The first person to die in an electric chair was William Kemmler, a peddler from Philadelphia who murdered his common-law wife in the summer of 1890. 1000 volts of electricity, tested the day before on a luckless horse, knocked Kemmler unconscious, but didn’t stop his heart. In a panic, the warden doubled the voltage. 2000 volts of alternating current ruptured Kemmler’s capillaries, forming subcutaneous pools of blood that began to burst as his skin was torn apart. Witnesses reported being overcome by the smell of molten flesh and charred body hair; those who tried to leave found that the doors were locked. The next morning, The New York Times called the execution a “disgrace to civilization … so terrible that words cannot begin to describe it.” The irony, lost on no one, was that until that morning, electrocution had been promoted as a more humane form of capital punishment.
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Prison Architect, Introversion Software’s long-awaited incarceration simulator, begins by asking the player to construct an electric chair. A milquetoast, Walter White-type has murdered his wife and her lover, and you, the architect, must carry out his punishment. It’s a disorienting anachronism. The electric chair, its fatal technique refined and its debut hastily forgotten, ruled capital punishment for nearly 75 years, but a series of botched executions in the 1960s sparked a Supreme Court case that led to its effective retirement.
At first, the historically anomaly is odd. Prison Architect, after all, has been marketed and developed as one (British) studio’s take on the contemporary (American) prison-industrial complex. Yet this oddity quickly comes to represent Prison Architect’s relationship to its subject matter: For all of Introversion’s developer diaries about their sensitivity to the minutiae of the penal system, Prison Architect isn’t shy about its distortions and oversights, necessary sacrifices on the thirsty altar of “fun.”