You've gotta wonder about the kind of person who wants to run a simulated prison—someone whose fantasy is to build fences and micromanage towers, spy on the inmates through ceiling-mounted cameras, and if things get ugly, slam the "LOCKDOWN" button and unleash the guard dogs. Where most games encourage players' rebellious sides, the budget title Prison Tycoon 2 aims for the authoritarians: You get to build, manage, and in some scenarios, salvage a for-profit prison. Keep your charges in line, and they'll work in your factories and make you a fortune. But if their anger builds up and they get out of hand, it's time to break out the riot gear—and try to stem your lost profits.
The law-and-order nuts might be drawn to this title, but everyone else will be baffled by the game's lunkheaded controls, lack of manual, and unintentional humor: when liberals show up at your minimum-security prison to protest the "imminent executions," for instance, or your "celebrity prisoners" complain about the mess in the weight room. The inmates and guards squabble constantly, and dealing with them is about as much fun as supervising a chicken coop. But peace is worse: You have to while away the days watching the inmates loll around and pace through their routines, and dreaming of the day you can finally build a gas chamber.
Beyond the game: Prison Tycoon 2 never digs into the controversies around the for-profit prison business. But it gives us some insight into ourselves. In "Why We Fight," a recent essay for the webzine The Escapist, critic John Tynes recently wrote that we enjoy violent games because they make us feel like guns can solve any problem, and our might always makes right. And where can you find a sharper line between the powerful and the powerless than in jail?
Worth playing for: The shadows that roll across the ground from passing clouds evoke a feeling of slow, wasted days.
Frustration sets in when: Exactly one of the controls works: the "tree" button. Click it, and all the trees in the background suddenly vanish; click again, and they come back. Everything else is totally dysfunctional.
Final judgment: The prisoners can be rehabilitated and sent back into society. But who'll save the people who enjoy this game?