I don’t buy into previews much. I love reading about the potential of a forthcoming game, but I’m cynical enough to know that often these things don’t work out so well. All too often, we’re told of things like how the latest Fable game will have you plant an acorn and watch it slowly turn into a tree. The reality is rarely actually like that.
I’m intrigued by Mafia III, though. The reason? It just might tackle racism in a ground breaking way. Unless it fails miserably, of course.
Mafia III follows the story of Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam War veteran, out to seek revenge for his friends, recently murdered by the local mob. Located in New Bordeaux, a re-imagined version of New Orleans, Clay is biracial, and a frequent victim of racism and discrimination. Set during the Civil Rights era of 1968, there’s a lot of historical ground that could be covered here. In an interview with Polygon, game director Haden Blackman, has already explained that Mafia III won’t shy away from tackling racial prejudice and identity, because “race is part of the story, part of the plot.”
A veritable melting pot of mafia-style groups, the game will utilize racial slurs, not only directed at Clay, but also at Italian and Irish groups. It’s a risky move for a relatively immature form of media. Both Blackman and the game’s head writer, Bill Harms, are white, but the team that’s been hired is considered diverse (2K won’t give accurate numbers, citing company policy). While no one on the team lived in the South in 1968, some of their family members did; the hope is they can offer more insight than any amount of historical research could provide.
Interestingly, Mafia II was criticised for being racist against Italian-Americans. UNICO National spoke out against it in 2010, describing it as ‘a pile of racist nonsense’ that perpetuates offensive stereotypes of all Italian-Americans being part of the mafia. Have they got a point? That depends on your perspective. Plenty has been written about the history behind organized crime and Italian-American links to it, but as UNICO pointed out, Mafia II was ‘unfairly discriminating and demeaning one group to the exclusion of all others,’ which is presumably why Mafia III offers numerous different groups.
Mafia III offers Irish gangs, Haitian mobs, Italian-Americans, as well as the black mob that Clay joins. That’s either going to ensure that Mafia III is wonderfully diverse, or offensive to many more people than its predecessor. I fear it’s going to be the latter, even if its intentions are meant to be authentic rather than sensationalist.
That’s the fundamental issue with a game like Mafia III. It needs to cover a lot of ground, and quickly. Set during the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, Mafia III is only ever going to be able to scratch the surface of the Civil Rights movement. Alongside that, it’s aiming to also look at how Vietnam veterans were treated after their return, as well as Clay’s struggle as an orphan without a family-and it presumably hopes to entertain those players who simply want to steal cars and shoot things.
Does it stand a chance of covering all these topics in a sensitive but well explained manner? Probably not, but it’s a start.
For too long, we’ve seen games tap too readily into stereotypes without trying to deconstruct them. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas may have tenuously tried to look at real-life events in Los Angeles, such as the 1992 riots, and the LAPD Rampart scandal, but it also bought into some offensive stereotypes along the way.
While the majority of gamers are decent people, there has been an unpleasant and growing undercurrent of racism and hate speech from a vocal minority of the games community in the last few years. A cursory glance at all that GamerGate has created will tell you that, but there are other issues too. Even casual games such as Clash Royale have suffered in recent times.
Surely, it’s about time that we see a game fight back-a game that might fail to hit every target, but valiantly tries to illuminate a better path. The question is whether Mafia III is that game. Although, arguably, even if it isn’t, it could pave the way for another game further down the line to do a better job of it.
In a time when racism and inequality is a hugely growing problem, it’s refreshing to see a game try to tackle such a huge issue. It’s a bold move to try to do something differently, even more so when you know you’re sure to end up offending someone through a misstep or two.