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.
By the mid-1980s, he was held at WSR when the Washington Department of Corrections introduced computers in some of their prisons. Mead taught himself about both the hardware and programming of computers. He designed the game in prison. After his release in 1993 he worked as a technical engineer for several different agencies.
In 2016, Mead donated his papers to the University of Washington Libraries to be accessed by researchers, students, activists, and others. The collection includes several prisoner-run newsletters and lawsuits that Mead participated in. It also included the programming code for the Warden Game.
The Warden Game was adapted from Ed Mead’s original programming and developed for the web in 2017 by Magdalena Donea and Dan Berger.