Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment and other psychological experiments as performance and theater

Table of contents

Note on Sources
Preface: Wanting to See.
Part One: The Stage Production Era

  1. Setting the Scene: Role-Playing and its Discontents
  2. From Sing Sing to Psychodrama: J.L. Moreno and the Invention of Spontaneity
  3. The Trouble with Normal: Sherif, Asch, and the Theatre of Insecurity
  4. The Performance of Compliance: Prisoner Coercion and Dissonant Cognition
  5. From Teacher to Torturer: Playing Obedient for Stanley Milgram

Part Two: Approaching Stanford

  1. Good Cop / Bad Cop: Interrogation, Confession, and Philip Zimbardo
  2. Things Fall Apart: Experimenting with Urban Crime
  3. Theatre of Cruelty: Designing and Implementing the Stanford Prison Experiment
  4. The Role of the Prisoner: Learned Helplessness and Earned Resilience
  5. The Role of the Guard: Dark Play and Dirty Work

Part Three: Beyond the Lab

  1.  The Medium is the Message: Stanford Stories and the San Quentin Six
  2.  Lifting the Mask: The Prisoner, the Self, and Geese Theatre
  3.  Attack of the Clones: Ethics, Entertainment, and Re-enactment
  4.  Mission Drift: Role-Playing Torture in the War on Terror
  5.  Consenting Adults: Toward an Alternative Paradigm

Acknowledgements and List of interviewees


Do you want to play a game?

Incarceration Games reexamines the complex history and troubled legacy of improvised, interactive role-playing experiments. With particular attention to the notorious Stanford prison study, the author draws on extensive archival research and original interviews with many of those involved, to refocus attention on the in-game choices of the role-players themselves.

Role-playing as we understand it today was initially developed in the 1930s as a therapeutic practice within the New York state penal system. This book excavates that history and traces the subsequent adoption of these methods for lab experimentation, during the postwar “stage production era” in American social psychology. It then examines the subsequent mutation of the Stanford experiment, in particular, into cultural myth—exploring the ways in which these distorted understandings have impacted on everything from reality TV formats to the “enhanced interrogation” of real-world terror suspects. Incarceration Games asks readers to reconsider what they thought they knew about this tangled history, and to look at it again from the role-player’s perspective.

Stephen Scott-Bottoms is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement and coauthor of Sex, Drag, and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance

“The most thorough treatment to date of Philip Zimbardo’s so-called Stanford Prison Experiment and its cultural afterlives, Incarceration Games moves well beyond ‘gotcha’ sensibility to delve into the multiple and varied cultural mediations of the study and its kin, as they became iconic shorthands for understanding disciplinary institutions, social control, and dehumanization. The reading of social psychology through a performance studies lens is long overdue and well executed, providing a refreshing, novel perspective.”

- Michael Pettit, author of The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America

Incarceration Games recasts two notorious social psychology experiments by bringing to bear methods familiar to theatre historians—the meticulous analysis of words, movement, sets, costumes, performers, and audiences. While deeply researched and theoretically savvy, the writing is accessible, witty, humorous at times, and always conscious of the human stakes of this research: people incarcerated to serve the purposes of power and, putatively, justice . . . a fascinating, readable, rewarding book.”

- Mike Sell, author of Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism

“Ambitious, timely and original, Incarceration Games develops new understandings about role-play and imprisonment in relation to ideas of audience, agency, control, and coercion. The author brings a diverse range of performance examples into dialogue in a way that is playful, rigorous, and illuminating.”

- Caoimhe McAvinchey, author of Applied Theatre: Women and the Criminal Justice System

"Testing questions of ethics, institutions, and theater, Incarceration Games tracks the use and abuse of role-playing games across a range of harrowing cases. Scott-Bottoms exposes how the quest of gaining and researching personal and collective subjectivity through theatrical means has taken tortuous turns in psychology and prison, and outlines an alternative, ethico-aesthetic performance paradigm."

- Jon KcKenzie, Cornell University

Read: Author blog post | April 30, 2024