By Iris Bull
Italian and Italian-American stereotypes are ubiquitous across media. So far I’ve touched on literature, film and television—time for video games!
Video game companies are often vertically and horizontally integrated, meaning that companies are able cut some costs in the production process, but generally game development costs are too expensive for consumers to absorb. As a consequence, these companies can take a loss on each game development, and subsist on the revenues of widely successful games that root themselves in our culture. This structure, among other things, incentives industry leaders like Nintendo and EA to invest in tried-and-true stories and concepts that will payout over a long period of time (much like the recording and film industry).
How might video game narratives relate to Italian stereotypes?
Think on it for a moment, can you guess when the first use of an Italian stereotype might once have pervaded 8-bit screens?
Maybe you couldn’t tell who was fighting Donkey Kong, or you missed the fake mustache?
I can’t get enough of “Super Mair-io,” and luckily, I never will. In addition to being one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, Super Mario Bros. was spun-off as a bizarre television series created by DIC Entertainment, Nintendo of America, Saban Productions, and Sei Young Animation Co. The show, which ran churned out 65 episodes, initially distributed through Viacom, but those rights now belong to CBS Entertainment and Cookie Jar Entertainment. The show was basically a huge promotional plug for the Nintendo company, who used the platform to advertise other games, such as the Legend of Zelda. Not surprisingly, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! was followed by two strictly animated sequels.
Indeed, legend has it that the famous game avatar was inspired by an actual Italian-American businessman by the name of Mario Segale (though there is some contention around the specifics of the story). Many more “Italians” would follow Mario, including—but certainly not limited to—Relentless Rolento, Pizza Pasta, and Luigi Goterelli. Relentless Rolento and Pizza Pasta are from the era of arcade cabinets, and illustrate a overt marginalization and racism that blatantly commodify Italian and Italian-American identity. Goterelli, though, is a little different; he was one of the early representations of mafioso in video game history. He appeared in Grand Theft Auto III (2001), an installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise produced by DMA Design.
DMA Design, who became Rockstar Games in 2002, was not the first to publish the mafia in a video game—Gangsters: Organized Crime (1998) by Eidos Interactive may have that credit—but GTA III was one of the first to popularize representations of the classic mafia narrative in mainstream markets. The game was published in 2001, and distributed by parent company Take-Two Interactive. The game was considered by some as the most important video game of the decade. GTA III would inspire Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, a game that more openly borrows from traditional Italian and Italian-American stereotypes.
Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven
Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven was written by Daniel Vavra, developed by Illusion Softworks, and published by Gathering of Developers in 2002. It was fairly “indie” for its time (Gathering of Developers had only been bought out 2 years prior), and spawned a new 3D development engine, the Ptero-Engine, named after the co-developing company, Pterodon. The game came out 3 years after the season premiere of The Sopranos, and successfully rode the wave of popularity mafia-themed media before it had created; it borrowed from both GTA III in its game structure, and “Italian” motifs popularized in Goodfellas (1990) and The Godfather (1972). It even went so far as to employ actors popularized through The Sopranos for vocal actors and actresses.
Before the game’s sequel would be released, Take-Two Interactive—the publishing company that owns Rockstar Games—decided to purchase and rename Illusion Softworks and its parent company in 2008. By the end of 2008 Illusion Softworks had changed its name to 2K Czech, and had acquired new upper-management in the form of 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two. Take-Two was concurrently restructuring ownership within the administrative hierarchy in 2007. By the end of 2007 Strauss Zelnick was chairman and CEO of Take-Two, and his multimedia conglomerate company ZelnickMedia became the financial and management consultant for Take-Two Interactive. Oddly enough, ZelnickMedia co-founder Ben Feder was named Chief Executive Officer of Take-Two in 2007.
When Mafia II debuted in 2010, it managed to be nothing more than recycled narrative concepts once again. Developers invested more time on a new “Illusion Engine” —an independent evolution of the LS3D engine invented for Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven—than on developing an original plot. This time around, though, the game drew heavy criticism for being racist in nature from groups such as UNICO, an Italian-American organization. Zelnick took the criticism head on, saying,
“At Take-Two, we balance our right to free expression with what we believe is a thoughtful and responsible approach to creating and marketing our products. …We will only release a title that meets our standards: as art, as entertainment and as a socially responsible product. We aim to distinguish creative and compelling story telling that advances artistic expression from subject matter that gratuitously exploits or glorifies violence or stereotypes.”
This despite the fact that the game obviously displays other overtly racist behavior:
These conversations around race, violence, and historical accuracy in the context of this game, though, really distract us from pursuing other questions regarding game design that have a real impact on future titles published by companies like Take-Two. The conversation around games like Mafia II shouldn’t be about how future games could be more/less racist/violent/etc. Rather, audiences should concern themselves with encouraging the diversification of stories told through video games. Political economy theory predicts that change regarding these issues around representation won’t happen unless there is an empowering incentive for publishers and developers to gamble with original stories and games. It is in the best interests of companies like Take-Two to make money, not necessarily provide culturally sensitive games, after all.