Is Mafia III the Oregon Trail of the 1960s?
I know more about the Oregon Trail than my parents. Not because I read more books about it or that I had a particular interest in the life of an American Pioneer. I am more knowledgeable about that treacherous 2,000 mile trek across the untamed wilderness of the American frontier because of video games. The Oregon Trail has been a mainstay of computer labs since the earliest incarnation in the 1970s. I fondly recall the Apple II version of the program which required the use of a keyboard, whereas my wife is more familiar with the point-and-click CD-Rom edition. Kids can now play a touch-screen version on their phones. As a youngster, I never took the game seriously. I named the characters in my family “butt” and “fart,” spent all of my money on bullets and all my time shooting as many bears as possible. In fact, I don’t think I ever made it to Oregon. But I still know the inherent risks in fording a river, the dangers of dysentery and why you should always carry at least one extra axle for your wagon.
Video games allow you to walk a mile (or 2,000) in another person’s shoes in a way books or even films cannot. The movie Alien is scary. Playing Alien: Isolation with the lights off will make you piss your pants. Watching Nazis get shot in Inglorious Basterds is fun. Slaughtering Nazis in Wolfenstein 3D is a near-religious experience. But interactive entertainment can do more than raise your pulse, it can also change the way you think. In a time when empathy is often in scant supply and divisions of race, class and creed are becoming impossible to ignore, playing games may be the best way learn how the other half lives, or in the case of Mafia III, lived.
On the surface, Mafia III (released last friday on Xbox One and Playstation 4) is your standard Grand Theft Auto clone. Like in GTA and the first two Mafia games, you explore a vast and detailed urban environment, steal cars, assassinate your enemies, and build a criminal empire. What sets this title apart from its predecessors and competitors is the character and setting. The first two Mafia games featured a generic gangster character in a generic gangster setting. This time you are Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race Vietnam veteran living in New Bordeaux (neé New Orleans) Louisiana. The year is 1968.
To put that in context, 1968 is the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the Vietnam War tore apart the nation, protesters were brutally beaten by law enforcement officers at the Democratic National Convention, 16-year-old Black Panther Bobby Hutton was gunned down by police in Oakland and the Olympic Committee condemned medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos for raising the Black Power Salute into the sky.
In short, it was perhaps the most turbulent period in living history. It’s no coincidence that the designers of Mafia III chose 1968 for its setting. The game doesn’t just take place during this year of racial violence and political turmoil, it fully immerses you in it. A white woman clutches her purse as you pass by, police officers casually call you the n-word, your character suffers from post-traumatic stress flashbacks and white supremacists oppress, exploit and brutalize people of color in ways that will make you feel ashamed for this country’s legacy of racial bloodshed. I’ve seen a lot of fucked up shit in video games. I’ve fought my way out of Nazi torture chambers, ripped people’s hearts out and literally escaped the bowels of hell. But I’ve never had a police officer look me in the eye and call me n-gger. It’s the most upsetting thing I’ve ever experienced in a game. And that’s the point of course.
Mafia III didn’t have to go there. Call of Duty: Black Ops took place during the same time period and there was nothing close to this. You shoved broken glass into a man’s mouth and punched him in the jaw to watch it bleed but that’s a round of Mario Kart Rainbow Road compared to this shit. It’s jarring, affecting and just might be the bravest thing I’ve ever scene a work of mainstream art do in years. I’ve spent a good deal of time studying the extraordinary events of the 1960s, but nothing has made it feel as real and terrifying as Mafia III.
When I usually play sandbox games like this, I see the game world as my personal playground. I feel no remorse plowing down innocent civilians, blowing up public property and slaughtering police officers. In fact, that’s often the fun. It’s a liberating, cathartic experience that allows me to release my inner rage in a consequence free environment. The world of New Bourdeaux does not feel like this amoral playground. I hear an old woman on the street mourning the loss of Dr. King. I notice that the police don’t always respond when you commit a crime in a black neighborhood but will race to the scene in a white one. I find a note left by a heroin-addled prostituted in the backroom of a bordello run by racist mobsters. She’s telling one of her friends that someday they’ll be free. Some day they’ll get to go home. I don’t mow through this town like I did Vice City or San Andreas. I’m not even tempted. Mafia III isn’t a playground, it’s a lesson.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Mafia III should be taught in schools like Oregon Trail. I’m also not a parent but I don’t recommend your kids play it. But let’s face it, kids will play this. A lot of kids. And something good might come out of that. Maybe there’s a kid who doesn’t understand the legacy of police brutality against people of color. Maybe there’s a kid who is opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement. The current generation of kids is pretty woke but I’ve heard a lot of n-bombs thrown around on Xbox Live matches. Maybe this will make some of those kids realize how corrosive and dangerous that sort of language is.
More importantly, I hope that Mafia III serves as an inspiration for educational software designers. Why not harness the emotional power of a sandbox game to let students walk a mile in another person’s shoes? Gamers have stormed the beaches of Normandy in Call of Duty, why not have students spend a day in the life of a Japanese internment camp? Video game players have explored colonial America in Assassin’s Creed, why not have a kid experience life in the cotton fields of a southern plantation? This is controversial to be sure and maybe the educational system isn’t ready for this. If I couldn’t help but name my character “butt” in Oregon Trail, I might be expecting too much to have a kid play a game about surviving the Holocaust and take it seriously. But I think that’ s a risk we should be willing to take as a society.
Triple AAA video game titles have become more and more risk averse in the past few years. Call of Duty, Madden, and Assassin’s Creed have enjoyed fantastic success repeating their respective formulas year after year. It’s therefore extremely impressive that the third game in a series would do something as radical as Mafia III. They could have done another by-the-numbers gangster story in a familiar setting and had a hit on their hands. Instead they have cracked open a genre and pushed it to a threshold no one could have predicted. I think it is a good sign for this rapidly maturing form of storytelling. Anyone who still tells you video games aren’t art is nothing short of a fool these days and Mafia III is proof positive. Buy it. Play it. Talk about it. Great art requires great risks and those risks must be rewarded. Reward this one.