Prison servers are a few of the most popular sport modes in Minecraft: daily, thousands of people wade through anarchy, murder, and lots of grinding. It's a dystopian experience, unlike anything I have ever experienced in a video game.
Unlike many Minecraft servers, where you could jump into the action straight away, prison servers start out you in the lowest position with simply a pick and perhaps some beginning equipment. You can earn cash and rate up by mining rock, ore, or stone from mines, that can be open and generally PvP safe zones.
When you've grinded your way through a couple of dozen layers of stone, you can sell your earnings and--if you've worked hard and saved all of your gold bars--rank up. Ranking up makes you access to some perks, based upon the host, though until you get to the very highest ranks all it means is you have access to a different mine with much more rewarding ores. If you can make it to the very top, you're going to wind up with a special title, chat privileges, rewarding resources, and possibly a spot on the leaderboards. It's a way up.
The rankings, it's worth mentioning, are grueling. The first few are designed to go by quickly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes or seconds, but once you get to the middle ranks, it can take hours or days of nonstop grinding to create enough in-game currency to advance. The grinding itself is not terribly persuasive, as the mines all appear to be designed using the same template: a huge cube of rock and ore encompassed by unbreakable blocks that resets every couple of minutes.
Most servers throw in a mixture of useless blocks like sand or clay to mix it up, and I even encountered one that had spider webs strewn throughout the mine, just in case you were starting to get in the rhythm of things. I have not done the math with any fantastic accuracy, but the progress on most servers seems to be exponential, and the more lucrative blocks which you find in much more advanced mines don't do a lot to mitigate the rapidly advancing cost of rank up.
There's one method to turn the drudgery of ranking up just like a typical plebeian into something far more pleasurable: donating. Prison servers provide advantages to players that shell out real cash cash for advancement. Some of the advantages are as minor as better things and use of exclusive mines, but more substantial contributions garner benefits like flight, picks that can mine a whole section of cubes at one time, along avatar flair. These perks start out relatively inexpensively: five dollars may give you 'donators' privileges such as better picks, storage, and replaceable fittings. Buying your way into the best position, however, can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
From the moment you log in, each input you get is geared toward forcing you to donate. Flashing messages seem to remind one of the donator perks, forthcoming sales, auctions, sweepstakes, or giveaways that are happening right now. These messages are nearly overwhelming at times. They make prison hosts feel like being incarcerated and more like visiting a casino.
Once you've made your luck in the mines, you can spend your hard-earned cash buying equipment to compete in the PvP arenas. Until I learned to understand the areas I shouldn't go, I managed to repeatedly wander into those PvP zones, where I was summarily executed by flying players who appeared to be shooting nuclear warhead-tipped arrows.
There is no equity of any kind here, no effort to level the playing field for new players--the richest and most recognized players dominate those spaces, wielding god-like power to lay waste to their own enemies (when they may be bothered to compete). In addition to equality and bragging rights, residing in the stadium can get you free loot from fallen foes, special names, unique resources (at least one server offers bounties on participant's heads), and also an opportunity to advance on the leaderboards. Competition for the best items and advantages is fierce, with the wealthiest players aggressively bidding (with in-game currency) on overpowered gear.
If PvP isn't your pace, a few servers also supply plots that you can construct on and decorate, as soon as you've saved up from mining. You can even set up shops and sell your extra equipment and things to other players, or just show off your wealth by building figurines out of diamond blocks or something equally ostentatious.
In this way, prison servers aren't so much providing you with a"prison" experience as, well, a sort of savagely objectivist one. Prison servers present a world in which the wealthiest wield basically unlimited power and everybody else strives to combine their ranks. This is strengthened not only by the literary mechanisms of the mines but also by the donator arrangement that makes it almost impossible to progress and compete without even opening your wallet.
Prison servers remind me lots of the early days of Ultima Online or Runescape, in which you could pretty much expect someone more powerful to come together and take your things --but it's intriguing that prison servers have stripped away all the trappings of the genre also reduced the formula to its constituent parts.
I mean, sure, everything you are doing in many competitive MMOs is grinding followed by fighting, but the visual and procedural gloss that we put over those actions is what keeps us playing. Prison servers have done away with that pretense.