Who has power in prison and how do they exercise it? The Warden Game provides an unexpected way of thinking about these questions. Rather than a total institution of some predictability, the prison turns out to be susceptible to different forms of activity by incarcerated people, their families and loved ones, journalists, guards, judges, state legislators, and political appointees.
The game’s format and content reflect the context of its creation. Its simple text-adventure style was the hallmark of 1980s gaming. Its mix of satire and sincerity describes the institution in ways perhaps only a long-term prisoner could. Designed during the rapid rise in incarceration rates, prison construction, and increasingly restrictive conditions, The Warden Game can help players understand the contradictions of prison life in an age of mass incarceration.
Ed Mead designed the Warden Game around 1987, while he was incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe. A founder of the anticapitalist guerrilla group the George Jackson Brigade, Mead had been sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences for his participation in a January 1976 bank robbery. In prison, Mead became a prodigious jailhouse lawyer, dissident author, and political organizer. As a result of his organizing, Mead was transferred between prisons in several states.