The Warden Game: Power and Politics in a Recovered 1980s Text Adventure

Curator's Note

During the past two years, I've been fortunate enough to work alongside community members and academics in contributing to the Washington Prison History Project, an online project documenting the history of prisoner activism and policy in our state. The project's archive at the University of Washington Bothell Library is a growing collection of prisoner publications, research articles, oral histories and many other physical and digital artifacts highlighting the lived experience and ongoing work of current and formerly incarcerated people.

One collection of artifacts, which formed the initial cornerstone of the Washington Prison History Project Archive, are papers donated in 2016 to the archive by Ed Mead - prodigious jailhouse lawyer, dissident author, and prison and political organizer - with the help of Dr. Dan Berger at the University of Washington. A notable artifact located among these papers by Dr. Berger is the printed source code for a computer game - "The Warden Game" - programmed by Ed in the 1980s while at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, WA. At that time Mead was serving two consecutive life sentences at the WSR for his participation in a January 1976 bank robbery. He taught himself how to program when the prison introduced computers. After his release in 1993, he worked as a technical engineer for several agencies.

The source code is a fascinating artifact, one which at the time of its identification immediately invited scrutiny and demanded study. In 2017-2018, while serving the Washington Prison History Project as the project's IAS Interdisciplinary Scholar, I worked initially to decipher the game's story and flow, and later to recover the game and produce a version that could be played on a modern system but also stay true to the game's original look, feel, and functionality. I turned to Twine, a platform for producing interactive stories. The result - enhanced now with a glossary of terms and additional background - is "The Warden Game" for which you see a short play-through above.

The game is a first-person text adventure or interactive story of the type common to late 1980s personal computing, and yet utterly unique in both content and functionality. In the game, you are the Warden of a maximum security prison that has lately experienced some unrest on the part of both inmates and guards. In the era in which the game takes place, your prison is part of a larger state department of corrections whose structure and mission is in flux, and whose institutions are undergoing an overhaul and vast increase in footprint and funding. As the warden, you are being presented with various demands from groups inside and outside the prison - inmates, guards, families, government agencies, the media and more. By choosing certain actions over others, you have the opportunity to see the outcome of those actions. You earn points that are roughly inversely proportional to the amount of conflict your decisions create.

Your main functional goal is to keep your job (if you get fired, the game ends early). Your larger goal - as Mead saw it - is to keep the prison functioning well as a place of rehabilitation for its inmates. The game essentially contains within it a number of assumptions about what it means to run a “just” prison. What is particularly striking about it is the underlying understanding about how power moves through an institution such as a maximum security prison, and the ways in which multiple groups can impact a prison's organization and internal activity.

Since its launch, the game has been used in classrooms on topics as varied as the history of mass incarceration, media studies, and digital arts and activism. The game invites exploration: as the player, you are free to inhabit many different personal and political points of view, and test different strategies against each other. A web version of the game is available at the Washington Prison History Project website. We invite you to visit the site and play the game for yourself as well!

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