Prison Architect and the Banality of Evil

You can watch this essay above or just read it below! These observations are based on our Lunch Zone stream of Prison Architect from a few weeks ago! Find that here (https://www.twitch.tv/videos/890243261)

Do you ever put down a game for a long time and when you pick it up again it is almost unrecognizable to you? That recently happened to me with Prison Architect. I remember fondly getting the game in its beta phase and playing it with my wife. At the time, I approached it like a business simulation game, similar to classics like Roller Coaster Tycoon or SimTower. Incidentally, I got Game Dev Tycoon the same week I got Prison Architect, so I must have been on a simulation kick at that time. Regardless, I enjoyed the time I spent building prisons and interacting with the games systems, but promptly neglected the game for about six years, that is, until a few weeks ago when I booted it up again.
Being rusty at the game and streaming with a half-dozen friends, I decided to try out the campaign mode, and what we found was honestly shocking. It didn’t exist my first go around with the game, so I was just as fresh as everyone else in experiencing it. In this first sequence of the game, which is supposed to teach the player how to play, the player is asked to build an execution chamber, and the game just spirals into one of the most interesting places I’ve seen from any tutorial.
At the start of the sequence, the player is introduced to the prison and receives a phone call from the prison’s CEO, who explains the issue: they, we, have been contracted to carry out the execution of one Edward Romsey, guilty of a double homicide. The player plans out the construction of the execution chamber, learning how to build walls, place doors, build furniture, and put in flooring. After placing the electric chair, the CEO calls to tell the player to connect the electricity to it, introducing the player to the utilities map of the game and finalizing the construction of the chamber. Along the way, they are treated to two cut-scenes: in the first they witness the extent of Edward’s crimes, watching him murder his wife and her lover. In the second, we see a remorseful Edward go church to apologize for his sins and turn himself in. As that scene ends, Edward is executed, and the tutorial is over.
While Edward was dying in the electric chair, my mind drifted toward someone else who was executed nearly 60 years ago: Adolf Eichmann.
Unlike Edward, I have absolutely no sympathy for Eichmann, a nazi war criminal and one of the key organizers of the holocaust. If there is any group who deserves execution, Eichmann was certainly among them. But my mind did not drift toward Eichmann because I care about that monstrosity, but because of Hannah Arendt’s famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which recounts the trial Eichmann underwent before his execution. I admire Arendt, and this work is one that stands out to me. In it, Arendt pontificates on Eichmann’s trial, finding a number of things noteworthy about him and the tribunal that she expands on. Three of these ideas are particularly relevant for our discussion of Prison Architect.
The first is that Arendt continually describes Eichmann as a relatively ordinary person, perhaps too ordinary. Eichmann flunked out of high school and college, and Arendt explains that he was hardly an intellectual paragon of evil, or some monster in human clothes. Instead, she describes him as someone who was exceedingly average, whose primary motivation was to fit in and belong. Arendt notes that he was evaluated by multiple psychologists who found him normal and his outlook “not only normal but most desirable.” Arendt finds this curious, though it is not something that was picked up by the administers of justice, either the prosecution, defense, or judge, “because they were too good, and perhaps also too conscious of the very foundations of their profession, to admit that an average ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong.” This is of particularly importance to Arendt, who argues that Eichmann was “indeed normal insofar as he was ‘no exception within the Nazi regime.’ However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only ‘exceptions’ could be expected to react ‘normally.'” Suffice to say, Arendt finds nothing exceptional about Eichmann, an individual who committed some of history’s most horrendous crimes. What this means for her is that when completely evil atrocities are normalized, it is those who rebel against the order of things that are exceptional, abnormal, and those who we might consider “average” are likely to do evil things like Eichmann.
Second, Eichmann’s reasoning for his actions is important to Arendt. Eichmann and his defense attorneys did not argue that he did not commit the crimes in question, but that he was just following orders, or “doing his duty.” Eichmann referred to himself as a “law-abiding citizen” in this sense. Thus, his argument is that he was not culpable for the atrocities he committed, because they were “superior’s orders” or “acts of state” rather than personal decisions. Arendt finds this argument weak, and explains, “Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known in gruesome detail), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.” How these people justify their actions is that they were following orders, a flimsy excuse for mass murder, to be sure, but their disposition toward these actions was that they were out of their control, that they weren’t responsible.
Finally, the two above points bring Arendt to one of her most famous phrases: the banality of evil. By this, she means that in the Nazi regime, and more broadly in bureaucracy, there is a profound connection, or disconnection, between thoughtlessness and evil: evil acts can be carried out by people not because they are filled with enormous hate, but because they are ignorant to, or rationalize, the consequences of their actions. It is important to note that neither Arendt, nor I, are attempting to defend Eichmann or his terrible deeds, but rather we seek to understand what causes such atrocities to occur in the first place. This kind of evil is particularly salient in totalitarian regimes, as Arendt writes “the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them. And one can debate long and profitably on the rule of Nobody, which is what the political form known as bureaucracy truly is.” This is not to say “nobody” was responsible for the terrible crimes of the Nazi regime, but that the entirety of its bureaucracy was designed so that no one was making moral choices, that they were just cogs in a machine and able to view themselves as such. And that returns us to Prison Architect, where the player is, similarly, stripped of their ability to make such moral choices.
On the first point from Arendt, the player is absolutely normalized in the context of the game. They are not an exceptionally skilled prison administrator, in fact, the administration of the death penalty to Edward is the tutorial that teaches the player how to play the game. Like the various workmen, cooks, and guards that wander the grounds of the prisons the player constructs, the player is not exceptional or interesting. In the world of the game they are just the one who plans the construction of walls, cells, electrical lines, water pipes, and decorations: they are normal in the world of the game. There is nothing unique about them, they are not even a character within the game, they have no lines or personality, they are just a cog of bureaucracy.
On that note, the player is simply “following orders” from the CEO. It is exceedingly interesting to me that the CEO tells the player multiple times that they are not responsible for Edward’s death. He tells the player the first time they see Edward that “It’s not our place to decide if he deserves this. The law has made that decision. We’re just here to do a job.” Here the “law” and its “orders” are the only thing that matters, not the player’s opinions or ideas. Upon completion of the job, he remarks, “What happens now is out of our hands. We did a professional job, and that’s important in our business.” In essence, this praises the player not for their ability to act as a moral agent, but for their ability to follow orders. The CEO tells the player to “try not to worry about what happens next,” before they witness Edward’s flashback and execution, which concludes the tutorial. At this point the player loses all agency, so if the game really didn’t want us to worry about it, they could have just cut the chapter at that point, but by showing Edward’s execution and his past, in excruciatingly emotional detail, the game affirms that their actions do have consequences, even though they cannot “resist the temptation” to construct the prison that enables Edward’s execution.
Finally, and perhaps most pointedly, Edward’s execution is incredibly banal. It is a tutorial for the player to learn the ropes of the game, where the player constructs the mechanism of the state to exact punishment on criminals. As I watched Edward being executed, my mind fixated on the banal aspects of this execution that I had control over: specifically, the kind of flooring that lined the execution chamber. For most of the characters of the game, from the CEO to the prison guard, the entire affair is treated as normal, boring, and necessary, regardless of the their own beliefs. The player is nobody, an agent of a bureaucracy designed to minimize any moral thought. They don’t pull the switch after all, they just laid out the plans for the execution chamber and connected the electricity. On a much smaller scale, they are another Eichmann. They may not be committing the same crime, but their motivation, or lack there-of, is aligned with Arendt’s description of the banality of evil, or the rule of “nobody.”
Significantly, Prison Architect places this discussion in a *contemporary* period, and it is important for us to understand that such events are still taking place today. In particular, my heart goes out to the Uighur people of China. Even as I was writing this script more horrible news came out of Xin Jiang regarding their genocide. This is just one example, but Prison Architect illuminates how easy it is for people to “just follow orders” and commit terrible acts. Perhaps I found this section more moving because I am personally against the death penalty as a form of criminal punishment, but the way the game asks the player to connect the electricity to the electric chair and construct the execution chamber, but then tells them to not worry about their culpability of their actions, is a profound moment of player-system relations that illustrates just how dangerous such systems of bureaucracy can become. So even if we could argue that Prison Architect’s handling of such a topic is ham-fisted, I, for one, am grateful it engages with such complex topics in the form of a digital game, and I think it reflects ways that games can grapple with complex narratives and themes that other mediums can’t. In this case, the game doesn’t just show us the banality of evil, it asks us to participate in an evil machine, forcing us to more critically consider how such systems construct actions and dehumanize people in the process.

Erik Kersting

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