Video games, as a form of interactive digital entertainment, can be excellent tools for immersing players in experiences that closely emulate real-life events and situations. Very good examples include the early Call of Duty games (the first three reenact scenes from World War II), Civilization (which, as a simulator of government, can allow players to recreate historical scenarios), and Assassin’s Creed (which develops a plot about secret societies throughout key moments of European history, such as the Italian Renaissance, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution).
However, there are certain instances in which the setting is inspired and closely resembles real places and situations, but the names are purposely changed in order to allow more creative freedom and avoid potential lawsuits. Some of the best examples include the Grand Theft Auto franchise, which portrays digital open-world and free-to-explore versions of contemporary New York City (the 3rd and the 4th game, as Liberty City), 1980s Miami (in the expansion pack of the 3rd game: GTA Vice City, as Vice City), 1990s Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas (in the expansion pack of the 3rd game: GTA San Andreas, as Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas), as well as the contemporary Los Angeles (the fifth game, as Los Santos).
Similarly, the Mafia series (which draws influences from Grand Theft Auto) is prominent in depicting real cities and presenting believable protagonists who could either serve the likes of Al Capone or make great film characters. The first game in the series introduces Tommy D’Angelo, a taxi driver from Lost Haven (a mix between the 1930s San Francisco and Chicago) who is forced to join the mafia family of Don Salieri in order to save his life from a rival gang which hunts him by coincidence. Conversely, Mafia II depicts Vito Scaletta, an ambitious war veteran and former small-time thug who tries to climb the ladder of mod leadership from the 1950s Empire Bay (a fictional representation of cities such as New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles).
The situation becomes a lot more interesting in the third installment of the series, which depicts the experience of an African-American war veteran who fought in the Viet Nam war and seeks revenge in the turmoil of the late 1960s. The protagonist’s name is Lincoln Clay, and through him, players get to explore the very detailed world of New Bordeaux (a very detailed recreation of New Orleans). Though the idea of a protagonist of color in open-world games is not new and has been featured in two instances in the Grand Theft Auto series (Carl Johnson in San Andreas and Franklin Clinton in the fifth installment), Mafia III’s presentation of racial segregation, discrimination, and struggle is more detailed, lifelike and shocking than ever. Characters within the game are openly racist and make statements or perform actions against the African-American community without remorse, and with no real reasons other than hatred. The fact that players walk or drive around certain parts of New Bordraux and become subjected to the highest degree of bigotry and prejudice is purposely terrifying. There is racist chatter on the radio, police officers often abuse the player for no reason, random white pedestrians shout the “N” word in an instant, and many characters put Clay on an inferior position due to the color of his skin.
In the case of the main story, racism is just a reversed way of looking at the Italian mafia (hence the title): instead of getting to know a mob family like in the case of a Martin Scorsese film, the white gangsters are viewed from the outside, from the perspective of a struggling African community which tries to gain crime world supremacy. However, the Italians are not the only bad guys involved – and since the action takes place in the Deep South, there are many instances in which the Confederate flag can be found in the backyards of southerners who wouldn’t think twice about murdering a person of color. Without giving spoilers about the plot (which is fascinating and well-documented from a cultural and historical point of view), there is one mission in which the protagonist sneaks into a Ku-Klux-Klan gathering and kills the participants. Other part-takers in the mob world include the Irish and the Haitians, and both of them contribute to the development of the plot through their interactions with the protagonist.
Does Mafia III have a redemptive value for the emancipating African-American communities? To the same extent in which the philosophy of “eye for an eye” is applicable and effective. Do white gamers get to understand the ugly truth about racism which was common around 50 years ago and can still be found within certain areas and groups? Well, only partially: Lincoln Clay is a ruthless and reckless character who gets the same kind of revenge Django gets in Quentin Tarantino’s seventh film, and his philosophy is not entirely fueled by race considerations. Realistically speaking, though some of Lincoln’s friends are from the same ethnic and racial community as he is, his struggles are not anti-white, but rely solely on the idea of revenge against the Italian mob. The protagonist will often make alliances with various factions in order to achieve his ultimate goal, that of destroying the antagonized Marcano family.
However, in spite of the developers’ intentions in terms of presenting the story, Mafia III is an open-world game and players can explore every inch of the very detailed New Bordeaux. As seen in the video above, every walk around the city can result in a violent attack or gun-down of the protagonist, and the authorities tend to side with the whites even when they were the ones who opened fire. Similar scenarios can include visits around various shops which conclude with store clerks who kick you out and call the police just because your skin is black (they’re never shy of calling you the “N” word either).
The two Grand Theft Auto games which had African-American protagonists take place in slightly friendlier time periods and tend to create stereotypes of the Bronx-like communities to the same extent NWA music videos did: it’s all about them and their struggles, but the problems are usually caused by abusive authorities or the judgemental society in general. And this is exactly where Mafia III shines: it depicts darker times and takes a bold leap of making the player play as a black male in a time and a place where bigotry and prejudice were at their peak. Every interaction outside the safe space of the original community can result in violent attacks, the presumption of innocence is just as fictional as it was in the story of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter (as brilliantly described in Bob Dylan’s 1975 song, “Hurricane”), and the only way to survive is to either fight back or keep away from the white people’s spaces and privileges. Unlike the Grand Theft Auto series, racism doesn’t just come out in certain parts of the game or in relation to certain characters: Mafia III makes sure that the player is never safe from random attacks and creates an atmosphere in which the player rarely feels comfortable or welcome.
In spite of all the blood that is spilled throughout the game, Mafia III is a great narrative of American racism in the late 1960s, the failures of the Civil Rights Movement (New Bordeaux is far from the ideals and dreams of Martin Luther King Jr.), and the racial and ethnic struggle taking place between various mob groups whose establishment and membership rely heavily on criteria of origins. Playing as a human being who gets the treatment of a fox during hunting season can be a terrifying and awakening experience, and this is exactly why the video game can be educational for mature audiences. The current wave politically-correctness attempts to establish an environment of safety and inclusion through changes in terms of discourse – and the cost is usually the manipulation of historical events, in order to delete dark situations and events that might disturb the peaceful environment. Mafia III steps in and provides one of the most brutal representations of racism, by making the player immerse in an universe where the protagonist is hated, disrespected, and hunted down by people around a digital depiction of New Orleans. Instead of explaining that racism is bad because it might cause feelings of hatred and frustration, the developers challenge gamers to try to succeed as a member of a hated racial minority, in a very heated and violent location. Understanding through first-hand experiences can be a very useful tool in order to teach contemporary values of non-discrimination, acceptance, and tolerance, and Mafia III aces the test of helping players sympathize with the victims and appreciate how far our civilization has come in the last few decades. In the end, the game itself is a lesson and a time portal: and the depicted violence is by no means encouraging or inviting, but rather disgusting, preposterous, and undesirable.
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