E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design, Uncategorized
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What We Can Learn From Prison Architect

Welcome to the first ‘real’ post! Today we’ll be looking at how we can take inspiration from the game Prison Architect when designing training. Gamification methods feature heavily in these articles but not in a points/achievements way, this is about design and how you get sucked into a game without even realising it.

What is Prison Architect

Well I suppose it’s all well and good me banging on about Prison Architect but what exactly is it?

The game is a top-down 2D construction and management simulation where the player takes control of building and running a prison. The player is responsible for managing various aspects of their prison including building cells and facilities, planning and connecting utilities, hiring and assigning staff, including a warden, guards, workers, and more. The player needs to recruit staff to unlock more aspects of the game. The player is also responsible for the finance, and keeping their inmates content. The player’s role is of both architect and governor with sandbox micromanagement themes such as choosing where to put lights, drains and how they connect together. The player is also able to add workshops to the prison as well as reform programs that reduce the specific prisoner’s repeat-offender rate.

As you can see by this description the game contains a lot of elements and one of the biggest challenges simulation management games have is how to get the plethora of options across to the user.

Take Call of Duty, if I want to play just put the controller in my hand, explain how I move and fire my weapon and you can set me free in the world. But Prison Architect can’t have such a simple path to entry, Introversion Software deserve a lot of credit for the approach they have taken in easing players in to this process.

So how have they done it?

This is where it gets interesting and Instructional Designers pay attention! PA introduces players to their world through the use of a story, a rather dark story in fact that has a deep undertone running through it. Storytelling has long been an effective way for getting information across and I try to use it as often as possible in my projects. Here are some of the affects storytelling has on the brain:


These points are perfectly put to use in the introduction for PA, we’ll refer back to these as necessary as we now look at the well crafted introduction.

Prison Architect Introduction

When you begin the game you receive phone calls from the CEO giving you information and instructions to carry out. There’s nothing like starting with a bang as your first phone call with the big boss reveals you have a prisoner who has been sentenced to death and you must do the honours.

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The learning path for the game mechanics stems from making the necessary arrangements to ensure this prisoner meets a swift electrical end. Objectives are displayed in the left hand corner of the screen and are scribbled out once you have achieved them, at the beginning these are simple tasks such as “Construct the Execution Room.”

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As we begin to progress through the simple commands, teaching us about the construction of buildings, addition of equipment, lighting, electrical cabling more of the killer’s backstory is revealed to us.

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One of the key gamification associations begins to come into play at this point – dopamine release. If we refer back to the “Affects of Storytelling on the Brain” infographic we see that dopamine release from an emotionally charged event (such as constructing the Execution Room for a prisoner) begins to increase our knowledge retention levels.

As we proceed with the introduction the CEO has us install the electric chair that Edward Romsey will meet his end in. We are also given the optional choice to improve the conditions in which Edward awaits the electric chair – the CEO informs us that windows and better flooring in cells can improve the living conditions of the cell mates. Of course, this is now placing an emotional decision into your hands, do you give him the basics and make Edward see out his fate with little comfort or do you afford him the luxury of a window and tiled floors in his cell before he makes his final bow. All of these are incredibly powerful, emotional and symbolic milestones in the knowledge we need to play Prison Architect.

When the preparations have been completed and it’s time for Edward to proceed to the Execution Room we watch as the story develops further.

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We learn the background to Edward’s story – a married man who’s wife was having an affair. Not that this in any way excuses Edward of the actions he took from that point onwards but it does create a different message for the user.

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Finally after all of the preparations have been completed you must complete the job the CEO set out for you to do.

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The introduction to PA was one of the best I’ve experienced in a game, through the story of Edward Romsey I acquired the skills needed to play the game whilst always wondering what was going to happen next. Introduction or tutorial levels have always played a big part in how I look to design training and through simple gamification methods it’s possible to increase engagement levels dramatically in your work.

So as Instructional Designers how can we use these gamification methods to enhance our training? Well as PA shows, it’s all about a good mix of storytelling and decision making, use the content you are given to craft an emotional story, ask your subject matter experts for real life scenarios that you can use. Emotion is key in dopamine release which we know will improve the retention rate of information for learners. If we can craft stories from the information we are given, no matter how dry, we have the ability to create lasting memories through the choices and events that unfold from our training. E-Learning is a fantastic portal to show this off and with products such as Articulate Storyline on the market there is greater power than ever to create these story based learning pieces. PA is a hugely complex game and through a short, snappy and emotional introduction with clever prompts and objectives we are guided through to become a fully qualified Prison Architect in no time.

The key things in the PA introduction are:

  • Storytelling – Edward’s story stays with you.
  • Choice – You have the decision to make the living conditions for Edward more comfortable or keep them basic. There is no restriction on this it is purely down to your decision.
  • Outcome – By the time you reach the last sequence you have completed the very first thing the CEO told you at the beginning of the game therefore completing your objective.

All of these points can be brought out in a piece of E-Learning – so come on Instructional Designers let’s spend some time thinking about how we can open up a small story to the user but also give them the choices they need to not feel driven down a linear path.

Thanks for reading the first post – I’ll be back soon examining another game and looking at some of the key messages we can take away from it.

As always, stay tuned to Twitter @eLearningJAR for updates and bitesize articles!

All images are copyright of Introversion Software UK.




  1. Pingback: What we can learn from “Papers, Please” | Gaming In Training

  2. Pingback: Straight from a game into your E-Learning Course – Bitesize Tip #2 | Gaming In Training

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