Minecraft's most popular game mode is Prison Servers. Every day, thousands of players navigate through anarchy and murder while grinding. It's a dystopian experience like nothing I've ever had in a videogame.
Prison servers are different than other Minecraft servers. You can't jump right into the action immediately, but you start at the lowest rank. Mining stone, ore or gems can help you earn money and rank up. These mines are usually open and PvP safe. Once you have mastered a few layers of stone, it is possible to sell your earnings or rank up if you work hard and save all your gold bars. You can rank up to get some perks depending on which server you are in, but until you reach the top ranks, all that means is that you have the opportunity to access a new mine with more lucrative ores. You'll be awarded a special title, chat privileges and lucrative resources if you make it to the top. It is a long climb.
It's important to mention that the ranks are difficult. While the first few ranks are quick, often in a matter of seconds or minutes, once you reach the middle ranks it can take hours, if not days, to earn enough in-game currency to move up. Grinding isn't very exciting as all the mines seem to follow the same pattern: A big cube made of stone and/ore, surrounded by blocks that can be broken. These blocks reset every few minutes.
Servers often throw in some useless blocks, such as clay or sand, to make it more interesting. One server even had spider webs scattered throughout its mine to help you get into the rhythm. Although I don't know the exact math, the rate of progression in most servers is exponential. The more profitable blocks you find in advanced mines won't do much to offset the rapidly rising cost of ranking up.
Donating is one way to make the tedious task of ranking up as a common plebeian more fun. Real-world cash can get you advantages as a prison server. While some of these benefits are minor, such as access to better items or exclusive mines, more substantial donations can grant advantages like flight and picks that allow you to mine whole blocks at once. These perks are relatively affordable: Five dollars will get you access to 'donator privileges' like better picks and storage as well as renewable kits. However, it can be expensive to buy your way up to the top rank.
Every input you get is designed to encourage you to give. You will see flashing messages reminding you about donator perks, upcoming auctions, sweepstakes or giveaways. Sometimes these messages can seem overwhelming. These messages make prison staff feel more like they are in a casino than being incarcerated.
After you have made your fortune in the mines you can now spend your hard-earned money on gear to be competitive in the PvP arenas. I didn't realize the dangers of wandering into PvP areas until I became more aware of them. I was eventually executed by flying players that appeared to be firing nuclear-tipped arrows. This area is not equitable and there is no attempt to level the playing fields for new players. The most powerful and well-established players control these areas, using their god-like power (when they are able to compete) to destroy their opponents. Surviving the arena will give you prestige and bragging rights as well as loot from fallen foes, unique titles and resources (at least one server has bounties for player heads), and the chance to move up the leaderboards. The competition for the best items is fierce. Players with high net worth are aggressively bidding on powerful gear (using in-game currency).
Some servers offer plots you can decorate and build on, if you have enough mining resources. You can also set up shops to sell extra gear or items to other players. Or, you can simply display your wealth by creating statues out of diamond blocks or another equally extravagant item.
Prison servers don't offer a prison experience, but a kind of savagely objective one. Prison servers create a world in which the wealthiest have virtually unlimited power, and everyone else tries to join them. This is not only reinforced by the in-game mechanics that the mines use, but also the donator structure which makes it virtually impossible to compete and advance without spending money.
It reminds me of the early days of Ultima Online and Runescape where you could expect someone stronger to come along and take what you have. But it is fascinating that prison servers have taken away all the trappings and simplified the entire genre. You can't fight and grind in competitive MMOs, but it is the procedural and visual gloss that keeps us playing. All that pretense has been eliminated by prison servers.
I tried to find out why these servers were so popular. However, when I reached out the mods and admins of popular servers, I was rebuffed. I initially thought the admins and mods, who were mostly teenagers with superiority complexes, were being rude. But it turned out that they weren't trying to attract attention to themselves. Mojang made a notorious rule change in 2014 to stop servers from making microtransactions or “donations” and cracking down on them. Although some members of the community protested quite strongly against it, the rule change was generally accepted by the majority of players as being good for the game. Many of these servers were exploitative and predatory.
Since every prison server I visited allowed players in-game benefits (and more often, a lot of them), I believe they are all in violation the Mojang EULA. Although it's been over two years since the rule clarification was made, Mojang recently hired a team of “Brand Enforcers”, who will be pursuing rule-breakers.
This is one reason that prison administrators are not like prison guards: they are aggressively autoritarian. Administrators make the rules, and they can be quite strict. The punishments can also be severe. Chat is usually restricted (except for donors) and some topics are off limits, such as discussing other servers or demeaning the server. These topics will be dealt with quickly and severely. Other offenses like chat-spamming and 'griefing' will result in a permanent or temporary ban. Although this is not a bad thing, the bans are often vaguely defined and administered by moderators. This leads to complaints about abuse and overreach. This is not a unique attitude for prison servers. Most Minecraft servers are very protective of their reputations and brand. However, there is some irony.
On the other hand, players were very open about their reasons for playing on prison servers and were willing to share why they choose to spend their time there. Most players that I spoke with said they enjoyed the feeling of achievement or accomplishment. Many players said they enjoyed the grind and preferred servers that started with less money. This made it more rewarding once they reached the next rank.
There was no self-deception or guile. The players knew they were grinding and that it was hard work. That was fine. Most complaints about players, particularly hackers and cheaters which is a common problem on PvP servers, are directed at other players. It was interesting to see that there wasn't any grumbling about pay-to-win. Players who couldn't afford to purchase their way to the top ranks either left the server or waited for handouts or a chance to climb the ladder. These players are kept engaged by occasional generosity from wealthy players or lottery-style games. However, there is no way to get to the top ranks without spending real money. This model would be a cause for outrage in the wider gaming community if it were to appear in Overwatch or CS:GO games. However, the prison server community seems to not notice it.
The hierarchy is a big draw to prison servers. You don't have to work your way up to the top to join multiple servers, so you can start PvPing immediately. There are also better ways to grind. It's the possibility to be the 'big dog' of the server and achieve high status. This is reinforced by chat tags and unique titles that are given to high-spending and high-ranking players. It's impossible for a prison server chat user to ignore a high-ranking player typing something.
However, powerful players cannot walk around in impunity and punish anyone who is below them, just like real power-hungry prison guards. But with chat, gear and wealth advantages and sometimes server permissions they can do almost everything.
After mining for over a week and climbing up the ranks, prison servers weren't for me. It was still fun to watch my numbers rise while I played, even though I am being truthful. It was gratifying to see new players play. They reminded me how far I had come. It is easy to imagine how someone who has invested in a server could also devote serious time and effort to climbing the ranks. Mojang may not intervene, but I can imagine that these hard-working drudges will continue fighting and mining day in, day out, with the dream of becoming the warden.