Depictions of racism in media are often problematic, treading a fine line between being period-appropriate and gratuitous. Mafia 3 puts a black protagonist into 1960s America, and covers many of the small and large aggressions that people of colour faced in that time.
The following piece carries content warnings for descriptions of racism and violence.
Mafia 3 is an open world action game focused on clearing objectives and collectables in order to further the story. If you’ve played almost any AAA videogame made in the last decade then you know what to expect. Like the Far Cry 4, Just Cause 3 and many of the other games in the same genre, Mafia 3 tries to spice thing up with a unique mechanic, but rather than elephants or grappling hooks, the unique element at play here is racism.
Set in 1968, in the fictional Louisiana city of New Bordeaux, Mafia 3’s protagonist is a black man named Lincoln Clay. At the beginning of the game it’s mentioned that the orphaned Lincoln might actually be mixed race, but that’s not a distinction anybody in the game bothers with. Black is black. However, his race interlocks with the game’s mechanics as much as the narrative.
From almost the first moment, strangers and people in authority refer to Lincoln, and by extension the player, with slurs and barely-concealed contempt. Even the white people who seem friendly on the surface by pretending to disapprove of the more open racism are shown to be just as prejudiced underneath. Over the course of the game, the only white person who treats Lincoln without even a trace of racism is his ex-special forces partner Donovan. And although Donovan seems to view discrimination against black people as fundamentally un-American, he’s also happy to talk about other minorities in equally disparaging terms. Racism in the world of Mafia 3 is not an exception, it’s the norm.
When roaming the city, there are certain shops and restaurants you can’t enter, identified only by the ‘No Coloreds allowed’ sign in their windows. If you walk through the door the patrons and staff will first threaten and then call the police to chase you away. Just walking down the street in the wrong area draws racist abuse and any police officers that see you will act with hostility and suspicion. There’s nothing you can do to change this. No mission you can complete to earn people’s respect, no perk you can unlock that will change their minds. This is the law of the land and you just have to live with it.
What makes Mafia 3 so notable though, is the way that it shows the different sides of systemic prejudice. It’s not just swamp-dwelling white trash brandishing shotguns, it’s shopkeepers and taxi drivers, the rich and well-educated. Racism doesn’t start and end with burning crosses, it hides behind a smokescreen of reason and politeness. Thousands of microaggressions on a daily basis, adding up to an overwhelming whole.
The game never explicitly takes the time to tell you this. There’s no heavy-handed conversation where one of the characters explains to the audience that racism is bad. It doesn’t need to be stated – the environment of New Bordeaux speaks for itself. But there’s also no doubt how the game feels about it. There’s no ‘bad people on both sides’ false equivalency, no room to persuade yourself that maybe your enemies can be reasoned with. Lincoln does some pretty terrible things over the course of the game but it’s hard to feel much sympathy at all for the people he destroys.
Although the gameplay of Mafia 3 is pretty cookie-cutter, in places the writing makes me think of the work of author Walter Mosely. Hearing the Haitian gang leader Cassandra and Lincoln discuss what it means to be black, how their experiences are inextricably linked despite being so different, could have sprung from the pages of Mosely’s Easy Rawlins novels. The conversation is interesting enough, but the subtext is what makes it notable. Neither person holds any hope that their situation can be altered. Changes on that kind of impossible scale are far beyond them, and instead all they can hope to do is survive.
Videogames that explore themes of racism usually do so through a science fiction or fantasy lens. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – those genres were invented to explore human issues through an imagined world. But in Mafia 3 we see a mirror held up to the real world, a world of 50 years ago, a time well within living memory, and the echoes of that bigotry are still present in society today. This prejudice isn’t based on fantastical species – the people facing relentless and brutal oppression look like me and many of the people I care about.
It’s no secret that video game protagonists are, by and large, heterosexual white males, arguably so that they can specifically avoid conversations about difficult subjects. Although some franchises, mostly RPGs, allow you to customise your character’s appearance, there’s often no consequence for doing so. You’re never treated differently in Mass Effect for choosing the female version of Commander Shepard or for making your Skyrim character dark-skinned. And sometimes that’s exactly what those of us in underrepresented groups want and deserve. To live in a better world.
But a story like Mafia 3 has to be true to reality. Historical accuracy doesn’t just mean period-appropriate car models and a vintage soundtrack. It’s not an excuse to erase people that clash with your preferred perception of the world. Sometimes it means hearing slurs directed not around you but to you. When Lincoln Clay is banned from a particular diner or told to use the service entrance I feel a prickle of righteous fury because i know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would be treated the same in his place.
It also makes the catharsis all the more satisfying. Plenty of games go out of their way to build frightening and hateable villains, and white supremacists are as despicable and odious as it gets. Anyone can enjoy the fun of tearing apart a criminal empire with dynamite and a healthy disregard for personal property, but it becomes all the more satisfying when you can take it personally. And even if you’re not in the right demographic to take the words of the Southern Union personally, by the time you’ve spent hours being subjected to discrimination you’ll gain all the more enjoyment from removing your foes from the mortal coil.
It might not get everything right in terms of mechanics and mission structure, but if all Mafia 3 wanted to do was make a statement then it deserves full credit for that. It is the first game I can think of that lets you not gives you a non-white player character but also also makes that character a victim of racism. Obviously 1960’s deep south is an extreme example, but sometimes you don’t need subtle. Hopefully the people playing Mafia 3 who aren’t likely to experience prejudice like that will take something away from it, and for the rest of us, well you get to set Klansmen on fire, so that’s fun.