Although its plot is a classic tale of revenge, one of the central themes of Mafia 3 is race. Following mixed-race protagonist Lincoln Clay and set in southern America during a time of extreme prejudice and discrimination, the game even opens with a statement against racism from the developer.
The game has been out for a few days, giving players a chance to see how Mafia 3 tackles one of the most unfortunate and shameful parts of society. The verdict is out, with many gamers of colour praising its portrayal of racism.
Mafia 3 Captures the Ugliest Part of Society – Even When It’s Easy to Miss
Set in the 1960s, when it was far more acceptable to drop the n-word, Mafia 3’s enemies use it plenty. It’s especially used by the Dixie Gang, a group that’s also fond of (symbol of racism), the Confederate flag.
The game’s policing has also been much publicised. If you wander through any of the predominantly white districts in Mafia 3, the police will be on high alert to your presence, but if you commit a crime in a predominantly black area, they’ll be slow to respond.
But while all of this is expected, it’s the less overt examples of racism that have really made an impact.
For example, in the gif above, a white NPC moves her handbag away from Lincoln. It’s such a small and brief thing but it’s a very real and very familiar occurrence that people of colour face every day. Just today, I went grocery shopping and an elderly white woman switched queues twice because my mother and I (we’re both black) queued up behind her.
Explaining this to people who’ve never experienced it – trying to describe how obvious it was that someone saw you as a threat simply or were made uncomfortable by your presence because of the colour of your skin is difficult. But, with players in Lincoln’s shoes seeing it for themselves, it’s a little harder for people to deny.
Holy. Shit. HOLY…. SHIT. MY ENTIRE FAMILY HAS SERIOUSLY BEEN ON THE RECEIVING END OF ALMOST EXACTLY THIS COMMENT. pic.twitter.com/C8pkMBEzCs
— Tauriq Moosa (@tauriqmoosa) October 10, 2016
Another example, in the video above, probably seems like a joke. ‘Ha! How can a black person like you get a job while us white folk get passed over?’ But it’s not funny; it’s (poorly disguised) code for ‘you’re not worthy, you don’t deserve to be treated equally and I want you to know it.’
Also familiar, is a comment on Lincoln’s heritage, in which a side character says that he “always figured his father was white” and then comes “not that it mattered — back then if you look black, you black. Same as today, I suppose.” Like Lincoln, I’m biracial, relatively light-skinned and didn’t get a choice on how to identify; I called myself black, my classmates called me half-caste and that was the end of it.
The reality stings but it’s nice to see it packaged and on a screen for other people to understand too.
Mafia 3’s micro-aggressions sit in stark contrast to games like Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. Though that game is set in a time of slavery, its depiction of racism was lacking and many criticised it for being too heavy handed (the white player character can take part in several slave rescue side quests, for example).
Prior to the game’s release, Mafia 3’s senior writer Charles Webb explained to VICE that the team did user tests regarding the use of racial slurs and was able to “somewhat” correct the amount in the game. Webb noted that he wanted to add more slurs at first but they “scaled it back a little bit.”
Webb also said that:
“I think deploying [the n-word] in the way that it may have actually been used in the period would have probably just created a wall of noise for players. They would just ignore it. It just wouldn’t matter.
We want you to feel a visceral sense of rejection of the language being used by racists in the game. We keep talking about systemic racism, but systemic racism is still personal. And we want that to feel personal so that you can react to it.
It comes down to user testing. It comes down to (again) to a gut check. We didn’t want it to be every other word out of the enemies’ mouths, but at the same time, we wanted to strike the right balance.”
Mafia 3 isn’t trying to being political (according to Webb), but certainly, its portrayal of racism can influence and impact white gamers who may have never seen racial prejudice like this. Although it may not feature the full extremes of what discrimination is like, for many gamers of colour Mafia 3 still feels incredibly honest.