Online Mafia and the Documentation of Death
Over the last couple of years, I’ve tried like hell to get my hands on game scripts and bibles. After assessing the lack of good informational texts and examples for students interested in writing games, or writing for game studios, I couldn’t think of a more pressing need or a bigger gap in the literature. However, after reaching out to a few contacts, I quickly learned the reason such texts don’t exist: small studios relying on deals with larger companies were tied up in NDAs at every step, and smaller companies didn’t have the organizational structure to produce documentation that could be easily reorganized for such a text; they were all pulling double duty during development, and workflows around written documentation suffered. So that project fell apart, as do so many in academia when the data or information just isn’t really possible. I’ll keep trying, though, even if it takes years.
But it’s a back-burnered project, something I wasn’t really thinking about until I stumbled across a community swimming in documentation: the online mafia community. I don’t mean the video game series Mafia, nor the old school crime simulator game, but rather a broad community dedicated to playing the party/social deception game Mafia (and Werewolf, and other variants) online in asynchronous text-based environments like forums. The size of the community for this surprised me; there is a yearly championship, and according to the info for the second year of the championship, more than 70 Mafia communities participated; last year, it was 136. This was how I found my way in, through one of these smaller communities, on a form I’d been hanging around off and on for nearly a decade. I’d see the topics, but assumed it was something else, maybe just fans of crime-syndicate-themed media. Surely you couldn’t play Mafia on a forum. You’d lose too much—facial expressions, body language, the chance of a momentary slip. I kept thinking this for over a year until finally I clicked in, curious to see what was going on, and was I ever wrong. Not only could you play Mafia on a forum, but they’d been playing for years… and all their past games were available to read as soon as I signed up.
As a researcher, it’s not surprising that I love to read; it’s what I spend most of my time doing. But when I looked past the general Mafia universe wiki, with all its role descriptions and jargon and play recommendations to the wealth of information my community had built up, even I was overwhelmed. Not only did we have records of all the games they’d ever played, but the game design documentation, the notes on balance and adjustment, but also all the other nuts and bolts of each game. Spreadsheets tracking moderator actions. Data on when players were voted out in the cycle, on how many wins each player had. Data on almost everything you could think of, all produced by the community. They are players and designers and researchers and moderators, sometimes all at once. And once they welcomed me in, I was, too.
Joining the community was easy. This particular forum has a sprawling userbase, and people wander in all the time, even in the middle of games. I noticed quickly that there is a protocol for this, even though I haven’t seen it stated anywhere: kindly but firmly explain and direct them to the main sign-up/discussion/information thread, where, if they so desired, they could have everything else explained. There’s no joining in the middle of a game; games are carefully designed and moderated (though once they begin, players play merry hell with all the gamerunner’s plans). Outside of this repeated behavior, however, the onboarding process can vary dramatically. Only after I played my first full game did I discover other new players had mentors. Perhaps one was offered to me and I just never noticed. I was too ready to jump in and go (and perhaps I got myself killed off too quickly to get a mentor!).
From the outside, the community seems sort of effortless. Games come and go; sign up is simple; rules are posted. But a team of moderators maintains not only the community on this particular forum, but also a subforum elsewhere where documentation is housed, and a persistent Discord channel for community bonding and occasional live games. Chat flows actively at all hours of the day, as members of the community are located all around the world.
I haven’t spent much time digging into other communities so far, but I’m curious to see if they’re archiving as much documentation. The wealth of records and data available from just this one small hub is staggering, and with dozens of other active sites, if all games are kept on record, as well as design documents, there are potentially millions of pages of games available, and hundreds of pages of work on design. Maybe I can’t get my hands so easily on video game scripts, but here there’s something else, something human and direct, players taking on design roles, experimenting, creating, writing on a loop, all of it saved for later perusal. This semester, I’m taking on the community for a class project, so I’ll not only be a player, and for the first time, a gamerunner, but a researcher and witness as well. It’s quite a rabbit hole to follow, but I’m excited to see where it goes. Over the next few weeks, I’ll dig more into the descriptions of games, the community, and how the documentation develops on its own, and is developed, over time.
Header image from the Mafia wiki.