Over five years after the "Hot Coffee" Grand Theft Auto scandal, another Take-Two Interactive title has become a lightning rod for controversy. However, the flap is several orders of magnitude smaller than the hidden-sex-minigame debacle, as it involves a single organization accusing a game of perpetuating ethnic stereotypes.
This time around, the game is Mafia II, due out August 24 on the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. Mafia II is in development at 2K Czech (nee Illusion Softworks), the studio behind the first Mafia game back in 2002. The game is set in Empire Bay, a New York-like metropolis, and follows novice mob soldier Vito Scaletta as he rises through the ranks of La Cosa Nostra during the 1950s.
Though similar mob stories have been told before in film (The Godfather, Goodfellas), television (The Sopranos), and games (The Godfather, certain Grand Theft Auto IV plotlines), Mafia II has hit a nerve with UNICO National, the US's largest Italian-American heritage foundation. The organization's president, Andre DiMino, accused Take-Two of "inappropriate and insulting perpetuation of the pervasive and denigrating stereotype of organized crime being the exclusive domain of Italians and Italian-Americans."
"Why would [Take-Two] foist a game on their targeted audience of young people wherein they will indoctrinate a new generation into directly associating Italians and Italian-Americans with violent, murderous organized crime, to the exclusion of all of the other 'mafias' run by other ethnic and racial groups," DiMino said in a statement. "Take-Two is directly, blatantly and unfairly discriminating and demeaning one group to the exclusion of all others. We are demanding they halt release of the game and cleanse it of all references to Italians and Italian-Americans."
DiMino went on to accuse Take-Two of having a "history of perpetrating its violent, sleazy, racist videogames upon an unsuspecting public." He referenced a past controversy caused by a level in the 2002 game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In it, players were exhorted by an onscreen command to "Kill all the Haitians!" when confronted by a group of machete-wielding criminals from the island nation. Haitian-American leaders took the command as an exhortation to kill all the Haitians in the world and staged protests outside Take-Two's offices in New York City.
In a statement provided to GameSpot, Take-Two chairman Strauss Zelnick rebuffed UNICO and DiMino's charges. "Mafia II tells a compelling story about organized crime in America - a subject that for decades has been featured in movies, television shows and novels. Neither UNICO nor any other organization purporting to represent Italian-Americans has seen or played Mafia II."
He continued, "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. I fully and completely stand behind our creative teams and products, including Mafia II."