The Warden Game [1987]

Content warnings: Rape, violence, terrorism.

This game does not fit on this blog. There’s a grand overarching historical scaffolding this blog relies on, a problematic grand narrative of tradition where ideas lead to ideas. This blog is in short about examining The Canon, for as uneasy as I am with that idea, with even other occasional obscure diversions like House Of Usher [1980] serving to add detail to the overall picture. That whole logic just doesn’t apply here. The only tenuous connection I can spin up to the overall story is the increasing prevalence of the personal microcomputer due to ongoing advocacy since the 70s along a particular libertarian-democratic-technologist ideological axis, meaning that games are now being developed by people who were never computer nerds nor workers in pre-existing entertainment companies. The Warden Game [1987] isn’t just an obscurity that made no impact on the tradition and doesn’t fill out its details, it was also produced in isolation — inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state, by a queer communist terrorist more significant to proper history than games history.

Negativland – Christianity Is Stupid [1987]

The author, Ed Mead, had been incarcerated for about the past 11 or 12 years at the time of making the game, as he would remain for the next 6, having spent his childhood even before that in and out of juvenile prisons for charges like “vagrancy.” Between Will Crowther’s original Colossal Cave Adventure [1975] and Don Wood’s canonical first revision in 1977, he was very busy with the affairs of The George Jackson Brigade, an American anarchist/communist revolutionary insurrectionist guerrilla group that he co-founded, which operated similarly to their contemporaries The Weather Underground, bombing buildings like prisons, federal offices, power substations, and supermarket chains but politely telephoning ahead to warn about the danger, which on one occasion didn’t work, causing casualties. According to the US Department Of Homeland Security, they were the fifteenth most prolific terrorist group in America up to 2011. Their first attack was on May 31st, 1975 with a pipebomb on the desk of the Washington Department Of Corrections, and on January 23rd, 1976, coincidentally exactly 19 years to the day before I was born, Ed Mead was arrested during the group’s first of many bank robberies, going out shooting at the cops.

Once incarcerated, he set to work organizing prisoners under the banner of Men Against Sexism, more-or-less successfully campaigning against woes like prison rape and slavery, rendering legal aid and otherwise locking horns with administrative bureaucracy on issues like solitary confinement and involuntary transfers, publishing newsletters, and most interestingly for our purposes spinning up a personal-computers-in-prison-cells program. While it seems like most of his major prison accomplishments were won by words and organization, Ed Mead kept making bombs and smuggling in guns. This specter of violence seems to have eventually been used mainly as leverage in sadly-routine internecine prison feuds rather than a continued “propaganda of the deed” terrorist campaign against prison administration.

It is notable, then, the extent to which The Warden Game is not a pipebomb on the desk. It’s not entirely clear to me for what audience if any this game was made, and therefore to what ends, but if it seems nigh-certain that if there were almost any distribution or knowledge of this game at all beyond top secrecy, at a minimum the actual warden at the time would have seen it. And why keep a tight lid? This game is not an incendiary call for violent revolution, riot, or retaliation: it’s actually broadly sympathetic to the warden, though still always at a remove. It might even be considered an olive branch, or a plea, some kind of peaceful discourse with the warden.

The Warden Game shares a very strong resemblance with Alter Ego [1986], though it seems nigh-impossible that’s an actual influence. It has a singular author with a strong life perspective as an outsider to normal video game development channels, whose cheeky narration essentially is the game. (Usually it’s poor critical practice to overemphasize authorial biography, but in this case I hope you will agree it’s pretty important. Actually, more important in all respects than the text itself is.) It is another node-based hypertext in our tour of them, this one the most reminiscent yet of Choose Your Own Adventure books, trivially-ported to Twine rather than to Choicescript and considerably shorter and more simply-implemented than the others. In this simple design, it’s all at once behind the times, ahead of its time, timeless, and precisely of its time.

Like Alter Ego or for that matter Nakayama Miho No Tokimeki High School [1987], it is a didactic text of moral education on how the player ought to live and think. It is not actually any “more” ideological than them, though it is more consciously polemical and political, and as you could probably guess its moral perspective is considerably more outre than either of those other games, which both rely on and perpetuate hegemonic understanding of what is pro-social and normal. But this game, like those, is fundamentally a propagandistic enterprise where it lays out various courses of behavior, and then may convince the player through either convincing causality or the sleight of hand of assertion that what follows in the text after that choice is the natural, logical, even value-neutral or inevitable consequence of such an action, thus hopefully entraining the player into its system of thinking in real life.

However, those games quickly and firmly clamp down on any deviation from their ideal travel path through their branches, punish it even, be it through narration or game-overs. The Warden Game, in contrast, lays out menus of many options and most of them are seen by the game as legitimate and meaningful paths through the game. While there are many paths that lead to game-overs, there’s mostly just degrees of incorrect instead of a binary of correct and incorrect. It is charitable, formally interested in ideological flexibility, in exploring the diversity of plausible thoughts and actions of a warden. It has a more complex and fluid idea of who the second-person “you” is. The narration itself typically congratulates you on your savvy choice, no matter what that choice is, unless and until it backfires on you as a practical matter, which is even then typically framed as unfortunate turns of luck even when it structurally begs to be seen as an obvious consequence.

But because you already know this isn’t gonna be an uncomplicated pro-prison-warden text, this praise almost always rings curiously tongue-in-cheek. It demands that a reader think critically about multiple dimensions of its text at once: the glad-handing surface meaning and how that reflects a character’s self-evaluation even in second- instead of first-person; mentally balancing and comparing and evaluating the multiple different hypothetical instantiations of this warden for yourself with no reliable narrator telling you point-blank which one is worse; and trying to speculate on what the author’s actual point of view might be, which runs counter to what they’re literally saying, as satire is wont to do. This fairly overt literary gamesmanship may actually obscure and distract attention from questioning the text’s proposed causal logic of unfolding events, which remains uncomplicatedly “true” within the narration.

There are two direct ways that the text tips its hand. First and foremost, there’s a points system, which as per usual quantifies and communicates how much we’re playing the game in the way the developer wants. Here, points correspond to approval of more considerate and democratic treatment of the prisoners, beyond the veil of satire. At the end of the game, when it tells you your total score for the game, it changes its whole tonal approach and uses the points to directly evaluate the warden, in the manner of an online personality quiz. It says things like “THERE IS LITTLE CHANCE THAT, COME THE REVOLUTION, YOU WILL BE PUT ON TRIAL FOR YOUR HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AGAINST THE WORKING CLASS, ALTHOUGH YOUR SCORE OF BETWEEN 40 AND 60 PERCENT MARKS YOU AS A PRIME CANDIDATE FOR PROLETARIAN REEDUCATION,” always taking the view from a hypothetical future leftist revolution, the kind that The George Jackson Brigade was formed to instigate. I do not think it is actually possible to get a score of 100%; the most I could ever manage was 80%. I think this is itself intentional commentary, that there cannot be a 100% good warden.

Actually, one of the earliest of the few premature game overs that you can achieve is found by doggedly pursuing the most pro-prisoner course of action available immediately, the one you’d probably first guess Ed Mead favors. You just get fired. The game does not have any simulatory “systems” in the game-mechanical sense besides its points, but it has an acute pointed emphasis on the social systems that entrap and regulate the behavior of the warden, foreclosing what they can actually be and do. There’s a menu of possibilities, but some are actually not possible because of the political position of any warden, pulled between competing interests from both “above” and “below” their station, like the state government, the guard’s union and even different splits of opinion within the guards, the vocally self-advocating prisoners, their aligned outside political sympathizers, and public opinion in general, which cannot all be fully appeased at once. Unlike Hamurabi [1973] — a potentially-plausible source of inspiration, circulating as a how-to-code exercise — you are in a position of power calling shots, but certainly not an absolute authority, and constrained not by mathematics and economics but by the more nebulous forces of ideologically-organized blocs of people which have ambiguous and capricious ability to thwart and defy you. It’s a relatively savvy and sympathetic and nuanced understanding of how political power works to wield. I can actually imagine a warden somewhat appreciating this game, for that.

Notably, though, the prisoners throughout the game are depicted as a unified, on-message bloc, not a group like the guards with their splits of opinion to navigate. There’s no hint of the clashes and conflicts that Ed Mead had himself frequently directly contended with, even of course within his leftist groups. All of the prisoners depicted in this game are of the organized and left-wing stripe, advocating for things Ed Mead advocated for in real life. If you’re too heavy-handed at certain points, you can instigate a riot, which can be read as a threat backed by real force probably even more than it can be read as a value-neutral natural consequence. (What other intimation of video game violence has ever operated in such a direct, material manner?) This isn’t a game about balancing intra-prisoner blocs, maybe playing them against each other, but about mapping out ways for a warden to respond to Ed Mead and company. I keep using the word “satire,” but it is perhaps instead an earnest attempt to map out realistic hypothetical actions and thoughts of someone who doesn’t think like you, who is in a position you’re not, and who is effectively your opponent in life whose moves beg predicting — or even, in showing them your map, maybe routing their future actions and thoughts.

The second place where there’s a most-noticeable thumb on the scale is to break dramatically from the established binds of constraint on political power. There’s a definite “good end” to this game, where you accede at last to the prisoners’ reasoned requests to be democratically involved in the running of the prison. Unlike earlier in the game, where lesser acts of leniency towards the prisoners can get you fired, the point being that such an attitude is institutionally impossible, this time… it works. It actually works very well:

“You have talked to prisoner representatives and learned they seek a voice in the operation of the prison. They say prisoners could not have done a worse job than you and your bosses in terms of protecting the public’s interests. That if rape is to be reduced, for example, prisoners must be permitted to conduct anti-sexist education within the population. Only when prisoners are conscious and organized, they argue, can they have a positive impact on the future. They claim it is a crime against humanity for you to maintain adults in a state of dependence and irresponsibility, a state that will ultimately lead to conflict unless radical changes are made.

[> WHAT THE HELL, GIVE THESE GUYS AS MUCH ROPE AS YOU REASONABLY CAN AND HOPE THEY KNOW WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT AND THAT YOU DON’T GET CANNED.]

[…] The three years that have passed since that decision have affirmed the wisdom of your reasoning. The state’s prisons are organized but calm. More importantly, the prisoners are taking positive steps to bring about constructive changes to a failing and destructive penal system. […]”

And yet, even this utopian vision is still rather modest. It’s radical, but not maximally; it’s not outright prison abolition. It does bring prison operation a bit closer towards anarcho-communist ideals, a stable condition of people cooperating constructively if given the chance to run their own lives. (Again, prisoners who aren’t on-board with this program are omitted, silent and inert. There’s no mention of disruptive squabbling arising from the balancing of competing interests and outlooks that the prisoners, like the warden, would also be subject to: that’s all glossed over and things just run smoothly.) Instead, the pitch is moderated more towards a reduction of harm and hostilities, perhaps through Ed Mead’s sincere hopes and beliefs for a bridge to a more peaceful world, but perhaps simply rhetorically.

This whole game has been an exercise in identifying with managerial logic, and even here in the big break managerial logic is centered: straightforwardly, the prisoners say they think they could do a better job at managing the prison than the warden, that things would just function so smoothly if things were done their way… while the whole game up to this point has been about why it can never be done this way, how this is actually not a politically-viable choice for a warden. This is a bittersweet fantasy. The very next sentence that passage, the final word to this ending before the score screen: “A system that uses pain and suffering as a tool to accomplish good, and instead only makes things worse for everyone involved.”

The results of the program to put personal computers in prison cells which Ed Mead nagged the administration into and which created the presumptive preconditions for The Warden Game’s production were remarkable: the prison became more organized and calm as those prisoners did not wish to lose their privilege to infractions, the computers were purchased by the prisoners themselves so it was no cost to the prison at all, and most astonishingly those prisoners with computers experienced a 0 percent recidivism rate, often finding work with computers on the outside (this would happen to Ed Mead, too.) Despite all this, James Spalding, the Washington Director Of Corrections from 1981 to 1993, kiboshed the computer program. Back in 1978, as Ed Mead’s warden at Walla Walla, he had swapped out progressive organized prisoners for Aryan Brotherhood members, thereby stirring up distracting violent conflict among the prisoners and successfully clamping down on the 1970s heyday of organized prison uprisings in his neck of the woods. He definitely didn’t play The Warden Game, at least, not in real life. But he still won.


Thanks again to Dalm for helping out. Thanks to MendelPalace for listing this game on their “Art Games Have Always Existed” page on Backloggd, without which I would have never possibly learned about it. Biographical information largely sourced from Ed Mead’s autobiography “Lumpen,” but also pieced together from various other bits and bobs online (pamphlets, news articles, Wikipedia.) The Warden Game can be played in your browser at https://waprisonhistory.org/wardengame/.

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4 thoughts on “The Warden Game [1987]

  1. So, you’re on the side of literal domestic terrorists and insurrectionists? Haven’t you seen all the coverage of the J6 literal domestic terrorists and insurrectionists? This is messed up, even from you.

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