal with elderly inmates who die in their prisons and to have not step back into the community is something worth to talk about. Levan rightly added that prisons would have to deal with increasing medical care and costs as a reflection of caring aging inmates.

Levan posed an interesting question is “What is a successful prison?” Levan thinks that many would say success is from rehabilitation of inmates and providing meaningful opportunities. But the realities of US prisons of warehousing large numbers of inmates makes rehabilitation more difficult and expensive.

Downing posed an interesting question is whether Prison Architect could evoke sympathy to prisoners? “Would it be better to have students, for example, play a game that is graphically realistic and involves more role playing – would this evoke more empathy?  What about teaching people to consider structural and institutional problems – could a macro-level, top-down perspective, like in PA, be best for this?  We don’t know, but these questions could be empirically explored.” Continue reading

The communication of videogame science to the public and gamers

Gamers don’t like bad news about them or gaming, whether it is about connecting videogames to mass shootings, acts of violence or scientific findings about its link to aggression.  The most vocal gamers would take it to the comment section and voraciously argued in its defence or attacking those named in the article, such as politicians, pundits, journalists and social scientists. Understandably, they receive these news for many years. Andrew Przybylski (University of Oxford) chimed in that the years have not been kind to gamers, as it reinforces harmful stereotypes and linking them with suspicion after mass shootings.

Indeed, this affect gamers’ attitudes towards social scientists who studies videogames and has an impact on future scientific endeavours. Gamers may feel increasingly alienated as bad news continue to mount about them and their activities, this alienation could cultivate distrust towards anyone who wants to study them and perhaps this distrust might spread to the social sciences in general.

Recently, eight published studies have investigated this matter compelling me to tie in all these studies together and draw up the big picture. I solicited comments from Andrew Przybylski and James Ivory (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) who were authors on some of the studies.

Who believes in the connection between violent videogames and aggression?

Popular perception on who believes in the connection between violent videogames and aggression is often attributed to the older generation and those who do not or rarely play videogames. A 2013 Harris Poll found that 3 in 5 of American Adults believed in the connection between videogame and aggression, but it was noted that nearly three-quarters of older adults held such beliefs whereas less than half of young adults do.

Andrew Przybylski (2013) sought to explore this demographical topic through three nationally representative surveys in the U.S.,using Google Consumer Surveys. His findings revealed that while the belief is spread across demographics, such as gender and age,  65+ year old American adults who never or rarely played videogames compared to  18-25 year old adults were six times more likely to hold the belief. Notably, American men who never played videogames were 3.5 times more likely to hold such beliefs than men who frequently play whereas women across age and gaming experience were twice as likely as men to hold such belief.

Peter Nauroth (Philipp University of Marburg; 2014) and colleagues conducted experiments in Germany to examine how people who identify themselves as gamers can affect people’s opinions towards videogame research. Across three experiments, participants who highly identified themselves as gamers tended to negatively evaluate violent videogame research.

We can see that people who never played videogames were more likely to believe that violent videogames cause real world aggression. Conversely, people who play a lot or strongly identifies themselves as gamers tend to think otherwise and reacted with anger. An observation from Przybylski and Ivory is that the population who plays videogames or grew up with them is growing, this mean that society’s views on videogames are changing, can change IMO. At present, however, it begs the question how else do people form the belief that videogames cause aggression besides playing videogames? I point to the news media as one of many sources.

What does the news media has to say about violent videogames research?

The news media occasionally cover videogame research. How journalists write about research studies could translate into how people form their opinions about videogames, especially for those who do not play them. Reasonably, we can assume that the news media is their major source of information about videogames, as well for a lot of topics, from politics to science.

The popular perception about the news media’s portrayal of videogames research and gamers is typically showing the link between violent videogames with adverse outcomes, from aggression to addiction. In my observation, university press releases are typically the catalyst for such coverage. There are two point of views to consider. The first point of view is that the news media is being sensationalistic and is fanning moral panic (Ferguson, 2013). The second point of view is that the news media is doing the opposite by adding ambiguity to the research by representing both sides of the videogame debate. This is motivated by a desire for objectivity and balance.

Nicole Martins and her colleagues at Indiana University (2013) conducted a content analysis of news print’s coverage on media violence and aggression research. What they did is they pulled out news articles that covered on media violence and aggression. They do so through the LexisNexis database, from 25 highest-circulating newspapers in the U.S. and as far back as they could get to (1982 to 2012). This yielded 540 news articles.

They had five people read those articles and categorize each article based on several variables of interest. These variables include whether the article is a story or an opinion editorial; is it about general research or a specific study; which medium they are covering (i.e., TV, videogames);  characteristics of the journalists (i.e., sex); the article’s sources (i.e., experts, interest groups, etc.) importantly the tone of the article, whether it suggest no link, neutral about the existence of the link or suggest a definitive link that media violence is link to aggression. What they found is that 52.7% of the news article suggested media violence can increase aggression, 37.7% were neutral about the link and 9.3% suggested no link at all. Interestingly, media violence research got peak press attention between 1997-2001 and also 60% of the articles during that time period suggested a positive link, something important must have happened. After that period, the articles took on a more neutral tone. Another finding is that male reporters more likely to suggest that there was no link whereas female reporters more likely to suggest that there is. Thus, the news media (at the least the printed ones) are not creating a moral panic, but Martins and colleagues noted this create a disconnect between what researchers have found and what is reported to the public.

James Ivory had this to say:

“The study by Martins and colleagues is a very useful descriptive analysis of media coverage, and I think we would do well to examine more about the psychology and sociology of public discourse about media effects.  Much of what is going on now in the “real world” with game effects is not about the research at all, but about how that research is presented and discussed in the media, in the U.S. Congress, and in the courts, and those conversations will have more impact on games’ social role in the future than the scholarship will.  I have problems with the article’s tone at times in that it seems to assume the “correct” media coverage would be to acknowledge a games/aggression link when “aggression” means something very different in different settings (i.e., much of the press coverage may be in the context of prominent murders, which the research still tells us very little about in terms of game effects, so assuming that trends in research findings on aggression should map onto trends in tone of press coverage is a flawed way of thinking given the different contexts), but the study’s description of trends is useful regardless.  We could benefit from more such studies, because the way the game effects research is currently being communicated is probably not very representative of what we know.  A similar study related to the communication of the research in the policy and criminal justice arenas would be very valuable, I think, as one of the most personally disappointing and truly sad applications of the game research literature for me of late has been seeing the way is has been applied in some criminal trials in ways I would consider irresponsible.”

How do gamers feel, react and think about research on videogames?

As we learned earlier from Nauroth and colleagues’ experiments, gamers do not particularly feel agreeable about adverse videogame research. A closer look into their experiment, in particular to their second experiment, they found that strongly identified gamers who read news that supported a link between violent videogames and aggression, as opposed to those that does not,  reacted with more anger which in turn led to greater negative evaluation of said news article. This experiment gives us some clues about the angry tone in the comments section of news articles, especially those in gaming news sites [1, 2], on violent videogame research.

It is not just anger that gamers feel, but also feelings of stigmatization that lead to disregarding “bad” research. Gamers are a subcultural group centered around videogames. Rachel Kowert (University of Münster) posted about being a gamer. The point Nauroth et al. made was that belonging and identifying oneself to a group influence their behaviours, attitudes and thinking that goes along with the group’s stance. Consequently, belonging to a group stigmatized by mainstream society would likely lead to defensive-hostile reactions against any stigmatizing forces, be it from politicians advocating videogame bans to scientists who found anything they found disagreeable.

A trio of experimental studies led by team leaders Julia Kneer (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Sabine Glock (University of Luxembourg) found supporting evidence among Young German men’s cognitive processes related to videogames. The gist from all three experiments is that the youth who grew up with the internet and videogames, even amongst those who do not play videogames, do not readily associate cognitively videogames with aggression, rather more towards positive thoughts of social interactions and achievements, gamer motives.

Andrew Przybylski has this to say:” Nauroth et al., and the work of Kneer & Ivory begin to open the top off how gamers view the pronouncements handed down to them from the Ivory Tower (no pun meant there Jimmy). The past 25 years of research has not been kind to gamers, reinforces harmful stereotypes, and links them with suspicion following mass-shooting events. Understanding how to communicate carefully done scientific research to these populations (who have been stigmatized) will be key moving forward. ”

James Ivory has this to say: ” I share Andrew’s sentiment that work like the paper by Nauroth and colleagues is beginning to unpack a little bit about for the agency of game users in both their own media use and experiences and as underutilized contributors to a better understanding of potential game effects.  The same can be said, to a degree, of the work by Sjöström and colleagues.  The dominant literature seems to have viewed them as pawns of a monolothic media-effects mechanism, which I believe is a poor way to look at a group that comprises much of the western population even if we do eventually find that there are substantial negative social effects of some patterns of game play.  Much of the research and policy discussion about video games seems to have been driven by people who know little about them, which is something that is changing.  I, for example, don’t find myself in position to play many video games these days, and I definitely don’t get very positive about celebrations of criminal violence in media from a personal standpoint, but I’d like to think that having been around some video games in my youth informs my minor contribution to the scholarship in ways that can’t be summed up as simply as the narratives in the effects discussion I’ve often heard about how people familiar with games are being games apologists, exhibiting third-person effects, resolving dissonance, etc.  People who play a lot of games have a lot to say that we can learn from, and they are not militant defenders of games.  Julia Kneer, for example, has already taught us much about game players and is now leading some new research that seems to have promise for shedding light on how game users can help highlight risk factors for “addiction” and problematic use..”

Indeed, to simplify, the third-person effect is people’s perceptions about adverse outcomes of something, like violent television’s effect on aggression or the chances of an accident happening, to themselves and to others. James Ivory and his colleague, Sriram Kalyanaraman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; 2009) did an experiment on an aspect of the third person effect, namely how thinking concretely (i.e., a specific videogame) versus abstractly (i.e., videogames in general) would affect people’s perception of violent videogames effects’ on themselves and others. They found that thinking about a specific videogame led participants to think that violent videogames have lesser adverse effects on themselves and others than those who thought abstractly.

Andrew Przybylski’s surveys tied in nicely with the experiments we explored so far and supported the idea that having some experiences with videogames can inform everyone and offer new insights.

Besides videogame aggression, I wonder how gamers feel about videogame addiction?

What are the impacts on videogame research from such media attention?

As a videogame researcher, the issue of how gamers respond to the works on videogame research is very important to me as it can influence how future studies would turn out, especially when I am attending to a very sensitive topic.

In experiments, from psychology to medicine, we must be very conscious of designing our experiments to arrive at a clear and accurate conclusion. Many factors can turn our results into noise or worse, misleading. One particular factor relevant to the conversation is participants’ biases during the experiment, a more precise phrase is whether the experiment is sufficiently blinded. Much like in medical research, patients are given some new medicine which they will start forming ideas about its effects, and some might start acting upon these ideas without realizing it, thus a placebo effect ensues. Similar phenomena occur in psychological experiments, participants start forming ideas about the hypothesis and some might act upon those ideas. But sometimes, some experiments are very obvious, especially anything related to videogames. How would gamers form ideas about the purposes of videogame experiments?  How would they behave in such experiments?

Jens Bender and colleagues (University of Koblenz-Landau; 2013) conducted an experiment to answer such question. The researchers told a cover story to participants that the experiment is either about videogames effect’s on a cognitive ability or about aggression. Then, participants complete a task related to aggression, but the researchers told the participants the task’s purpose is either a test of cognitive ability that has to be done within a time limit or they did not told its purpose, but gave participants unlimited time and the test was obvious that it was examining aggression. They found that greater identification as a gamer led to lower score on the obvious aggression test, but not on the less obvious test. However, the cover story did not have an effect. Although it is quite a valuable lesson for experimenters like myself, but it is not something new (see Elson & Ferguson, 2013). It also begs the question about what the researchers themselves bring in.

Andrew Przybylski has this to say: ” Expanding on all of these studies, I would like to know more about the preconceptions researchers bring to games, these are likely to affect participants’ expectations, the conclusions they draw, and the extent to which they will be willing to generalize and communicate their conclusions to society more broadly. ”

Andrew continued with a more positive note: ” I am increasingly reading reviewer inputs (peers on papers I review) that reflect ideas/perspectives that were entirely absent when I started my PhD (e.g. competition, the use of surrogates instead of mods, practice time, genre differences, game structure etc.). I think there will be a higher level of skepticism of methods that will arise from direct experience with games and gaming culture. This will hopefully increase the psychological realism of lab studies and cool down some of the extreme things researchers have claimed”

James Ivory has this to say:” I share Andrew’s view that it is more of a marker of a growing trend in research to try to explore games in the best way possible for the questions at hand rather than cramming games into a methodological paradigm better suited for a more unidimensional “stimulus.””

” I agree with Andrew that the common thread is that we are seeing incremental changes in the sophistication of research on games, their audiences, and their impact.  This is not a surprise, because science is supposed to follow such trends, but it’s probably noteworthy that for whatever reason these advancements may have been retarded at times by rigid adherence to methodological and conceptual approaches that were never well-suited to the medium.”

What will we go from here?

We can start by fostering a greater understanding between videogame researchers and gamers. Jamie Madigan (The Psychology of Video Games) is the psychologist that I can rank as a popular science educator. There have been several psychologists and communication scholars who communicate their findings to the public, but not on a regular basis. Establishing greater contact between gamers and scientists is very fruitful for both sides can share insights and fresh perspectives, more importantly to work collaboratively on creating a better social environment in gaming.

Bender, J., Rothmund, T., & Gollwitzer, M. (2013). Biased estimation of violent video game effects on aggression: Contributing factors and boundary conditions. Societies, 3 (4), 383-398. URL

Elson, M., & Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Twenty-Five years of research on violence in digital games and aggression: Empirical evidence, perspectives, and a debate gone astray. European Psychologist, 19 (1), 33-46. URL

Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the supreme court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of brown v. entertainment merchants association. American Psychologist, 68 (2), 57-74. URL

Glock, S., & Kneer, J. (2009). Game over? the impact of knowledge about violent digital games on the activation of aggression-related concepts. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 21 (4), 151-160.URL

Kneer, J., Glock, S., Beskes, S., & Bente, G. (2012). Are digital games perceived as fun or danger? supporting and suppressing different Game-Related concepts. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (11), 604-609.URL

Kneer, J., Munko, D., Glock, S., & Bente, G. (2012). Defending the doomed: Implicit strategies concerning protection of First-Person shooter games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (5), 251-256.URL

Ivory, J. D., & Kalyanaraman, S. (2009). Video games make people Violent—Well, maybe not that game: Effects of content and person abstraction on perceptions of violent video games’ effects and support of censorship. Communication Reports, 22 (1), 1-12. URL

Martins, N., Weaver, A. J., Yeshua-Katz, D., Lewis, N. H., Tyree, N. E., & Jensen, J. D. (2013). A content analysis of print news coverage of media violence and aggression research. Journal of Communication, 63 (6), 1070-1087. URL

Nauroth, P., Gollwitzer, M., Bender, J., & Rothmund, T. (2014). Gamers against science: The case of the violent video games debate. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44 (2), 104-116. URL

Przybylski, A. K. (2013). Who believes electronic games cause real world aggression? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, (pp. 131120060135006+). URL

Sjöström, A., Sowka, A., Gollwitzer, M., Klimmt, C., & Rothmund, T. (2013). Exploring audience judgments of social science in media discourse. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 25 (1), 27-38. URL

The net-generation: Implicit strategies concerning protection of FPS games (Kneer et al., 2012)

Two years ago, I posted about Sabine Glock (University of Luxembourg) and Julia Kneer’s (University of Cologne) experiment on how priming people’s thoughts about violent videogames influenced their aggressive cognition. I also said that I would investigate this line of research… well it failed to launch.

At least they continued their research and they recently published their latest findings in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.


Censorship of violent digital games, especially first-person shooter (FPS) games, is broadly discussed between generations. While older people are concerned about possible negative influences of these games, not only players but also nonplayers of the younger net-generation seem to deny any association with real aggressive behavior. Our study aimed at investigating defense mechanisms players and nonplayers use to defend FPS and peers with playing habits. By using a lexical decision task, we found that aggressive concepts are activated by priming the content of FPS but suppressed afterward. Only if participants were instructed to actively suppress aggressive concepts after priming, thought suppression was no longer necessary. Young people still do have negative associations with violent video games. These associations are neglected by implicitly applying defense strategies—independent of own playing habits—to protect this specific hobby, which is common for the net-generation.

Perspectives on Psychological Science, an academic journal, has published a special issue regarding problems of scientific research, included in the issue is Christopher Ferguson’s (Texas A&M) take on this issue. Continue reading

The case of PeaceMaker as an effective persuasive videogame (Alhabash & Wise, 2012)

My advisor was contacted, several months ago, by someone from Games for Change who intrigued him with these persuasive videogames they have in store. Unfortunately, my knowledge in persuasive videogames is poor and many of them relate to political issues, such as human rights, environmental issues among others. Political communication scholars, who have the proper tools and knowledge, should examine these videogames’ effectiveness on attitudes and beliefs. My advisor was interested in examining PeaceMaker’s effect, but Saleem Alhabash (Michigan State University) and Kevin Wise (University of Missouri) published their findings in the International Journal of Communication just a few months later.


An experiment investigated the effects of video game role-play on change of students’ explicit and implicit attitudes toward Palestinians and Israelis. Sixty-eight participants played PeaceMaker, a video game in which people play the role of the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister and respond to various scenarios through diplomatic, economic, and military decision-making. Results showed that participants, before playing PeaceMaker, expressed higher favorability toward Israelis than Palestinians. Participants who played the role of Palestinian president reported positive changes in explicit attitudes toward Palestinians and negative changes toward Israelis, while those who played the role of Israeli prime minister reported no meaningful attitude changes toward either national group after playing the game. Implicit attitudes were more positive toward Palestinians at the baseline, yet did not change significantly as a function of the treatment for both national groups. Results are discussed in relation to self-persuasion, persuasive games, and attitude change.

I was once intrigued by another persuasive videogame (Grace’s Diary), but my interest floundered. Continue reading

The effects of violent video games. Do they affect our behavior? (Bushman, 2011)

Brad Bushman (Ohio State University) wrote up an article at the International Human Press about violent videogames effects citing well-known research studies and the 1972 Surgeon General’s warning of the adverse effects of violent television. Well, the writing is straightforward and addressed many common questions and retorts that many often see (e.g. I play violent video games, I don’t feel violent, etc.).

Protecting Children From Dangerous “Free” Speech – Video games and the teenage brain (Pollard-Sacks, 2011)

Brad Bushman (Ohio State University, this blogger’s advisor) sent me a Pacifica radio podcast (KPFT-FM, Houston, TX) about the effects of violent videogame effects and the recent Supreme court case (Brown vs EMA). It’s 30 minutes long. The host is Prof. Deana Pollard-Sacks, the other radio guest is Erwin Chemerinsky (University of California – Irwin).

(I’m not dead…yet, I’ll get a regular post as soon as the quarter ends)