The Debate Around Mafia III’s Depiction Of Racism

The Debate Around Mafia III’s Depiction Of Racism

Racism is everywhere in Mafia III, in a way never before seen in a major video game. It’s gotten people talking

The game is set in a fictional version of 1960s New Orleans. In it, white computer-controlled characters (NPCs) regard the player’s character, a black Vietnam veteran named Lincoln Clay, with suspicion and fear. Some hurl slurs, glare, and call him “boy”… or worse. Police tend to steer clear of the game’s poor, majority-black neighbourhoods. They profile you. There’s an indicator for when the police have their eye on you, even when you’re doing nothing wrong at all. Some restaurants and shops are segregated. The game’s characters of colour make no secret of the racism they have suffered.

The game’s depiction of racism is resonating with people, especially those who’ve lived with racism their entire lives. Some are just happy that a character like Clay, a black war hero struggling with a nuanced internal conflict, exists at all:

Some players have found the game cathartic. The real world often demands people of colour accept racism like it’s no big deal, but Mafia III allows the player, though Clay, to react with violence.

Over at Paste, critic Terence Wiggins writes, “unlike real people, Lincoln handles racism with force… I’m not going to say it’s not cathartic. Having an NPC say to me ‘What are you going to do, nigger?’ and Lincoln slitting his throat, stabbing him in the chest, and throwing aside his body as if it was trash is extremely cathartic.”

Pointedly, he adds: “It’s all cathartic because we live in a time where a powerful man is allowed to run for the highest public office on the ideals of the enemies you face in this game, ideals that should be forgotten detritus from our shameful past.”

Comparing it to BioShock Infinite and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, two big-budget games that tried to tackle racism in more abstract ways, writer Justin Jones offers perspective:

“Art is like a protest in that regard,” he says. “It should challenge us and make us feel uncomfortable. Mafia III manages to make a bold statement about race and racism but without any allegory or metaphors, it simply shows a black experience. And there are few things that are more challenging and uncomfortable than forcing someone to abdicate their privilege and see the world through the eyes of someone like me. Even if it is just a video game.”

But the game’s violence is double-edged. Some people, like The Verge‘s Chris Plante, have observed that Mafia III deals almost exclusively in cool video game violence. Despite its subject matter, it is, mechanically speaking, a game that is meant to feel good in your hands. “Mafia III isn’t, on its purest level, a game about race,” Plante wrote. “It’s a game about killing and controlling people.” It claims to tell a story of disempowerment, but from the get-go, you are extremely powerful and only become more so over time.

The game sometimes feels good at very bad times. As Clay, you wreak havoc not just on KKK members and racist mafias, but also on some good, well-meaning people of colour. Even as the game’s narrative unpacks the effect all this violence and mayhem has on people and communities, it’s still at odds with itself. It still feels good on a tangible level, even when you’re doing awful things.

No past, no present

Mafia III takes place in the 1960s, but its depiction of racism feels relevant to today. It’s easy to see shards of the period it depicts embedded in modern times like shrapnel. For some players, that’s been eye-opening.

Critic Tauriq Moosa got to the heart of why this matters in a piece for The Guardian. “I want people to know what racism feels like,” he wrote, pointing out that many of the game’s racist characters are just normal people, not caricatures or super villains. “Racism didn’t disappear because laws said ‘no.’ People with racist beliefs didn’t disappear. They had kids and perpetuated their views.”

The discussion about the game is partially stuck in a morass of people swearing up and down that racism is no longer A Thing today. These people appreciate Mafia III‘s “historical accuracy,” but despite ample evidence to the contrary, they write off racism as something that disappeared into history:

The game’s Steam forums contain a lot of conversations along these lines. For every one like that, there’s one or two questioning the need for a black main character, ranting about SJWs ruining video games, or saying they should have changed the name from Mafia III to Ghetto 1.

And of course, the folks who believe that society is now racist against white people are out in full force. This thread came from the Facebook comments of a video game website that wrote about a mission involving the slaughter of KKK members (via 8Bit/Digi):

The fact that the game takes place in the past may serve as a convenient scapegoat for people who want to believe that the wounds of racism are mostly closed. But people are also pushing back against the “racism against people of colour is dead except for that one weird uncle we all have” crowd. Discussions are happening, albeit through gritted teeth and across lines in the sand.

The conversation sparked by Mafia III is much bigger than video games. It’s one that’s defined the US since its inception, and one that will continue to define it for decades and probably centuries to come. A video game alone is unlikely to change anyone’s mind, but Mafia III is a step forward — if only a step.


  • The ever present racism card.

    All jokes aside its good to have a game like M3 where you are playing during a time of real civil rights issues, it helps educate a lot of people about the dark parts of history. That being said any claims that the US is still as bad as back then are ridiculous. Notice how the majority of African Americans who lived through time tend to either be silent on the subject or contradict the millennial agenda.

    There are still real issues when it comes to the treatment of minorities, but to claim that it is just as bad as back then is an intellectual fallacy.

    • The only one with an agenda here is you, champ.

      How are we supposed to notice what those ‘who lived through that time’ care about a video game?

      What would you say about an article that asked that question and drew a conclusion?

      • My agenda is what, Leigh? Is it that white people are the only oppressed class? Come on, strawman people like usual; its about all the far left can do.

        I read an article that clearly had an agenda and only opposed one part of it; but please tell me with your usual condescension how I am “bad” for questioning just that one part.

    • There are still real issues when it comes to the treatment of minorities, but to claim that it is just as bad as back then is an intellectual fallacy. Probably a good thing that claim isn’t present anywhere in the above article then. The closest thing would be the implication that a presentation of overt racism will resonate in a society where racism persists. Still, not nearly the same thing.

      • Except the part where they explicitly attempt to call out the Steam user who made Vaegrand’s exact point.

    • As true as it can be that is not as bad as it was back then, it is still far from ideal. And yet, people keep waving that sentence as a patronising, hands-washing argument-ender that is meant to be autocompleted by the listener with “…so you stfu with your whining”.

      I’m sorry but I’m sure that if you used to get 10 punches in the face daily by someone who simply dislikes your face, but nowadays you only get 2-3 per day, you’d ruffle up if someone suggested that you should be grateful, or at least stop complaining.

    • I must say, these here replies are valid points to which you don’t seem to have responded.

      You do you!

  • Very average game only held up by having racism so prominent in its story. The engine, gameplay and AI, are all a 3/10 at most. Story, soundtrack and voice acting an 8/10.

    • I got this on, when I tried to use the key (I DID buy the worldwide one) it wouldn’t let me, I complained and cdkeys advised me I *must* have bought the europe only one (I didn’t). Anyhow they refunded me the 62 (season pass + game). I took that as an omen not to get the game… everything I’m hearing, everything, is telling me that was a bullet dodged.

      • you were definately given a British Key, howeverf you can still use it by firing up ye old VPN to activate the game.

        But yeah, game starts of brilliantly but soon slows to crawl the actual proper story missions come through so slowly. You know how in Saints Row4: Gat of out hell, there no actuall story missions, just completing diversons until you unlocked the next cutscene… thats what mafia 3 is, only for a much larger amount of time. Even then diversons.. sorry the open world activies are extremely bland and dont have much variety.

        Angry Joe’s review summed it up best as far as i can say

    • This is the part that I find most interesting. It’s a very interesting story and reminds me a lot of Battlefield 1’s mini-campaigns. Not quite historically accurate (health regen, one man killing hundreds) but it gets the message across. The unfortunate part being that it doesn’t get the message across ’cause the game just isn’t interesting enough.

      I got the same thing from the Luke Cage series. There is a lot of subtle interesting content there which reflects on racism and the socioeconomic climate in the area, but unfortunately the series itself just wasn’t that interesting so a lot of the message was lot.

  • That’s the problem though, there is a middle ground that nobody wants to work toward.
    Instead we are bogged down in the forced black and white half truth of extremism.

  • ‘not just racist against black people, but poor people as well’
    lol at people world wide

  • ‘not just racist against black people, but poor people as well’
    lol at people world wide

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