How One Video Game Unflinchingly Tackles Racism With History And Raw Interactions
It's 1968 in New Bordeaux, La. On the surface all looks tranquil as you drive through the bustling city in your red Pontiac, tapping your foot to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang."
But as you take a sharp left down a winding back alley, an alarming sight gives you pause. Behind you, trucks painted with the Confederate flag begin to appear, the white men behind the wheel angry and visceral as they shout racial slurs.
Your name is Lincoln Clay. You're a 23-year-old biracial man — but in this place, this time, you're black, and instances of racism and bigotry are commonplace.
This is Mafia III, an action-adventure video game developed by Hangar 13 and published by 2K Games.
It's a game that, in a lot of ways, meticulously adopts and adapts from the racial and political history of the era. And it's become a provocative and in some ways cathartic alternate reality that directly confronts gamers of all walks of life with the reimagined raw trials of a protagonist rarely featured by the industry.
The game's authentic use of past racial tensions isn't the crux of the plot — its premise is similar to other Mafia games, in which a protagonist goes up against the mob. But their presentation is heavy and deliberate. Senior writer Charles Webb says the creators wanted to spark players' consciousness without overindulging in a history lesson.
"One of the things I'm really, really proud of is we've kind of created this game of empathy," Webb says. "This is what it was like to occupy this space, as this particular type of person, as a young black man in 1968 in the South."
Grounded in history
As you drive throughout the city or make a pit stop for some quick cash, music of the era — Nina Simone or Janis Joplin — keeps you company. News broadcasts reflect the period, announcing tragedies like the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the arrests of Freedom Riders.
"We attached ourselves to this idea of the documentary. It gets you to think about how have things changed, if at all," says Creative Director Haden Blackman.
The writers say they did extensive research, studying films, documentaries and literature, including The Trials of Muhammad Ali; The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975; the James Baldwin debates with William F. Buckley from 1965; and Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. The writers cited "The Ballot or the Bullet," speech from April of '64 by Malcolm X as a primary influence.
An invisible character by the name of "The Voice" delivers evidence of this research: As a radio personality, he often speaks directly to the player, providing critical commentary and analysis of the prejudice and injustices within this reimagined narrative.
"Being able to have him as this 'voice of the people' in the city, especially of the marginalized, specifically black community, at the time — it's one of those things that really helps tie things together," says Senior Writer Ed Fowler. "The way that it evokes the time and still resonates today speaks to many things, just in general in our world right now."
'Scared as all get-out'
With so much history involved, the team admits the game's subject matter can be, at times, grueling and potent.
As Clay, you go on a mission to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan and confront other white supremacists groups on numerous side quests. You hear racial slurs and witness hateful acts against African-Americans. The police watch you — always.
The game's open world is abundant but you, the player, are not welcome in every aspect of its landscape, simply on the basis that you are you. The ambiance of bigotry — quiet or bombastic — is consistent, whether in hateful glances when you walk through areas reserved for "whites only" or the seemingly increased police presence when you stroll through predominantly white suburbs.
The team knew the game had the potential to be polarizing.
"I was definitely scared, scared as all get-out," Webb says. "It was very important to our team as a whole to hammer home to be authentic and true to the period, and that's a fine line ... not only respecting how hostile this space might be toward Lincoln but also figuring out ways to not make it completely repellent to the player."
It all appears to have worked, as Mafia III became the fastest-selling title by 2K Games, with more than 4 million units shipped in the first week.
But despite the game's positive reception, some reviewers have argued that its excessive and chaotic violence overshadows the abuse black and brown people experienced during the era, as The Verge's Chris Plante has argued:
"A black man lynching a white man in the American South in 1968 is an arresting image, except its power is undercut by the game's pace. It takes no time to unpack what we're seeing, let alone acknowledge that, below the hanging man, fester dozens of other men murdered by Lincoln Clay."
Still, Mafia III inches away from the familiar tropes of shoot-'em-up games. One of them is the poor depiction of women, who are often heavily sexualized or subservient to the male protagonist.
In Mafia III, women hold their own and serve more than just atmosphere, which Webb says was a deliberate move. There's Cassandra, the head of the Haitian mob; then Alma Diaz, who runs smuggling operations; and Nicki Burke, a lieutenant in the Irish mob.
And then there's the inner circle of Clay's friends and family, most of whom are black and help shape the narrative. This batch of characters joins a small group of other individuals of color from recent major games: Marcus Holloway from Watch Dogs 2, antagonist Nadine Ross from Uncharted 4 and Lee Everett from The Walking Dead Telltale games universe and others.
Yet, many groups remain highly underrepresented in the gaming industry, which has faced criticism, for instance, not only for the rarity of protagonists of color, but also for their voices being performed by white voice actors.
A 2009 study found that Latinos were virtually unrepresented as playable characters, while African-Americans were largely featured in sports games or similar titles that reinforce stereotypes.
A possible harbinger?
S. Craig Watkins, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says the tech industry is commonly under fire for its lack of diversity, while the video game industry hasn't been held "nearly as accountable."
The vast majority of game developers are white — the results of a 2015 survey by the International Game Developers Association suggest that only about 3 percent of video-game makers are African American and 7 percent are Latino. Meanwhile, several studies have found that black and Latino children and teenagers spend more time per day playing video games.
"The statistics are shifting and telling us that who plays games is no longer this imagined idea of the white straight able-bodied adolescent male who is at home in their parents' basement," says Edmond Chang, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Oregon. "The industry has really failed in certain ways to catch up."
Watkins says Mafia III could be a harbinger for the industry. "The idea that a studio would even consider investing the resources, the time, the human capital to develop a game like Mafia III," he says, "that's a really interesting approach to what the gaming world and experience might look like."
And Blackman, the creative director, says he's proud of the game sparking important dialogue.
"We're not so naive as to think that a single game could cure racism — and that was never our intent," Blackman says. "But at the end of the day, if we make people think about race and we make people think about what's happening today, I think we've done something that very few games have done."
Iman Smith is a freelance reporter. You can follow her on Twitter at @ImanThePress.