Mishka Palacios De Caro walks into a large federal prison cell every Thursday. De Caro hasn’t been convicted of anything; they’re a games designer and university teacher on a weekly mission to the Marcos Paz penitentiary, which sits just southwest of Buenos Aires. The dimly lit cell has room for 10 inmates who, once a week, crowd around four computers: a recent addition that turned the cell into a studio for making video games.
Mauricio, 20, is among the dozens of prisoners learning the skills needed to develop video games in a weekly workshop. Before being imprisoned, Mauricio, who asked to be identified only by his first name because his trial is ongoing, loved to play action games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. Since his incarceration three years ago, he hasn’t had access to a PC or console outside of this workshop — it’s a small window into a world he loved.
Over the last two years, the “Video Game Development in Prison” program has operated in three different prison units — two in Marcos Paz and one in the nearby Ezeiza penitentiary. Men and women learn to create video games from scratch, developing skills like storytelling, programming, and sound design. Many of the games they build are based on prison life. “This is not like the other workshops,” Mauricio told Rest of World. “There’s a different dynamic, mainly because there’s technology involved … It’s also giving us a life project.”
Argentina’s inmates have been requesting access to recreation and education through technology for a long time, Mirta López González, an adviser to the Undersecretariat of Penitentiary Affairs, told Rest of World. Although some local prisons have allowed cellphones, Argentina’s federal penitentiary system forbids them. As the president of Fundav, a video game cooperative seeking to boost game development across Argentina, De Caro found they could help fulfill this need. After months of negotiating alongside other organizations that were already working with prisons, authorities acceded to small groups for two hours a week.
Teaching game design within a prison proved to be a challenge, even with official approval. Despite partnering with prison authorities to gain access, De Caro struggled with the penitentiary bureaucracy to gain the necessary permits for basic requirements like an internet connection. Once online, they encountered several obstacles — inmates are not allowed to access social media platforms and news sites, for instance. “We share a single Gmail account across all workshops,” De Caro told Rest of World.
There were other, less technical challenges, like their students’ low literacy rates or the prisons’ limited budgets for non-essential activities. Authorities were also hesitant to allow the use of computer programs they’d never heard of, said De Caro. Eventually, user-friendly software like Construct, a 2D game-creation tool; music production suite Fruity Loops; and Twine, an open-source storytelling platform were all allowed into the classrooms.
“There’s a lot of resistance by the penitentiary system to update the educational content that students have access to,” De Caro said. “Often authorities don’t understand what tools we need or why we need them.”
These challenges were at the core of how the initiative came to be. “[These students] were left behind by the system and the state,” said De Caro, who believes the program is finally helping the student inmates catch up.
At a game-pitching session last year, recounted De Caro, a particularly shy student was convinced by his peers to share his idea. It revolved around a main character who had fallen in love with someone “on the outside.” In the game, the student said, this character would have to hide a phone to talk to his beloved, so that prison guards wouldn’t see it. As the story advanced, the risk of being discovered would grow, with the protagonist spending resources on topping up credit. Meanwhile, he would struggle as the girlfriend character gradually lost interest. The goal of this forthcoming game, as yet untitled, would be to keep the ever-dwindling flame of romance alive.
“It’s a marvelous idea,” De Caro said. “Everyone pitched in with their own ideas too — how the character might manage to charge his phone or how he could send her photos via WhatsApp. Suddenly, it became a collective project.”
Despite limited resources, the program’s students have already developed and released many games — with more in the works. There’s Marcolandia (Marco Land), which follows the story of a man named “Martín,” who ends up imprisoned in the Marcos Paz penitentiary. The choose-your-own-adventure game is driven by the player’s choices — get in a fight or not, what to say to a cop, whether to stand your ground against fellow inmates — all of which determine the character’s fate. Then there’s El sicario, which tells the story of Chema, a hitman hired to murder the president of Colombia and kidnap his family.
“Some authorities are only focused on security issues within prisons,” López González, the prison system adviser, told Rest of World. She said some officials worry a phone or an email can allow an inmate to communicate with the outside world in an untracked manner, compromising safety, although in-prison cellphone experiences have shown otherwise. Despite the violent subject matter of some of the games, López González believes the recreational and educational value of the program might come to be appreciated, in part, for its role in reducing in-prison violence.
“There are a lot of self-referential projects at the beginning,” said De Caro. “They feel trapped … But then, with time, projects focused on other interests emerge. It’s fascinating to see how even the students can surprise themselves with their own ideas.” The students have developed games beyond prison topics, such as Nascar, where the character has to prepare his car to compete in the race.
This creative blossoming is the first step towards freeing the students from seeing themselves only as inmates, said De Caro, who is already in talks with gaming studios to ensure they find work once they are released. “Gaming studios need employees,” said De Caro, confident the students will be accepted as soon as they get out. “And formerly incarcerated people need a place to work once they’re released.”
“They think a lot about how they’ll manage once they’re out,” De Caro said. “While in prison, their lives are, in a sense, paused, but the outside world doesn’t wait for them either. Many can’t cope with society’s increasing demands when they’re released.”