The Stanford Prison Experiment. What if you ran it continuously on GMod Jailbreak?

Source: P.Grey, Psychology Today
Source: P.Grey, Psychology Today(below)
Stanford Prison Perpetual – would there be any purpose? Here’s an idea made possible by advances in computing and the willingness of people to freely spend hours and hours playing computer simulation games.

There are two linked things here; one you might have heard of, the Stanford Prison Experiment and the other one sits at the edges of mainstream digital; GMod (Garry’s Mod) Jailbreak game.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of those topics that often elicits a concerned grown up response. ..‘ah yes, they were awful, they had to get stopped because people did horrible things’…. It’s a reasonable viewpoint, some pretty nasty things happened, all in the name of psychology research.

A Potted History of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

  • They were carried out in 1971 by Psychologist Philip Zimbardo in a specially constructed ‘prison’ at Stanford University.
  • The aim was to find out if reports of brutal behaviour by (some) prison guards in America was due to their personalities (dispositional) or (situational) the environment they worked in.
  • Zimbardo started with 75 male Stanford University students and carefully selected 24 participants that weren’t obviously psychopaths.
  • The final 21 participants were randomly assigned roles of prisoner and guard and were sent to prison.
  • To make things realistic ‘prisoners’ were subjected to things like; being stripped naked, deloused, dressed in prison uniform and given a number rather than a name.
  • ‘Guards’ had; uniforms, wooden clubs and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact.
  • Within hours of starting the experiment some guards had begun to harass prisoners.
  • After 36 hours Prisoner #8612 had to be removed due to metal distress.
  • After 6 days the experiment was stopped (it was planned to run for 14 days).
  • Stopping the experiment was due to the unacceptable treatment (abuse) of the prisoners.
  • You can read about the details of the experiment in Simply Psychology, here.
  • Alternatively you can watch the TED Talk video of Professor Zimbardo (which links to his role as an expert witness in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse case) at the end of the post.

Stanford Conclusions & Criticisms. The broad conclusion drawn from the experiment was that the brutal behaviour of the guards was situational. None had shown a tendency towards brutal behaviour before the experiment. By being placed in a harsh environment, given roles that had power over other people, reinforced with symbols of power (uniforms, clubs and sunglasses), and little control over how they behaved; they became brutal and abusive. This formed the basis of the idea that ‘bad systems turn good people bad’.

You’ll see references to this idea in recent situations where there has been abuse and bad treatment in healthcare institutions. For example the Mid Staffordshire Hospital case, where there is a widely held view that ‘the system’ played a significant part in shaping the behaviour of ward staff.

Referencing Zimbardo’s work is an attractive argument, but it’s not without its criticisms. Some of the criticism relates to simplistic over-generalisation of the findings which were based on a small group that were not representative of typical prison guards. You can read a full critique here in ‘Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment inst in My Textbook’ by Professor Peter Grey.

One of the other major criticisms is that people went into an ‘experiment’ and played the roles that were expected of them. They took elements of the Hawthorn Effect (people behave differently when the are being observed) to the extreme. This led me to thinking about GMod Jailbreak and Sanford Prison Perpetual.

IMG_5751GMod Jailbreak (Stanford Prison Perpetual). This is an online game that is (in my view) basically the Stanford Prison Experiment.

It’s very popular amongst the Gamer community – not the X-Box / Play-station Console crowd – the (allegedly) proper Gamers, that use PCs and do things like modifications, host servers and download code.

Basically its an RPG (Role Playing Game) where you act as the Warden, Guard or Prisoner. The game rules (link here) give you a flavour of what it’s about – warning – it’s no a picnic in the woods (I’ve put some of the rules at the end of the post).

Below is a link to a video tutorial explaining the basic rules of Jailbreak – I had to search hard for one that is reasonably safe to view in work (no extreme swearing or violence). If you want to see more, a GMod Jailbreak YouTube search will bring up over 40,000 results – it is popular. Do approach carefully though, many of the YouTube videos of actual ‘game time’ are very violent. Maybe that’s to do with the fact is a ‘game’ and people are playing roles without having to face consequences?

I’ve been trying to find out how much time is spent playing GMod Jailbreak, but its not easy. Over the last week some of my associates have been checking how many people are playing at certain times. Figures like: “Tuesday, 198 people on 37 servers between 6-8pm”, have been thrown at me. By my calculations that’s roughly 400 hours of ‘experiment’ time in just one evening. There were similar figures across the rest of the week (Mon – Friday 6-8pm = approximately 2000 hours)

If you consider that the actual Stanford Prison Experiment ran with a maximum of 21 people for 6 days – a rough estimate of around 3000 hours of experiment time wouldn’t be unreasonable?

Stanford Prison Perpetual – would there be any purpose? You might have spotted where I’m going here… GMod Jailbreak is Stanford Prison Perpetual.

There are hundreds of people playing thousands of hours of the game each and every day. Could you look on this as a huge ongoing experiment into how prisoners, guards and wardens behave? Would it be possible to draw any conclusion from how people behave by playing GMod Jailbreak? Would it support or contradict the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Unfortunately, the answer is, I don’t know (yet – there might be something out there).

The other big question is; could you extend this online game playing approach to looking at other behaviours? Again I don’t know, but I does feel like the might be an opportunity. Surely it ought to be possible to put all of this effort to some other use that goes beyond pure entertainment? 

That feels like a good place to pause and mention a follow up post I’m writing about another online prison game: Prison Architect and Sustainable Decision Making Behaviour. To be continued…

So, what’s the PONT? (more questions than answers)

  1. Is there opportunity to work with people who spend their time online gaming to better understand human behaviour?
  2. Would this actually help to understand certain types of behaviour, or does the Hawthorn Effect overcome everything?
  3. Ultimately, would people be willing to take part in ‘modified’ games help people to change their behaviours?

Here’s the Philip Zimbardo TED Talk, The Psychology of Evil I promised earlier. Some of the rules for GMod Jailbreak are below it.


























Picture source:


About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

3 Responses

  1. Tony Dowling

    Fascinating stuff! Though as a committed console gamer I take exception to my description in the text! Even if I recognise it as true lol!

  2. Chris, check this out – “In response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. over thirty years ago, Jane Elliott devised the controversial and startling, “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise. This, now famous, exercise labels participants as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes and exposes them to the experience of being a minority”.

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