Why you should care
Because being a warden — even virtually — is much harder than you may think.
Dan Berger, a University of Washington history professor, was sorting through three prison-issued trunks full of old papers when an unusual document, printed in dot matrix type, caught his eye. “It was computer code,” he says. Amid the numbers and symbols stood recognizable words: violence, resentment, protest. And near the top, a simple declaration: “You are the warden of a maximum security institution. There are about 1,000 men confined in your prison.”
The document laid out the code for a text-based adventure game — a game about prison, created inside of one. And it’s recently been made available online for anyone who wants to try their hand at (virtually) running a correctional facility.
The Warden Game is the creation of Ed Mead, a former member of a left-wing guerrilla group and now a retired network administrator. He crafted it around 1987 while taking coding classes during his final prison sentence in Washington State Reformatory in Monroe (for a brief time prisoners were permitted to purchase personal computers for use in their cells). Mead, now 77, had been in and out of prisons and jails since the age of 13. “The game is a product of what I’ve learned during a lifetime of confinement,” he says. “I know the system pretty well.”
Run the prison with an iron fist and you might meet defiance. Act with restraint and the politicians could have you fired.
A fully playable web version of The Warden Game was brought to life in 2018 by Maggy Donea, a programmer who was one of Berger’s students when the game was discovered. It’s simple and text-based — don’t expect any fancy graphics or an anthemic soundtrack — but that’s what makes it compelling. It’s all about the storylines and decisions made under pressure.
Set in a mid-1980s prison, the game puts you in charge of managing the facility — while dealing with prisoner rebellion, grumbling guards and the ever-watchful eyes of state government. As each event unfolds you must choose from a list of actions that alter the course of the story. One move, for example, brings you to meet with six prisoners: the ringleaders of a resistance pushing for changes in how the facility is run. Do you agree to the protesters’ demands, lock them in solitary confinement or ignore the situation and see what happens? Run the prison with an iron fist, and you might meet defiance. Act with restraint, and the politicians could have you fired.
Consequences are just a click away. One choice leads to a labor strike, another to a judge who intervenes. Other options can bring on a prison-wide lockdown or political activism from prisoner’s families and outside allies.
But a key question: Is gameplay genuine? Cameron Lindsay, a West Virginia–based corrections consultant and retired warden who has run five prisons and jails during his 25-year career, says the game is “realistic to a high degree.” The online experience illustrates what he faced in real life: the deep intricacies of being a warden. “Although you may be presented with four or five options” in the game, he explains, “any of those can lead to another set of complicated problems.”
You also find out quickly that the most powerful person in a prison, the warden, “is not actually that powerful,” notes Berger. The warden is “constantly hemmed in” by organizing prisoners and their families on one side, and guards and the government on the other, he adds.
To resurrect Mead’s game — coded in the BASIC programming language — Donea used Twine, an open-source platform for creating interactive fiction. She wanted the remake to feel like the original as much as possible. “I used fonts that approximated the original Apple terminal fonts, colors that closely mimic original monitor colors and so on,” she says.
Her one big change, other than fixing gaps in the code? Adding the option to define words that players might not be familiar with — mostly prison jargon such as “kites” and “the hole.”
Although years have passed, Mead thinks The Warden Game holds true to his original intention: to push people to question the prison system. Many of the scenarios raise questions about how incarcerated people are treated, and whether prisons can ever really serve the goal of rehabilitation.
“That game was aimed at having people think about corrections in a different way,” Mead says. “The notion that prisoners might have some say in their own treatment, for example, is a revolutionary idea in most minds.”
The Warden Game: How to “Win”
At the end of the game, you receive a score out of 100. It’s determined by how well you, as warden, manage to balance the conflicting pressures laid out in the storylines.
The better you are at keeping the peace — without offending the politicians and the Department of Corrections — the higher your score will be.
If you’re too repressive and inmates riot, your score will be low.
And if you’re too lenient, you’ll simply get fired by the state government and receive “no score.”