Men in Prison Playing HALO Video Games
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Can Video Games Benefit Inmates If They’re Allowed in Prisons? (Video)

Video games are prohibited in most prisons. Yet, they can provide positive benefits to inmates, including improving precision skills and keeping idle minds busy.

The entire industry of video games is shrouded in controversy these days. Do video games have a positive or negative impact on players? Do they have an impact at all?

According to a 2015 study, 42% of Americans play video games at least 3 hours a week. Perspectives are still polarized when it comes to the topic. Since 42% of Americans are regular gamers, it should come as no surprise that some of them are also prison inmates.

As the usual case, the issue becomes more inflammatory when the rights and privileges of inmates are involved.

Video: Video Games in Prison: A Pro for the Cons?

Only a handful of states allow video games in prisons. Of those prisons, there are limitations in place. For most, only inmates in good standing are allowed to play. Sometimes, even limitations aren’t enough.

In Alaska and Missouri state prisons, video games were once allowed, but are now banned.

In 2005, the Governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, responded to the prison video game ban:

Our penitentiaries are punitive institutions where those who have committed crimes against society are sent to pay for their actions. They are not meant to be arcades.

Video Games Are a Luxury Item… Not Meant for Prison Inmates

Some divergence can evolve from interpretations of what a prison is designed to do. Some believe a prison is for punishment. Those with this perspective might view video games as a luxury item.

A luxury cuts out the weight behind the punishment of prison.

In reality, most prison inmates don’t receive access to this form of entertainment. Often, inmates have to purchase the consoles themselves. If that isn’t the case, they must have impeccable behavior and be in good standing with the prison.

Is it a bad thing to incentivize good behavior in prisons and reward those behaving well?

Some argue that video games have a negative effect on inmates. Conversely, they serve as a distraction from potential self-improvement of those behind bars. As Gov. Blunt put it, inmates should

…pick up skills and abilities that will allow them to go back out into society and be productive citizens. Playing video games doesn’t have anything to do with either of those objectives.

A male gamer slouching on a couch with a blank expression.
One stigma that comes from playing video games is the idea that they are a waste of productive time, and to some, worse than doing nothing. Image Source: Huffington Post

Reducing Impulsiveness in America’s Prisons Via Video Games

Research indicates something different. In one study, video games were shown to reduce impulsiveness in test subjects (Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009). In the study, action games improved performance in a test of the ability to refrain from responding to non-target stimuli, in a situation in which most stimuli called for a response.

The study suggests that video games can help add a buffer between an immediate response to stimuli and the reaction itself. They can provide a means of reinforcing thoughts about consequences in the decision-making process.

In a variety of correlational studies, video game players are shown to outperform non-players in multiple skills requiring precision. In one experiment, surgeons who had experience with video games actually improved their performance in laparoscopic surgery.

They were compared to a control group of surgeons without the same experience (Schlickum et al., 2009).

Even if you don’t ascribe to the perspective of video games building skills, it is undeniable they can be a way to keep inmates busy. While reading and writing are outlets for some, there are inmates who have not had access to education.

Without it, those activities are impossible and generally not enjoyable.

Men in Prison Playing HALO Video Games
Image Source: IGN

Video Games: An Incentive for Good Behavior in Prisons?

Rather than being a distraction from the penance of imprisonment, I would argue it is a way of ensuring those who earn the privilege, continue to model good behavior. Harry Harper, an ex-convict from the UK, said:

When boredom kicks in, that’s when people get edgy, and pissed off, and that’s when fights start happening.

Beyond the skills and diversions, what many find so compelling about video games (myself included) is the opportunity to step into someone else’s position. In no other medium can a person assume the persona of someone else completely.

Movies and books, for the most part (with an exception of choose-your-own-adventure stories), are experiential. As a reader or viewer, the story is told to you.

With a video game, something very different happens. Your actions and choices affect the world in a very immediate way. A compelling video game offers opportunities to explore consequences and engender empathy in a way other media cannot. What happens is the result of the actions a player takes.

If the ultimate goal of prisons is to facilitate the reintroduction of offenders into society, why limit the tools we use to help inmates get there?

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.