Gamers get to ‘play God’ in virtual worlds

All powerful: Is it just a matter of fun and games or something else more dangerous?

Two new video games, Prison Architect and Watch Dogs, allow gamers to ‘play God’ by giving them power over vulnerable people. Will they deaden our responses to moral issues or improve them?

What is it like to run a prison? What is it like to be an all-powerful hacker who uses a smartphone to bring a city to its knees? Two new video games creating a stir this month offer players some sort of idea. They are part of a new wave of games that raise, according to one critic, both ‘fascinating and troubling’ moral dilemmas.

In Prison Architect, developed by UK studio Introversion, gamers design and run their own prison. They must construct cells, canteens, exercise areas and even morgues to keep the ever-growing prison population under control. It has been likened to popular simulated games from the 1990s, such as The Sims.

But while the aim of The Sims was for players to keep their virtual hordes happy, in Prison Architect, inmates must be punished and subdued. As one critic found out, splashing money on an idyllic environment only resulted in high reoffending rates – prisoners were desperate to return to his comfy, care-free citadel, and he was forced to implement harsher measures to deter them.

Players are also asked to build an execution chamber to seal the fate of a death row inmate. But the prisoner’s story casts uncomfortable questions over his guilt, urging players to reconsider their decisions.

Watch Dogs, released at the end of May by French developers Ubisoft, offers similar moral conundrums. The protagonist, Adam Pearce, is out to avenge the murder of his niece, and his powers are seemingly limitless. Using a smartphone, he can steal cars, manipulate traffic lights and plunge the city into darkness by cutting the power.

But his actions are fraught with ethical dilemmas. Pearce can hack to his heart’s content, but he must also consider how his actions affect his victims, such as draining the bank account of a woman who is running out of money and clinically depressed.

Killing time

Can playing games like these skew our moral compass? Some think so. Critics of Prison Architect have warned that it trivialises and misrepresents the reality of prison. Until recent updates were included, prisoners were treated as undeserving of compassion or rehabilitation. In Watch Dogs, gamers play a character who has been described as a ‘dead-eyed sociopath’. These games desensitise us to the reality of violence.

But others argue that the sophisticated nature of such games proves that the industry is maturing. Transitory, background characters can no longer simply be manipulated or mowed down with glee. Instead, the gamer is faced with ethical problems and challenges. These games can provoke timely discussions about the implications of punishment, rehabilitation and cybercrime – important lessons that can allow us to reconsider the world around us.

You Decide

  1. Are video games a healthy or unhealthy way to spend our time?
  2. Does playing games like Watch Dogs and Prison Architect deaden us to moral problems or make us more aware of them?


  1. Consider some of the dilemmas described in the story above. Discuss in groups what your response would be in each scenario, giving your reasons.
  2. Make a colourful, illustrated timeline of the history of video games, explaining how their development has progressed over the decades.

Some People Say...

“Reality is broken. Game designers can fix it.’Jane McGonigal”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t like video games, so why should I care about this?
You might not be a fan, but it’s still undeniable that the gaming industry is highly influential and lucrative; one which creates lots of interesting and creative jobs, and where independent upstarts can make billions. Their themes can also teach us much about the modern world and society. Some say that Watch Dogs was a prescient warning about online security and modern paranoia.
So should I play them then?
You might have to wait to play Watch Dogs, which has recently had its rating raised to an 18 classification due to some depictions of violence. Video games often get a bad reputation for their graphic content, which many people think can have a harmful effect on players. And spending too much time glued to games can be unhealthy.

Word Watch

The company has produced a string of critically acclaimed games, including Defcon, which simulates nuclear conflict.
The Sims
The Sims is one of the most successful video games of all time and has sold over 175 million copies worldwide. The games are mostly ‘sandbox’ games, meaning there is no particular goal to them. Players design virtual people, known as the sims, building them homes, finding them jobs, and generally managing their desires.
The maker behind Assassin’s Creed among others is the third-largest games producer in the world.
Recent updates
Prison Architect first became available to players in 2012, as a paid ‘alpha’, meaning that it is unfinished and has yet to be officially released. But players can pay to play it, and their feedback has allowed updates to be made. The most recent change, which occurred last month, gave players more options to rehabilitate prisoners. More than 300,000 units have already been sold, earning the independent company $10 million.
Having or showing knowledge of events before they take place.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.