Today’s growing digital society is filled with various types of media for us to consume on a daily basis that requires a level of media literacy and criticism. With the vast amount of media platforms to consume, it is up to the consumer to analyze and critique the cultural implications of the particular message that the medium is attempting to convey. Video games are some of the most popular and fastest growing industries in the world of interactive media and have reached a level of integration into a majority of people’s lives, whether it be on computers, video game consoles, or mobile devices. A video game released earlier this year by Hangar 13, titled Mafia 3, recently sent shockwaves through the gaming world with its unique story-centered epic about revenge in the world of organized crime. While popular games like Grand Theft Auto and Watch Dogs have explored similar concepts of open-world, third-person shooter games focusing on criminal activities, Mafia 3 distinguishes itself as a game that focuses less on mechanics and improved gameplay and more on historical context and story-driven character studies. The story itself is told through a mixture of long, movie-like and cinematic cutscenes, in addition to the violent gun battles and stealthy takedown of AI enemies, almost making the game feel like a long movie. Taking place in New Bordeaux, a fictional a city in the American South that strongly resembles New Orleans in the year 1968, Mafia 3 ushers in a number of implications about the medium and its message to society. The game’s developers created a story about revenge in a historically significant time period in American history, which ultimately contained controversial elements like intense violence and racism. However, it was these very elements that made the game and its story credible, appropriate, and relevant in today’s saturated media environment.
The third title in the Mafia series, Mafia 3 is a third-person action-adventure shooter, in which players take on the role of protagonist Lincoln Clay, a bi-racial orphan who has recently returned home from the Vietnam War and finds himself immersed in the criminal underworld he once sought to escape. After returning home from the war to New Bordeaux in 1968, he begins by reuniting with his semi-adoptive father Sammy Robinson, the head of the Black Mafia, who runs all illicit operations in the neighborhood known as Delray Hollow, and his son, Ellis Robinson. The Black Mafia, who had partnered with the Italian Mafia in New Bordeaux under boss Sal Marcano, recently had their businesses and rackets sabotaged by a new black organization on the scene known as The Haitians. This resulted in in the Black Mafia not being able to give the proper “kick-backs” to the Italian Mafia for almost three months. In order to rectify the grave situation, Lincoln agrees to quietly “take out” members of the Haitian gang for Sammy and meets with Sal Marcano to explain the situation, who eventually gives Lincoln the opportunity to take part in a successful bank robbery. While the player gets to control Lincoln as he stealthly kills members of the Haitian gang and take part in the bank heist, upon his arrival to Sammy’s restaurant to divide up the loot, the Black Mafia is double-crossed and ambushed by Marcano and his men. Lincoln is shot in the face but miraculously survives, while Sammy, Ellis, and the rest of the only family he had left were killed. After Marcano sets the restaurant ablaze, Lincoln is rescued by another father-like figure and mentor, Father James, a black priest and World War II veteran who narrates the story of Lincoln Clay through the cutscenes in between the gameplay action. After this violently emotional introduction to the game and its characters, the player becomes aware that the rest of the game will be spent enacting revenge for Lincoln Clay’s suffering by destroying and taking over Sal Marcano’s businesses one by one, ultimately ending in his death.
Following this crucial event that effectively set up the story and engages the player to form an attachment the the main character, Lincoln Clay embarks on the bloody, violent journey to seek revenge against the Italian Mafia. One of the first meaningful assassination missions was one which probably resonates with those who play the game for its entirety for its sheer unique brutality. After forming a truce with the leader of the Haitian gang, known as Cassandra, Lincoln tracks down Ritchie Doucet, head of the all-white Dixie Mafia, who had murdered his brother Ellis at the restaurant. Tracking him down to an abandoned amusement park on the bayou, the player kills all of Doucet’s men and eventually cuts to a scene of Lincoln hanging him from a ferris wheel. Eerily resembling the hundreds or thousands of black lynchings over the course of American history, this first killing gives the player the strong context of the tensions related to that time period and how the game will continue to be brutally violent. Violent games like Mafia 3 normally carry the ESRB Mature rating, discouraging those under age 17 like playing it. However, games and media that portray such violence can be easily criticized as being attractive to people who have a high need for violence. However, this hasn’t stopped the desensitization of violence from its vast portrayal through our other media platforms. While the main components of gameplay in Mafia 3 revolve around brutally murdering others in revenge, it may be the type of violence we need to honestly confront. Many movies and television shows portray acts of violence but are sure to disregard showing blood, gore, or even the act of violence itself. This creates an irony in that the kind of violence that normally upsets people is exactly the kind they should be exposed to more, while the violence that most media consumers don’t complain about or even perceive that does the most harm to them. Quite effectively, Mafia 3 challenges public criticism of violence in the media by not sanitizing violence but by embracing it honestly in all of its horror and gore and uses it as a quintessential factor in its storytelling.
Another key aspect of Mafia 3 which deserves proper criticism and analysis is its heavily racial undertones. Firstly, the game sets a new standard in an industry which is notoriously deemed as having default white-male characters for casting its main protagonist and cast of characters as African Americans. By casting Lincoln Clay as bi-racial, the developers were able to let all types of players identify with Lincoln while also appropriately reinforcing the prototypical racial concept of “if you look black, you are black.” This unique characterization, along with the games other historical elements, ultimately made racism and the struggles of African Americans a focal part of story. Set during the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960s American South, Mafia 3’s gameplay becomes a consistent repetition of vengeful violence against white Italian-americans. Lincoln’s character is chronically hearing the word “nigger” as he makes his way through the vast, open-world of the racially volatile city of New Bordeaux. The use of this language is used often, whether it be during your violent disruption of a KKK rally or driving around while you hear a radio host vehemently talk about historically racist marijuana laws, the constant use of this language ultimately gives the player the honest racial context of the time period. The game is full of these kinds of racial undertones at every turn and even briefly depicts various historically relevant events including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Black Power salutes at the Mexico City Olympics, the Tet Offensive, and the riots at the Democratic National Convention. One of the aspects of the game that I found the most interesting in this regard was when your character freely roamed the open world, that certain neighborhoods in the city would warrant whether witnesses would call the cops when you were committing violent acts. If you found yourself in an area like Delray Hollow, where the population is predominantly Haitian and African American, any potential witnesses of the gun violence you were committing wouldn’t immediately rush to a phone to call the law, who would eventually come to your location and try to subdue you. On the contrary, if you found yourself shooting up an affluent neighborhood like the French Quarter, a witness would immediately call the cops in which your character needed to leave the scene. This very aspect of the game is one of many things that ultimately reflect on the historical time period the game was set and the honest depiction of its racial tensions in the American South. While some would argue that Mafia 3 is a game about racism, I would contend that it is a game about an African American orphan living in the world he was born in that doesn’t waver over the social aspects of that time period.
While Mafia 3 is certainly a game with rich historical content, repetitive but engaging tasks, and strong character development in a satisfying tale of revenge, it still loudly portrays and glorifies making decisions and resolving conflicts with violence. In its aim to depict 1968 New Orleans, Mafia 3 also gives the player an ultimatum on their choice to act out violence with the character of Lincoln Clay. While there may be nothing inherently bad about gaming, frequent players of games like Mafia 3 could pick up on what the game is repeating and that anti-social behaviors are successful in settling certain disagreements. As time goes and these games are played more frequently, the players may become conditioned to linking success with these fictional, but antisocial behaviors like lying, stealing, fighting, and murder with firearms. After the initial cinematic sequences that begin Mafia 3 and make the player become emotionally invested in the story and main character, the gameplay mainly consists of what author and social psychologist Steven Johnson refers to as telescoping. This term is meant to describe how electronic gamers can focus on immediate objectives within the game that are the result of completing a previous objective. These immediate objectives are completed and the player is immediately propelled onward to the next one which develops a flow of telescoping that can be addictive. In the case of Mafia 3, your character of Lincoln Clay now has to take down the two rackets in each “district”, one by one, in order to eventually take out the underboss running the operation. After you have killed both of the underbosses in each district, you are one step closer towards Lincoln’s main nemesis, Sal Marcano. This flow of telescopy can be entertaining and rewarding to the player, but can easily draw the player into a continuous obsession of experiencing those feelings associated with taking over the rackets, and eventually the district. It is this type of detachment from reality that could possibly take over someone and condition them to act like or based on the functions of the game.
While a game like Mafia 3 certainly draws concern based on its depictions of violent organized crime and consistent use of blood, gore, strong language, and nudity, it is one whose developers sought to honestly portray the awfulness of the “mob culture” and immerse the players in an open world that accurately portrays a controversial point in American history. Because the video game industry has become some so prominent and reaches every kind of audience demographic, it is important for us as media consumers to analyze and critique video games like Mafia 3 in order to understand the true meaning of the message its creators were trying to send. By including heavily controversial issues like intense violence, murder, and racism, mixed with a rewarding gameplay system in which players emotionally connected with the main protagonist and his goals, Mafia 3 ultimately challenges traditional video game narratives and offer a brutal reality check to our violence-addicted culture and our biased perceptions of history.
- [Generic Gaming]. (Oct 7, 2016) Mafia 3 – Killing Ritchie Doucet / Ferris Wheel [Video File] Retrieved from https://youtu.be/HcI8yC-9cUU
- Potter, W. J. (2014). Media Literacy (7th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE. Page 392
- Martin, G. (Dec.12 2016). The Purity of Revenge: Mafia III’s Writer on Racism, History and Vengeance. Retrieved December 17, 2016, from https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2016/12/mafia-iii-william-harms.html
- Potter, W. J. (2014). Media Literacy (7th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE. Page 270
- Potter, W. J. (2014). Media Literacy (7th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE. Page 262