Playing an inmate in an online prison online isn’t really the first choice for many people if you’re looking for a fun, engaging and interesting role-play setting. Unusual, yes. Sometimes bizarre and strange – yes, that as well. But as a first choice, well it wasn’t mine and probably wouldn’t be yours as well.
So how did this happen, and why on earth did I stay once it had?
I’d played a number of online SIMs and role-plays for a while in the late 2000s but I was really looking for a different environment by 2009 which was limited in the setting but unlimited in the depth of role-play it offered.
I was fairly tired of SIMs where you can wander for hours meeting different people each time. I was looking for somewhere which was compact, geographically limited and gave the chance to bump up against the same players that I’d met before. Even if you’ve never been in a prison SIM before, you’ll realize that the confining grey concrete walls of a correctional facility meet this first requirement.
I was also looking for a role-play environment which would offer the chance for a deeper style of role-play. I say “environment” because I believe that the context, or setting, of a game influences the players’ reaction and play styles within it. I was looking for something where I could develop a character, play that character for a long time, and see that character develop alongside other players. Some environments help you do this more than others. In my experience, they tend to be some of the “edgier” environments – places where you’re slightly uncertain what’s going happen, and where it’s not quite certain whether you’re the hunter, or the hunted. The kind of environments which heighten tension also seem to help to develop role-play, and when a friend had mentioned prisons as being one of those environments, I started to be intrigued.
At first, like some of you I’m sure, I dismissed the idea out of hand. Surely a prison was too limited a role-play. What was there to do? Who’d be there? Do I just stare at concrete walls all day long? And then, the more I thought about it and read around the subject, I started to see some of the opportunities. The environment was certainly “edgy” – and sometimes even tense. The physical properties of the prison SIMs in SL are frequently deeply impressive; so much work has gone into these over the years that, with the right lighting effect on your screen, you can’t help but feel slightly unnerved. The location where role-play happens is confining, perhaps even restrictive, but that helps the role-play more often than it hinders it.
And once I’d started I found that these features had drawn a lot of other players with similar wish-lists of what they wanted to get from their online role-play. There were players who wanted to examine the interaction between characters in a complex, social environment where there was a very clear power asymmetry. There were players who wanted to create lasting relationships between inmates. Players who were very interested in the mental aspects of prison life. Players who wanted to fight “The System”. And players who wanted to escape and saw their imprisonment as a personal challenge. It wasn’t at all what I expected. And while my character was in the prison (first as a guard, and then as an inmate – we’ll come to how that happened later), I started to see the opportunities opening up for detailed, immersive and challenging role-play.
Over the past few years I’ve therefore played the same inmate, developing my character in various ways. During this time, some strange things have happened. The features of prison role-play which I thought would be the focus of the action, have faded out of the picture. By these I mean the mechanical actions in the prison role-play – inspections, searches, yard-time, visits to the canteen. One other inmate mentioned to me that these mechanical actions were “going through the motions” – something which happens in the role-play, as in a real prison – and I think that’s right. They’ve become part of the setting in which the really interesting aspects of the SIM take place. By contrast, the types of social interaction which I’d hoped for, but not been sure how to find, have become central to my role-play. Human interactions, friendships, enmities, fears, regrets, relationships with those on “the outside” and, above all, in-character hopes and dreams have become the heart of my experience of the SIM. As a journey, that’s taken a while. But as an engaging role-play experience, its more than I’d ever hoped when I first came through the doors of a prison almost four years ago.