From the early days of chasing after giant girlfriend-kidnapping gorillas to dropping from an orbital ship to battle aliens, videogames have typically been far more interested in fantasy than accuracy. After all, how much fun would it really be to spend an hour as Master Chief fighting aliens and then the next three field-stripping your weapons and filling out paperwork? But few subject matters are so disproportionately portrayed in videogames and popular culture as the Mafia. If games are to be believed, each Mob member is a master of every conceivable weapon and able to hot-wire and pilot any vehicle they come across.
In fairness, trying to accurately portray the day-to-day operations of a criminal organization would likely prove incredibly boring. Considering that a typical “family” involves thousands of associate members, soldiers and captains all running very mundane operations on a daily basis, it would be impossible to simulate even the smallest of operations. Since Grand Spreadsheet Accountant has yet to be made, it’s safe to say that the reality of this subject wouldn’t appeal to most gamers.
Instead, games seek to simulate the more exciting aspects of the Mafia: the murders, assaults and robberies. They rarely mention the often meticulous planning that goes into most Mob activities. When Gambino family member Salvatore Gravano turned federal witness in 1991, he described in vivid detail how even the most routine murders involved meeting with several of his fellow Mafia officers. When a member of Gravano’s own crew, Nicholas “Nicky Cowboy” Mormando, became hooked on crack cocaine and talked about leaving Gravano’s crew to start on his own, Gravano still sought permission from his Don, Jon Gotti, before taking Mormando out.
Most games remove the political aspect of Mob life from the gameplay. Instead, they simply tell players where to go and whom to kill. This comes as no surprise – few gamers are interested in running back and forth to advance the plot without running into action of some sort. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Dan Houser, Vice President of Creative for Rockstar Games and Lead Writer of Grand Theft Auto IV, talked about the trade-off between story and action: “We’re constantly trying to balance the need for narrative and the need for action … and never slow down the action through having too much exposition.” Presumably, adding that layer of authenticity to Mafia-inspired games would hinder players’ enjoyment. But could developers be missing the opportunity for new kinds of game mechanics?
Picking Your Battles
While the stereotype of the “dumb thug” mob soldier certainly plays heavily into Mafia games, the role in which most games cast the player is one of the intelligent, calculating individual that is supposed to be smarter than the average soldato. So why doesn’t the gameplay ever reflect this intelligence?
In your usual mob game, the player is supposed to commit some act of violence to achieve a simple reward. Kill a competitor to eliminate opposition, steal an object to gain power, etc. If there is any law enforcement activity, it is very limited – a player’s notoriety with enforcement agencies will disappear either after the completion of the mission or by collecting a power-up (usually in the form of a bribe of some sort). In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the “Cop Land” mission even has players kill two police officers to steal their uniforms in order to plant a bomb at a shopping mall. While this would trigger a nation-wide manhunt in the real world, Vice City lets players off after a brief chase. Likewise, in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, you escape from the police by jumping a car over a ramp that would make Bo and Luke Duke jealous – a jump so amazing it causes the police to give up on the chase.
This approach ignores the reality of modern law enforcement. Obviously gameplay cannot be based too closely on the real world – how much fun would a game be where the police not only never stopped pursuit, but actually served warrants and raided your home while you were offline? But the current design paradigm is almost ridiculous in its simplicity: Flee from the police after a very brief chase and they just give up – unless, of course, you commit more crimes during your flight, in which case you might have to go so far as to repaint your car.
Instead of giving police officers the short-term memory of a goldfish, it could add a lot of depth to games if players had to figure out how to commit a crime without being identified. After all, what sets the most infamous Mafioso apart is their ability to delegate responsibility. As players rise in power, they shouldn’t be taking on more and more risky missions themselves – they should be developing connections and recruiting subordinates to do the dirty work for them. That is the true Mafia way.
The networking aspect of organized crime offers plenty of untapped gameplay: choosing which characters to trust, which to send on specific missions and how to communicate to those characters. After all, wiretaps are a devastating law enforcement weapon against organized crime. And picking the wrong character as a confidant could have very detrimental consequences to your future if their loyalties lie elsewhere.
Who Do You Trust?
Many gamers mock the overly dramatic, near-constant betrayal of the protagonist by almost every other character in Mafia games, yet that may be the most accurate part of these titles. Once the very epitome of loyalty, the Mafia today is riddled with self-serving informants and spies.
That’s largely due to the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) act, which became law in 1970. RICO gave law enforcement a devastating new weapon against Mafia members. Small-time crooks that had previously escaped serious prosecution could now be tried simply for their involvement with the Mafia and given much harsher sentences. As a result, many lower-level Mafia members became informants against their former bosses rather than face the prospect of years behind bars.
The most famous example of this was during the Mafia Commission Trial in 1985, where the testimonial and evidence provided by mobsters-turned-informants was particularly devastating against the Godfathers of the New York Mafia. In case after case, informants offered to cooperate with the police by wearing wires or helping to bug their bosses’ offices on the condition that they would receive less harsh sentences themselves.
Even without the influence of law enforcement, Mafia members constantly turn on each other. Despite their self-professed identities as “men of honor” and “men of respect,” every crime family is rife with examples of members back-stabbing each other to get ahead (sometimes quite literally). Loyalty to your family and your Don is an outdated concept that no longer holds a place in the modern Mafia. Yet the games this lifestyle inspire constantly portray the protagonist as a basically “good,” loyal man attempting to serve his family as best he can and refusing to betray his Don.
Of course, a typical Mafia member in reality would make a poor protagonist, as they wouldn’t be likely to inspire much empathy in players. That leaves developers with seemingly no choice but to perpetuate the mythology of the “loyal hero,” the Mafia member that risks his own life to save his boss. While this is a fine, noble concept, it dates back to a pre-RICO era when the Mafia was mostly unknown by common citizenry and was certainly not romanticized.
Grounding the Game
There is no denying that the majority of Mafia-inspired games can be a great deal of fun. Playing the “bad guy with a heart of gold” in an open sandbox is highly appealing, reality be damned. But developers are perpetuating a stereotype that romanticizes one of the most brutal, treacherous and risky lifestyles in existence. If they started portraying cubicle workers as edgy rebels living their lives in constant danger, it would be infinitely more accurate than portraying noble gangsters trying to do right by their families.
Developers must feel they have to create sympathetic characters, but the appeal of these games is not in being the noble, fallen hero – it is in the freedom to cause as much mayhem as possible and amass power. Making the protagonist a self-centered and greedy scumbag most likely would not be much of a deterrent to players; if anything, it would free them from fake morality and allow them to be as self-serving as possible without artificially mandated loyalties. That way, they could play the role of a true gangster.
Shawn Williams enjoys quoting from The Godfather, and feels strongly that no one should ever go against the Family. When not busy being a wise guy, he blogs at NeenerNeener.Net.