Prison Architect God Complex

I’ve been playing a fair amount of a fantastic early access game recently – Prison Architect. I’d really recommend it, and as far as early access games go its pretty much the finished product.


I want to talk about one thing that I’ve noticed while playing Prison Architect though; and its something that I’ve heard before about other sandbox games but never really felt myself. I’m talking about the “God Complex”.

I mean, there’s all sorts of games where you play as pretty much a demi-god, but there’s something about Prison Architect. You’re in control of every single aspect of the life, and perhaps even the death, of some pretty gruesome characters – characters that wouldn’t think a second about killing to escape your creation. Your prison guards are relying on you to get it right, their lives are on the line 24/7.

Now that sounds pretty dramatic!

It gave me an idea though, while I’ve been playing Prison Architect. It’s an idea that’s kinda disturbed me, so bear with me while I explain.

Creating my perfect prison has had its ups and downs as anybody who’s played Prison Architect can attest. I’ve had two people escape (of a party of four who tunneled out – of them, two met with my rather unhappy armed guards), but I’ve had a dozen or so more die in fights as well. If it wasn’t presented in such a disarmingly charming 2D fashion it would be pretty disturbing.


The most recent update to Prison Architect has introduced some pretty hardcore criminals to the mix though, which threaten to make our amatuer prisons an even more deadly place.

We now have “legendary” prisoners. These are your Charles Bronsons and your Thomas Silversteins. Violent individuals who will take any and all chances to escape and cause trouble and kill. These ‘legendary’ prisoners, introduced to Prison Architect with the latest patch, feel like a bit of a prelude to fully fledged prison gangs. That’s the big bet at the moment for a future feature.

Prisons are violent places, and any prison in Prison Architect is no different after the last few patches. But now to the idea I had whilst playing.

My idea was essentially the Hunger Games crossed with Lord of the Flies.

I was putting dozens of hard working prison officers, dogs, chefs, cleaners lives on the line to run the lives of people who didn’t want their lives running. These people don’t want to be made to go to bed at certain times, eat at certain times, work at certain times. Indeed, in the cases of the ‘legendaries’ they sometimes just want to kill or cause chaos.

The experiment began. All staff were brought out of the prison and the prisoners were allowed to do whatever they wanted. I posted all my armed guards at the one entrance/exit to stop any escapes. Whatever the prisoners did, they were doing it behind the prison walls – and that is the crux of your job as the Prison Architect.

Several in-game days later the scene was a little like this one below:



Quite honestly, nearly everyone in the prison was dead. I had originally called the prison “Fort Solitude” – it was now somewhat disturbingly accurate.

I felt a cold fascination to see the way the chaos had played out. From the scuffle in the kitchen to get hold of food, to the fight when a violent prisoner got hold of a weapon. It certainly does send a chill down your spine to see what can only be described as true chaos playing out like that.

I feel bad for the experiment. It’s certainly nothing I advocate in a real life penal system on a personal level; to make that very clear. Yet it got me thinking about some deep morals.

Was it wrong to let the prisoners ultimately kill each other? By leaving them to it knowing full well what the likely result would be, does that make me accountable as the architect of the experiment and prison? What is the difference between a penal system that kills prisoners and a penal system that lets prisoners kill one another? Deep questions that are the territory of Philosophers and Psychologists, and certainly not me.

This experiment was an insight into the power of the God Complex. The power to make absolute decisions about life and death is often said to corrupt. That may be, but it raises a whole load of philosophical and moral issues that no one person is equipped to deal with. Humans can’t be a God.

And who said video games couldn’t teach you anything…

Digital Salad –


3 thoughts on “Prison Architect God Complex

  1. Jeromai October 23, 2014 / 6:16 am

    Bringing it back a step back into gameland, we might also ask if developers of games that want to include PvP should just leave it completely open FFA anything-goes style, especially if they’re trying to simulate an immersive world, in the service of “making it real” or “letting players do whatever they want” or if they also have a certain responsibility to lay out rules and boundaries and laws in their virtual world.

    Certainly sounds like an interesting game though, have my eye on it, waiting for it to get cheaper.

    • Digital Salad October 23, 2014 / 8:01 pm

      Thanks for the comment!

      I think the most exciting PvP is the most open PvP, I’ve always thought so. A totally open world where the players create the system, the rules and to a certain extent the game in itself. You don’t see a great deal of it though, I guess developers like having control over their central multiplayer elements.

      • Jeromai October 23, 2014 / 11:27 pm

        It also tends to run headlong into Lord of the Flies scenarios, imo. Which I suppose might or might not be what some devs want their game to become.

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