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Why Mafia III is one of the most important video games in decades


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Mafia III has been out for a few weeks and has garnered mixed reception. While the story and context have been highly praised, the mechanics have been heavily criticised.

Personally I really loved the game. The repetitiveness of it was minimised, to me, by the absolutely amazing 60s soundtrack, the fun driving and shooting, and the great social commentary.

While this game isn't a revelation in open world games it is one in video games as a medium. The way it has tackled race and racism is absolutely unprecedented. It has given me a total new perspective of the struggle African Americans faced and still face today. By putting you in the shoes of a mixed race man in 1968, it does what no movie can: make you feel like you are the one being discriminated against. As weird as this sounds, being physically connected to the character of Lincoln Clay helps you form a new perspective on what it must be like.

Obviously from the way I have described this, no, I am not a person of colour. I am white person born in Britain and although I have Irish roots, that type of discrimination has pretty much been absent since I was born in 1995, and was never the equivalent of what people of colour faced. While I can emphasise and completely condemn racial discrimination, as I haven't been widely subjected to it myself, I can’t fully understand it. I can watch 12 Years a Slave, I can watch Selma and think about how terrible it must have been, but I am still disconnected from it.

This is what Mafia III does differently, because it’s a video game. I control Lincoln, I control what he does. He is a virtual extension of myself in a way. When a policemen comes up to me and calls me a ‘nigger’ it makes me feel completely different than watching something similar happen on film.

Make no mistake, Mafia III does not shy away from disgusting and abhorrent racism, but the beauty of its portrayal is that it isn't shoved down the players throat. As Lincoln states in the opening hour ‘it's not like no one has ever called me a nigger before’. It is a part of his world; it’s just the way things are.

This is prominent throughout the game. Walk into a whites-only shop and the owner will call the police or stare too long at a policeman and he will become aggravated. It’s subtle but the impact on the player is massive. Lincoln Clay is also clearly a returning veteran from Vietnam, due to him constantly wearing his army jacket, but he is still spoken to like dirt.

Lincoln’s treatment is a visual summation of the immortal words of Muhammad Ali: ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger’. It really helps you visualise and understand what it must have been like and it’s sickening. If you’re in a rich white neighbourhood people will comment on your presence, you will see police interrogating black civilians, or worse, physically assaulting them.

Now this is just the background. Directly Mafia’s story tackles it a bit more head on. In the game you will face off against various factions with most being pretty racist. While in combat the enemies will spout things like ‘you niggers are great target practice’ as well as other obscenities. When sneaking you will hear members of the Southern Union (an offshoot of the KKK) talk about lynching black people; it makes it all too real.

The last couple of hours of the game see you go toe to toe with the Southern Union itself, and after I was through with them I felt dirty and extremely shocked. These segments of the game see you save black people from slavery as well as attend a real KKK rally where your assassination target will talk about the preserving the ‘heritage of the south’ (relevant in today due to the Confederate flag debates in America in 2015) and ‘protecting our own’ against savages.

After you eventually kill this leader it is covered in the in-game news. The police chief of the area says ‘It’s those god damn niggers every single one of them needs to be round up and shot’. This is horrible but not surprising. Even today African Americans face discrimination from police officers and the justice system. Whether it’s the shooting of Tamir Rice and Terrence Crutcher or strangling of Eric Gardner, seemingly a lot of the police mentality hasn't changed. Even police chiefs recently have been found guilty of racism, such as Chief Hoover, of the Clatskanie Police Department in Oregon, who compared black people to monkeys.

It’s not as obvious as it used to be, but it is still there. It is no wonder Malcolm X’s rhetoric was taken to heart by African Americans or the militant Black Panthers was formed. Lincoln Clay is the embodiment of their ideology. This game makes it hard to imagine how Martin Luther King Jr’s message received such a wide audience and became the main doctrine of the civil rights movement. Mafia III shows that despite the absolute end of slavery in 1865, the treatment of Africa Americans wasn't that much better in the South in 1968.

What Mafia III also does so well is bridge the gap between 1968 and 2016. It’s not obvious, you have to listen out for it, but it’s there. One small side story in the game sees a man tried for shooting two unarmed black veterans who had knocked on his door to ask for help with their broken down car. One can’t help but draw comparisons to when Renisha McBride, 19, was shot and killed after knocking on the door of a house to ask for help when her car broke down in 2013.

The judge in the trial in Mafia III said the man who shot the two veterans was protecting his property. The lawyer of the man who shot McBride, Theodore Wafer, said he was ‘completely justified in everything he did’. These two sound remarkably familiar, except one actually happened in 2013. Luckily Wafer was convicted on second-degree murder, but Mafia III highlights that this type of racism isn't dead in the US.

Other stories provide some commentary on famous figures of the modern times, like a man striving to run for office who says his dad got him out of Vietnam and put him in the coast guard (which parallels to what H.W. Bush did for his son), again highlighting how the white and rich stayed out of the Vietnam war. This privilege helped people like Bush and Donald Trump both dodge the draft but African Americans, like Muhammad Ali, had to go to Vietnam or face a lengthy prison sentence.

A couple of games before Mafia have dealt with issues of race. Assassins Creed has provided some interesting commentary on the slave trade, as has Bioshock Infinite with segregation and white supremacy. However Mafia III is the first video game to tackle this issue in such a way that it really gets to you emotionally. Through the medium of video games they have done something truly unique and forced the audience to experience this discrimination for themselves.

So I say to Bill O’Reilly and the pundits of Fox News, and I say to people like Paul Joseph Watson, who constantly blame the violence and crime of African Americans on absurd things like rap music and gang culture, I say to the ‘All Lives Matter’ movement - go out and buy a copy Mafia III. Play all the way through and then tell me all your wild theories about why crime is so prevalent in American minorities, tell me why Black Lives Matter is the equivalent of the KKK or a terrorist group.

Maybe experiencing the racism African Americans have faced in the past, albeit virtually, will make you emphasise with their grievances today. Maybe you will realise the system, whether it be policemen, the private prison industry or the judicial system, is against minorities.

Racism is still heavily prevalent in USA and Mafia III has done a great job in showing us what it was like back then and how little things have changed. This is groundbreaking for video games, and hopefully many will follow Hangar 13’s example and tackle the heavy issues of our time much like the film industry does.

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