Tragic Heroes and Vicious Murderers: The Mafia in Video Games

“How anyone could enjoy and find entertainment or cultural nourishment in Mafia stories had, for a good part of my life, remained a mystery to me,” writes Roberto Dainotto at the beginning of The Mafia: A Cultural History, an essay focused on Dainotto‘s exploration of “the social needs, the desires and fears, the kind of material and ideal fantasies that are satisfied by cultural representations of the Mafia.” It looks like Italian politicians share the same concerns, even when we talk about Mafia video games. In July, Carmelo Miceli from Partito Democratico (a big right wing party inspired by America’s own Democratic Party and Blair’s New Labour) accused the mobile game Mafia City of being “a devious tool of Mafia propaganda.” It wasn’t the first time Mafia games were under attack from Italian politicians, and we’ve seen similar polemics against Mafia TV series. American audiences may not be aware, but the Sicilian Mafia, called “Cosa Nostra” (“This thing of ours”), and mafias in general are still a sore spot in Italy.

Origin Stories

According to some, the Sicilian Mafia is an ancient tradition, maybe born during the Middle Ages. This origin myth has been promoted by the Mafia itself (when the very existence of the organization was not simply refuted), and the nostalgia for this likely imaginary past is the basis of many representations of the Sicilian Mafia, like Giovanni Verga’s short story Cavalleria Rusticana (1880), featured as its opera adaptation in The Godfather: Part 3, Pietro Germi’s western-influenced In the Name of the Law (1949), that is arguably the first Italian Mafia movie, and even Coppola’s The Godfather series. In all these works there was an original, rural and honorable Mafia, tied to peasants and Sicilian countryside, imbued with an almost childish vitality, passion and freedom, a tradition ruled by natural and chauvinist chivalry laws encoded in the blood. 

But the Sicilian Mafia is probably way more recent. The unification of Italy in the nineteenth century was actually the conquest of Central and Southern Italy by the Kingdom of Savoy, based in the northern city of Turin. For people from Northern Italy, and the Italian government and monarchy, the southern island of Sicily was a far and exotic land inhabited by illiterate, superstitious and violent populations: Sicily was basically treated as a colony and, while Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso theorized that its inhabitants were racially inferior and naturally prone to crime, the State was interested in the island for its resources, its taxes and the soldiers it could supply through conscription. When Sicilian populations revolted against this exploitation, deserters, and everyone who was considered an outlaw, were arrested and cruelly killed. In this climate, the old Southern aristocratic landlords organized private militia, and the practices of these armed groups were called “Mafia” (the etymology is disputed). The Mafia was filling a vacuum of power in Sicily, and later it developed as an independent (and illegal) business organization.

In the 1894-1914 period, immigration from Italy to the Americas was massive, above all from its poorer Southern regions. But the first mafiosi came to New York and New Orleans even before, in order to manage trades between Sicily and USA and escape either justice or feuds within the Sicilian Mafia. The Italian-American Mafia flourished in the 1920s, becoming an entertainment industry based on import-export and management of narcotics, gambling, prostitution and illegal alcoholic beverages during Prohibition. Thanks to the Italian-American Mafia never breaking its ties with the Italian counterpart, the whole organization evolved from a bunch of almost independent groups into an international enterprise with “two main centers, one on each side of the Atlantic” as Salvatore Lupo writes.

At the same time, the Italian-American Mafia offered some hope (and jobs) to the marginalized Southern Italian ethnicity. In the United States, Southern Italians were not considered as white as other European ethnicities and they were subjected to discrimination and lynchings, while the Mafia was seen as a secret foreign conspiracy aimed at subverting American capitalism. Both in Europe and in the Americas, mafias were the byproduct of marginalization, racism, poverty and colonialist attitudes. Its most prominent figure, Alphonse “Al” Capone, also known as Scarface, inspired Howard Hawks’s Scarface gangster movie (1932, later remade by Brian De Palma) that cemented the relationship between Italians/Italian-Americans and crime in cinema and media. “Movies and games about Mafia come from an American perspective that cannot be understood unless we investigate anti-Italianism,” Giulio Pitroso, author of Mafia and the representation of Italians, tells me over the phone. “Movies about organized crime have looked at minorities through a peephole, discriminating against them during the beginning of the twentieth century.”

Mafia: Definitive Edition
Mafia: Definitive Edition

The Invention of the Mafia Movie

As explained in Robert Warshow’s The Gangster as Tragic Hero (1948) the movie gangster is at the same time othered by its ethnicity and attractive because of his power. “American cinema since the beginning has represented organized crime in the most glamorous fashion,” professor Dana Renga from The Ohio State University tells me over the phone. The gangster represents the extremization of the American self-made man, an American Dream driven by an insatiable desire for material success. Even The Godfather (1972) is a story about the American Dream, but for Coppola The Godfather’s Mafia is the true nature of the American Way of Life, the violence lurking underneath apparently respectable businesses and politics.

“What’s the difference between the United States putting a guy like Trujillo in power so our companies can operate in the Dominican Republic and the Mafia’s handing the Boston territory to one of its capos?” Coppola asks. This wasn’t the film’s only innovation: The Godfather changed the gangster movie, inventing a proper Mafia sub-genre. “Mafia movies after The Godfather don’t put on the stage generic gangsters, but rather represent the mafiosi as socially acceptable people, with ethics and honor codes,” Pitroso says.

The Godfather shaped Mafia video games, too. In fact, Pitroso identifies one of the video game adaptations of Coppola’s movie, U.S. Gold’s The Godfather (1991), as the first true Mafia game, distinguishable from games where mobsters are the enemy and from generic gangster games since it is “the first to contain clear references to the world of Italian organized crime.” Video games haven’t ever hidden their cinematic aspirations, and when video games talk about Mafia they inherit the language of Mafia movies. Illusion Softworks’s Mafia (2002) begins with a slow cutscene accompanied by orchestral music and by the names of the voice actors, emulating the head titles of a movie, while Mafia 2’s main character comes to the USA looking for the American Dream (and discovering that it’s “more a nightmare”), repurposing themes that we have already seen both in gangster and Mafia cinema.

In Mafia movies “there’s a clash between a minority with its honor code, exacerbated by the Mafia system, and Americans, an external entity,” Pitroso claims. “This perspective is necessary to understand the tragic motivations of evil. Even though in Mafia 2 the clash between America and the Italian-American community isn’t brought to the forefront, I can’t help thinking about the fact that you can find the Italian flag in meeting places, about the fact that they only socialize among themselves – and not only because they’re mobsters — about the fact that passersby speak Italian… you can read the ethnic conflict between the lines in Mafia 2 too.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that Mafia 3 chose to focus on racial discrimination in the USA: these themes were already part of the Mafia genre. It’s also interesting to note how games that deal with mafias, when they are not third person story-driven (and often open-world) experiences, tend to be strategic games based on management, like Omerta: City of Gangsters. The parallels between the Italian-American Mafia and regular and legal businesses (and wars) in capitalism is not lost on video game developers.

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1977: Radio Aut
1977: Radio Aut

Anti-Mafia Media

Ironically, The Godfather has become a model for Italian and Italian-American mobsters, too. For example, journalist Andrea Meccia tells me that music from The Godfather was played during the funerals of Rome boss Vittorio Casamonica. This raises a question that’s probably more important in Italy than in the USA: how can we film an “anti-Mafia” movie? How can we develop an “anti-Mafia” game, something that couldn’t be used by Mafia to glorify itself?

“I think there is a type of narration that leaves mobsters unable to rework it,” Meccia says. “It’s the kind of narration that exposes the ambiguities of Mafia and questions the omnipotence of bosses, it’s the satirical and grotesque narration. Peppino Impastato comes to mind: he made fun of mafiosi from the frequencies of a free radio.”

When he was only 30 years old, Impastato was killed by Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti, a friend of his own father. If you want to learn something more about Impastato’s life, you can play Alex Camilleri’s free video game 1977: Radio Aut. “Impastato acted on a local level, saying out loud the names of people coming from his same world, and using a new weapon, sarcasm,” adds Emiliano Morreale, who has written several essays about representation of Cosa Nostra in media (the last one is La mafia immaginaria, “The Imaginary Mafia”). “The war on mafia wasn’t a moralistic fight in the name of principles, it was a fight where names were named and where people acted locally on concrete issues. Mafia is not a monolithic abstract entity.”