Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a new essay from Ryan Bradley and Kill Screen, the videogame arts and culture magazine. Kill Screen is currently wrapping up a Kickstarter campaign to reinvent their print magazine, so donate here.
* * *
No one wore stripes that spring and summer in Leavenworth. Stripes were for rule breakers, and no one was breaking the rules. “Baseball As A Corrective” read the front page of the New York Times that May. It was 1912 and “the magic of baseball” had “wrought a wonderful change in the United States Penitentiary.” For the first time in Leavenworth’s history, for months at a time, everyone behaved, because everyone wanted to play or watch the baseball games. “Chronic trouble makers began to be so good that the officials were startled,” the Times reported. Prison guards were planning more amusements for the winter, “such as vaudeville entertainments and moving picture shows, to keep the men on their good behavior.”
Understand that at the root of punishment in America and its long strange history lies shame. For decades into the 19th century, we didn’t incarcerate, didn’t lock people up, put them away, out of sight, like today. Just the opposite: They went on display, placed in stocks and cages, tied to whipping posts, marched to the gallows or hanging tree where their beaten bodies remained for days afterward. Sometimes, in small colonies or towns surrounded by wilderness, repeat offenders were banished, but mass banishment into prisons was not embraced as an institutional form until the 1820s. Until then, public shaming was the central mode of punishment in America, for it was only through shame that one may find forgiveness and, eventually, redemption. In America, where spiritual belief has been refracted back into political culture from the beginning, sin is crime, and crime is sin. Mark the sinner. Make her wear a red letter, make him wear stripes.
Adam Lovell is the president of WriteAPrisoner.com, a company that helps match prisoners with pen pals and pen pals with prisoners. He writes a newsletter every month and sends it to some 1,500 of these letter-writers, inside and out. In April, he included an item titled “Video Games & Inmates.” “Does your incarcerated loved one or pen-pal play video games while incarcerated? How about before they were incarcerated?” He told his letter-writers to “get out your pen and paper and ask your inmate if they’re a video gamer,” and he included my email, to get in touch.
My reasons for wanting to get in touch were not, I’d told Lovell, moralistic. Maybe anthropological was the right word. Or aesthetic. I wanted to know what it was like to play video games in prison, or think about video games in prison. Or just: be a prisoner, who also identified as a gamer. The question of whether it is right or wrong to allow prisoners to play video games—to give an incarcerated person access to this form of entertainment—was not interesting to me, then.
Dozens of people wanted to talk, but talking was difficult. Time was limited, phone calls and emails expensive (one four-minute call cost $18; a single email $3.50; when I was able, I reimbursed inmates for their time and efforts). Most didn’t have access to video games in prison, but had been gamers before. They dreamed about games, they said. Ed, who was serving out a ten-year sentence for possession of a stolen firearm, wanted to hear about what video games were like now. He’d been inside for five years, and had two more years, he hoped, with good behavior. “I wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was playing when I could play,” he said. “I wish I had been paying more attention to a lot of things.” Another prisoner wrote to say he dreamed about the cheat codes you could make on games, the way you could walk through walls in Doom, and dreamed of doing that here, inside, just walking through walls until you were out.
Understand that at the root of punishment in America and its long strange history lies shame.
The change to the US prison system that ushered in the era of banishment was brought about by fear, the same fear that today has turned the United States into the undisputed world champion of locking up young black men. In the 1820s, the argument was the same: these individuals (young, recent immigrants, minorities) were a threat to family and society and so must be removed and reformed through solitude, order, and control.
The most expensive and famous prison of all was Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829. Each cell was vaulted and skylit: “only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving) to lead to penitence,” reads the prison’s history. De Tocqueville visited in 1831 and wrote, “Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness?” Charles Dickens visited eleven years later and found the prison’s intent, borne out of the Quaker’s own sequestered forms of punishment, to be in purpose “kind, humane, and meant for reformation.” And yet, in practice the “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain” made such solitary confinement “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” By 1909, Eastern State had loosened its single-cell model. Prisoners were gathering in group workshops on occasion. They even had a newspaper, The Umpire, that ran almost nothing but rosters and scores from the prison’s baseball league. Four years later, Eastern State abandoned the single cells that had made it famous.
Two inmates, Christopher and William, wrote to me. They were working on the development of a new video game together, though the pair didn’t have access to any video games where they were held, in Buena Vista, Colorado. Well, they did, they wrote, but “games are played on tablets that are sold on Canteen at inflated prices,” and the games were extremely basic. Christopher said he held a bachelor’s degree in Game Art and Design, and was “versed in 3D Max, Maya, Illustrator, Photoshop and Flash.” William, for his part, was “much more adept with functionality and playing of video games.” They, too, wanted to hear about what I was playing, what games were exciting, and didn’t want to discuss the details of what they were working on over email. We tried to schedule a call but I didn’t add money to their J-Pay account in time and they couldn’t connect. I emailed them again, through one of the slow, antiquated email systems used by prisons, but didn’t hear back. Then, as happened with many who wrote me, we lost touch.
Ed wrote again. He had to sign up for a computer class in the computer room, which had about ten stations. You get a password, which you can only get if you sign up for the classes, but the room was open all day. There was no internet access. “I usually use the computer to play games for a couple hours a day. Usually but sometimes more if I have spare time.” The main thing he thought about was the game itself, which was important, because it took his mind off everything else. But this feeling of forgetting never lasted long, because it couldn’t. “I do get so focused that I lose myself in the game…I do forget that I am in prison for a short period of time but can’t stay out of focus for too long because of the unpredictable nature of where I’m at (in prison) and what could happen at anytime (violence) around me. No clowns with balloons!”
He included a list of some of the games he was allowed to play. “They are educational but so what to a gamer they are just fine.” They were mostly typing games, “Typing with Sharks” and “Tomb Typer” were two. I wrote back to Ed. I told him that his story of retreating into the computer lab had reminded me of when my elementary school computer lab opened, and how, sometimes, to avoid recess, the shame of getting picked last or nearly last in kickball, I would get permission to go to the lab instead. We were only allowed to play educational games, too. Mario Teaches Typing was the one I remembered best. Ed wrote to say that “Every once in a while an old issue of Gamepro will float around and we will all reminisce about the games we used to play. Then recently a new issue of Game Informer came around and we were all ooooohs and aaaahs with drooling in-between.” He thanked me for writing him and wrote that, even though he understood that my grade school experience wasn’t the same, he could see how it was, too. “We’re both escaping something,” he wrote. He wanted me to know that it was important for everyone out there who might read this to realize that even though he was away, and could only play a certain type of sort of dumb game and not the top name titles, he and his friends inside were still trying to find out about them, and looking forward to playing them, and thinking about them all the time. He didn’t want to seem too different, too marked. It was important not to forget that they were, he wrote, “like you, and like all the other gamers who might be reading your story.”
My old roommate, Brian, is my favorite person to talk with about video games. When we lived together, he was getting his PhD in philosophy and studying riots, specifically the movements and shows of force among riot police. We didn’t play games much together—our apartment was too small, and we were too frugal, to have any system of our own—but no one else I knew was more fun about intellectualizing, say, the police AI movements and mannerisms in Grand Theft Auto. I remember this conversation in particular, because we meandered into what it meant for a society when it saw its police force routinely wielding big, brutal weapons, like assault rifles. Sure it was preventative, but at what cost?
I told Brian then about my experience living in New Delhi, India, where armed guards with automatic weapons were everywhere. I told him about my first day on the job, when one of my new coworkers slipped me his number and told me if ever I had any dealings with the police or military or anyone in power to call him, please, first, because no one in those positions could be trusted, and the feeling of heightened awareness, the edge I was forced to take on, an exhausting edge, living within such a society. When I finished, Brian—who is black—paused a moment, then said, “You realize you’ve just described what it’s like to be me, here, everyday?”
Solitary confinement never went away. The slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain were not relegated to solitary anyway, but the entire incarceration apparatus, or something larger still, that lasts longer than incarceration and affects those outside the system, too—a whole race, even. By the 1970s, at the outset of our strange and modern era of imprisonment on a massive scale, the U.S. abandoned all its Quaker-inspired notions of rehabilitation and began to slash funding for in-prison education programs. Inmates were always meant to suffer, but now the suffering was outright. Suffering was the point. Activities that pulled a prisoner away from the experience of being in prison—a class, a game—were deemed particularly troublesome. Culturally, we’ve adopted this stance, too. The typical news story about video games in prison most often mentions the irony or outrage of criminals filling their days with first person shooters. Any ex-con who had access to a real gaming system will tell you, as several told me, that the games with the most bang for your buck inside are not shooters but either sports games (because other inmates will pay to play them, too) or incredibly long and complex role-playing games. Shooters are usually too fast, too simple.
Malcolm, who was on a 355-month federal sentence for firearms and drug trafficking, wrote me. He wanted to tell me about his son. Video games are what he and his son talk about, when they talk on the phone, which is as often as possible but not very often. He’s been gone four years now. He had an Xbox 360 in his car and he and his son used to play in there together. He can’t play games in federal, no, but it’s impossible not to think about, because it’s impossible not to think about his son. “Of course,” he wrote, “there is a bad part of prison life that is in some ways like a game.”
“Prison socializes an inmate to behave hyper-rationally,” begins Marek Kaminski’s “Games Prisoners Play.” Kaminski was a twenty-two-year-old Polish sociology student, arrested for running an underground, anti-communist publishing house in 1985. For three years he observed prison from the inside, making note not just of the endless violence but the events preceding and following a fight or a rape. He wrote his master’s thesis about the experience, which then became the book. Prison, Kaminski observed, rewards generously for smart action, and punishes severely for mistakes. There is constant feedback. The rules are different from real life. What might at first appear chaotic and lawless from the outside is in fact governed by its own internal, and in a sense, hyper-rational, rules. In this way prison is like an almost endless, exhausting game. To be a prisoner you have to become someone else, endlessly present to the moment, because every moment carries within it the possibility of turning deadly. No wonder, given the choice, an inmate would rather be in his cell, playing a video game. One inmate, in a message conveyed to me in an email sent by his Write-A-Prisoner pen-pal, said that “sometimes the only thing that keeps me sane is the moments I get to think about anything else.”
Brendan Jay got out just a few years ago, after eight years in. He’s still on parole, and will be for about another decade, all for robbing some drug dealers who’d robbed his friend. “It basically cost me 20 years of my life,” he told me over the phone. There was still, he said, this “huge gap of not really relating to people, still having the same kind of anxiety and trepidation and hyper vigilance when I’m just, like, sitting around people.” Video games have been an outlet and an escape. He’d found a group of friends online and they always play together—Halo, mostly. Gaming with the group allowed him to socialize while doing something active. It occupied his mind. “I would say that I spent too long in a place where everything is so intense and stressful and extreme that sometimes, when I’m just sitting around, it feels surreal, like, this can’t be life. I get anxiety from sheer boredom. Anxiety from not having anxiety. But when I’m gaming, it’s intense, it requires constant strategizing, it’s a way to distract and almost trick my mind out of the anxiety of regular life.”
At first I didn’t want to deal with the moral question. The moral question being: should video games be in prison? When video games and prison enter the media, most often, they are handled bluntly, dumbly, morally, like: can-you-believe-it? It’s a kind of trap to fall into. But, I’d learned, it’s impossible to avoid, because it’s the whole thing. Few inmates have access to video games, and beyond video games, the few means of distraction from his current incarceration an inmate is allowed are entirely moral choices others have decided for him. Often these choices defy logic—as moral choices often do. My personal favorite involves not video games but Dungeons & Dragons. A 2010 decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Wisconsin prison’s ban on the the dice game (as well as the possession of D&D publications and materials) under the rationale that it might stimulate gang activity, though there was no evidence to prove it did. In fact, the only evidence seemed to be indulging in escapism, becoming divorced from reality, and, in one case, from out of state and not even involving inmates or gang members, two D&D players acted out a D&D storyline and, in doing so, committed a crime.
At trial, a specialist testified that cooperative games can mimic the organization of gangs. And that, in fact, because one player in D&D is denoted the “Dungeon Master” and can give directions to other players, this mimics the organization of a gang.
Sometimes the only thing that keeps me sane is the moments I get to think about anything else.
The worst thing about corresponding with prisoners over the course of many months is how easy it is to lose people. Maybe they run out of money or are moved or just don’t have time, but the number of half-formed conversations and dropped thoughts and missed moments would fill a whole other essay. It’s hard to be in touch with people in prison, and that is the point. It’s supposed to be hard because we have created a system that makes it easy for them to be forgotten.
The most dangerous aspect of an inmate playing video games in prison, why inmates think and dream about playing, is so that they might forget, too, if only for a moment, the extraordinarily awful circumstances that surround them. It’s not as simple as an escape. It’s a return to something approaching life.
Is that okay? That they for a moment forget where they are? Or who they are? That they be, for a moment, not an inmate, not a number or a race or class or sexuality but simply someone playing?
Brendan Jay told me how much he’d wished he had video games when he was inside. He said, “I don’t know why they don’t, it would be so helpful. To cope. To maybe feel not normal but not, there.” Then he described how often someone would come up to him, wanting to start something, slap him in the face, talk about his mom. “I just wished, in that moment, I could go back into my room and play Halo. Can you even imagine?” he said. “Can you?”
In 1920, the Times returned upstate to cover baseball in prison, this time to Comstock, New York, to a game pitting the prison team against a company team, from the Union Bag Company. The reporter noted something remarkable, watching the inmates walk out to play. “To an outsider there was nothing to indicate that the men thus crossing the field were prison inmates. They wore no uniforms as such. The trousers of each man were gray. Apart from that there was nothing to show they were members of a correctional institution.”
* * *
Ryan Bradley’s writing has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, VQR, Fortune, The New Yorker, Awl, and New York magazine, among other publications.
* * *
Editor: Clayton Purdom