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.