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Games in Jail: Escaping the Daily Grind

The introduction of the first video game machine onto the market in the USA in 1972, the venerable Pong, marked the birth of a new era. A number of archetypical game concepts that have now endured 40 years arose in the following years. Including a game of skill whose success spawned many variations: In Breakout, the player has to use a virtual paddle to control a ball so that it breaks bricks. The raucous decoration of the machine provided the context for the simple graphics: A prisoner in a black and white striped jumpsuit is hammering through a wall of red bricks. He breaks out.

Looking to escape
People for whom this video game scenario is not a virtual adventure but reality are also looking for an escape. "Video games let you escape day-to-day life behind bars a little. I play to distract myself," an inmate at the Upper Austrian correctional facility in Garsten told futurezone. The video game allows the player to escape from the confines of the cell into a virtual world. "Everyone plays, even if it`s just Solitaire," the inmate said. It is an alternative to the monotony of prison life, and is a way to experience something.



Playing is also a way to avoid depression. "When I`m playing, I concentrate on the tasks, and that takes my mind off my family for a little while," the inmate said. He has been incarcerated in the high security correctional facility near Steyr for many years, and uses a desktop computer in his cell. He is legally entitled to such a computer when it is used for learning and education. Of course, it is also used for entertainment.

PlayStation consoles and computers are allowed
Sony`s PlayStation 2 console may also be purchased in Austrian correctional facilities and used in the cell. At the Mittersteig facility in Vienna, which houses psychologically abnormal but sane criminals, eleven of the 89 inmates have a gaming console. But this is a privilege that can be revoked as soon as an inmate fails to follow the rules. Like computers, consoles can be purchased in the facility shop.

Newer consoles like the Nintendo Wii, Sony PS3 or Xbox360 are not available. Devices with integrated network and Internet functionality are prohibited, because this would enable inmates to have contact with the outside world and engage in illicit activity on the Web. "Internet sticks are smuggled in a lot. Because of this, the guards inspect the computers regularly to see if they have been on the Internet," said the inmate in Garsten. But the guards have more control in general through the restriction to offline devices only. The console or computer is also inspected in detail before being given to the inmate, and is sealed after this inspection.

Black market for games and strict controls
The controls also cover the games for the devices, which are also purchased through the facility shop. "Inmates are only allowed to have games that are approved for ages 12 and under," said Christine Maier, deputy facility director in Mittersteig. All games that are ordered by inmates go through her office. Only games without violent content and questionable scenarios are allowed. These include soccer and racing games, as well as many simulation and strategy games. But it is no surprise that problematic games also make their way into correctional facilities. "Inmates can get any game that they want. There`s a market for everything. The only limitation is the power of the computer. When the processor and graphics card are too old, current games only run poorly or not at all," the inmate in Garsten said.



The popularity of the individual genres is the same inside and on the outside. The games that men between the ages of 18 and 45 prefer are also played behind bars. The clichés are true, and the men like soccer, tennis and racing games. There are also fans of role playing and strategy games. There is no demand for party games like SingStar. The correctional facilities for women also reflect general societal trends, and games only play a minor role. "Everyone has different preferences, and likes different games. Some are 40 and want to play Super Mario, while others only want the latest games," said the inmate from Garsten, who says he only plays occasionally.

Achievements and moments of happiness
"I like soccer. Just like outside. I also tried tennis and racing," said an inmate in Mittersteig. He turns on his PlayStation an average of four days a week to play matches for up to three hours. But he says that it is not just about the duel on the field anymore. "Managing the players and the club is just as important to me," the inmate says, becoming visibly animated as he talks about his passion.

This excitement can be seen and felt in many who talk about their gaming preferences. "I always take the worst team, because then it`s a challenge. I would win right away if I took good teams," said the inmate from Mittersteig. When you listen to the inmates, it becomes clear that the success they achieve in the games is particularly important to them. They are rewarded for these achievements, and they get the feeling that they can do something well.

In their own space
Just as the focus of the inmate in Mittersteig in soccer has changed, so has his attitude towards the game. "In the beginning, I used the PlayStation as an escape. It was a place where I could be alone with myself. I could block everything else out while playing, and was in my own space. I didn`t have to deal with anything." At that time, he rarely left his cell, and played as much as eight hours a day. The game was a means to an end, the best tool for the job. But over the years and through his therapy, his game playing has taken on more positive aspects. "Now, I play when I am feeling good. For fun and to pass the time. Other things have gotten more important, and it is just one thing I can do in my free time aside from watching television or reading," the inmate explained.

Game addiction and job loss
Just like on the outside, there are also people behind bars who get lost in games. "A few years ago, there was a guy in our block who spent every free minute playing video games. During breaks, when we were confined to our cells, just all the time. You could see that he was addicted," the inmate from Garsten told. But such inmates are the exception. Even though the power is never shut off in Garsten or Mittersteig and anyone could play all night long, this rarely happens. Because just like on the outside, excessive playing and the associated tiredness has serious consequences in prison life.

"You have to go to work the next day. If you play all night, your work becomes poor, and you lose your prison job. And your pay," said the inmate from Garsten. In Mittersteig, the monthly pay, for example in the laundry or kitchen, is about 100 euros on average. When you compare this with the costs for games, it is immediately clear that it is an expensive hobby. In Garsten, a desktop computer costs about 500 euros, and a PlayStation 2 a little more than 100 euros. The price of games is similar to outside and ranges between 30 and 60 euros depending on the game. Anyone without a job or who loses his job can`t afford any entertainment. And the inmates have to pay for the electricity they use. The use of two devices is free, but the inmate has to pay for any additional hardware.


Routines like outside
Many routines are similar to outside. In Mittersteig, for example, the cells are opened at 7:30 in the morning, work starts at 8:00 and goes until 2:30 in the afternoon. The inmates then have free time, which they can spend outside playing sports or doing yard and garden work, or in their cells playing games. The inmates can move about their own blocks freely until 11:00 pm. Then they must return to their cells, and they are locked in. This mirroring of the outside world is especially designed for therapeutic reasons.

"Structure and orderly routines are important. Most inmates did not have this before. Routines like on the outside help with therapy and resocialization," said Katinka Keckeis, head of the psychological service at the Mittersteig correctional facility. This also includes free time. "Most inmates have never learned to occupy themselves. All they do is smoke, drink coffee and watch television. Few think to do anything else," the licensed psychologist said. But this is important for the time after their sentence. Ex-inmates should make good use of the time they have after their release while they are looking for a job. "People who don`t know what to do with themselves are at much higher risk of falling prey to alcohol or people who are not good for them," Keckeis said.

Playing by the law
This argumentation can also be found in the penal code, which stipulates the sensible use of free time to prevent relapses. Paragraph 58, which governs the use of free time, says: "The inmates shall be encouraged to make sensible use of their free time, including concrete guidance if necessary. To this end, they should in particular be given the opportunity to read, to receive radio and television broadcasts, to engage in sports and [...] social games."

Games as a common ground
The latter include board, dice and card games, as well as chess and video games. Digital games have displaced their analog counterparts from past decades. There is little demand for board games according to Walter Rosenauer, who has been responsible for inmates` free time in Mittersteig for 23 years. When you ask inmates what they play aside from PlayStation games, they only mention games that are also well liked on the outside. The most popular by far is poker, which is standardized across all generations and nationalities. The inmates appreciate the social connections that it facilitates. "It breaks the ice and creates a basis for us to talk to each other. You get to know each other while playing," an inmate in Mittersteig said.



Risk of isolation
According to Götz Eisenberg, prison psychologist at Butzbach correctional facility in Germany, playing on the console lacks therapeutic and social benefits. "Some inmates arrange to play against each other on the PlayStation. But most play alone," Eisenberg criticized. The sociologist, who engages in activities like arranging theater with inmates, is skeptical of digital games.

Since communal television was eliminated and every inmate has his own television in his cell, interest in borrowing books and other free time activities has diminished drastically. "You are only allowed to have ten books in your cell at one time, but twenty games. This clearly shows in what direction we are heading," said Eisenberg. One third of the inmates in Butzbacher high security prison have a PlayStation. As many share a cell, the psychologist estimates that over half have access to a console.

Everyone alone in their cells
The inmate in Mittersteig who loves soccer has also become critical of the console: "We really should get rid of the PlayStation and television, because we don`t talk with each other anymore. There is no communication or friendship. Eight of us used to get together to play dice games or cards. The group feeling used to be better than it is now."

Video games to keep inmates quiet
For Eisenberg, the reasons that the PlayStation is tolerated are clear. "Just like the television, it is a good way to keep inmates quiet," the psychologist said. An addicted gamer causes fewer problems than a bored inmate. People don`t stir up trouble when they are playing on the computer. "Just like many parents don`t care what their children play, few care what the inmates play. So long as there is no unrest and the inmates are all staring into the television or computer screen, everyone is happy" said Eisenberg. It is the path of least resistance, but a bad solution because it does not prepare the inmates for life after incarceration. "The only way to generate enthusiasm is to show the inmates the various things that life has to offer," Eisenberg said.

This is why the inmate in Garsten has reduced the time he spends playing. "I`m doing an apprenticeship so I have better chances when I get out. The video games just keep me from studying."


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