Mafia III from 2K Games is an open-world action title that tries to offer a realistic interpretation of what life was like for black people living in New Orleans during the late '60s. The game fails to serve up that realism to a certain extent: While African-Americans endured considerable trials during the Civil Rights movement, they generally weren't in danger of clipping through walls or falling through the floor and down into the void.
Despite Mafia III's mechanical issues (and some other problems Mike outlines in his review), its portrayal of what life was like for black people during one of the tensest eras in American history certainly has the potential to make you uncomfortable. Characters' language and attitudes are as swampy as the bayou itself, inspiring 2K Games to include an in-game content warning.
"Mafia 3 takes place in a fictionalised version of the American South in 1968," the warning begins. "We sought to create an authentic and immersive experience that captures this very turbulent time and place, including depictions of racism.
"We find the racist beliefs, language, and behaviours of some characters in the game abhorrent, but believe it is vital to include these depictions in order to tell Lincoln Clay's story. Most importantly, we felt that to not include this very real and shameful part of our past would have been offensive to the millions who faced - and still face - bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, and racism in all its forms."
2K's warning and subsequent refusal to deny the United States' past (and present) problems with bigotry is appreciated, and important. Said warning isn't unique, however: Animation studios with long histories, like MGM and Warner Bros, now warn viewers of the offensive racial portrayals in DVD and Blu-ray collections. Of particular note is a recent Tom and Jerry collection wherein Whoopi Goldberg introduces the cat and mouse's shenanigans with a gentle warning about how the cartoons' oft-racist jokes are from a different era.
But no matter how gently and sensibly the 2K Games and Whoopi Goldbergs of the world issue these content warnings, there's an inevitable backlash. Newspapers, websites, and social media light up with accusations of "PC gone mad" and mockery of "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings."
It's a baffling reaction because content warnings exist to counter the more common, far less preferable option: Censorship. In the '60s and beyond, MGM edited Tom and Jerry's black "mammy" caricature, Mammy Two Shoes, into a white woman. The studio literally tried to whitewash history, and it fooled no-one in the process.
Imagine a Mafia III that still takes place in the deep south and has a black main character, but avoids depicting any instances of racism. That game would be weak, limp, and ironically offensive in its useless attempt to erase history. A real-world instance of similar erasure is Disney's Song of the South, which the company still tries to bury because of its offensive portrayal of "happy" African-American slaves. Bootleg Song of the South videos have been around since the advent of the VCR, and besides, nothing stays buried on the Internet. Still, Disney opts for denial. Nobody is thankful for the effort.
Another common criticism towards content warnings is, "Why have them at all? If people aren't strong enough to handle the potential racism / sexism / etc that might be in a game / book / movie, that's their problem."
Not everyone is wired to receive all forms of content on an even keel at every hour of the day. In fact, very few people are. On a regular day, a person who's been a target of racist language or violence in the past may have no problem digesting a game like Mafia III. On a bad day, maybe not. And even if they pop in Mafia III without thinking, that warning may be enough to make them reconsider and play something else instead. Then they can come back to Mafia III when they're better equipped to handle the emotional impact.
If it helps, think of content warnings as a purposely porous barrier. They protect us from censorship, but they also give us the option to tap out. Considering the alternatives, a bit of text on a black screen shouldn't be hard to swallow.