The New Mafia Rules

This was written as a postscript to “The Original Mafia Rules,” a text republished as one of our Bulletins of The Serving Library. We had just returned from running a Summer School at The Banff Centre in Canada, where we’d played the game on and off over the course of a week as part of a seminar I was running on “how to capture the contemporary condition.” The ideas noted here were discussed during that week.


The Mafia Game is a rudimentary role-play game. Conceived as an academic experiment by Russian psychologist Dimma Davidoff in the late 1980s, it was designed to show how the economy of knowledge plays out in an enclosed community. In the bastardized, popularized version that has circulated as a party game since, this “knowledge” amounts to who’s Mafia and who’s not.

Here’s a quick account of how it works. First, everyone in the group receives a secret note that assigns them the role of either Mafioso (= corrupt) or Citizen (= honest). Then the game cycles through proxy days and nights. At night everyone shuts their eyes, then, at the word of a communally-appointed God who oversees the proceedings, Mafia awake (open their eyes) while Citizens remain asleep, and silently choose together (by eye contact and frantic pointing) one Citizen to knock off.

They sleep again, all players awake, and God announces the brutal death, which leads into much speculation and accusation regarding the possible perpetrator. There’s a round of voting to decide on a prime suspect Mafioso assassin (which involves a lot of double- and triple-bluffing by the actual Mafia). Finally a verdict is reached and the accused lynched, even if innocent. Then the whole thing starts over: another night, another killing, more speculation, accusation, voting and lynching.

The aim of the game, depending on your proxy allegiance, is for all Mafia to eliminate all citizens without being identified and killed off themselves; or conversely, for the citizens to successfully identify all Mafia and hang the lot. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik describes the game as demonstrating “the many and pressing kinds of double-bind logic that fill a social group if its members suspect there are enemies within it.” He continues:

The ostensible pleasure of the game lies in testing your own skills as a dissembler and as a spotter of dissemblers—in lying and spotting liars. Both eager cooperation and absolute paranoia are essential to the strategic game. Yet the really fascinating thing about Mafia is seeing how much pure irrationality lingers in its play, how little real deduction and how much sheer panic govern its conduct. The game quickly breaks down, as social groups will, into small circles of belief, which become lynch mobs of distrust on the next turn.

Over the past decade or so, Bruno Latour has propagated a distinction between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern.”  Fundamentally, he’s out to demolish the bedrock faith in scientifically proven “facts” constituent of Modern-era, Enlightenment-based thinking. Because scientific assertions are based on experiments performed in a vacuum (both literally and metaphorically), he argues that while useful for debunking all manner of long-held myths, their “truth” is ultimately a distortion of reality, too. In other words, facts are fundamentally flawed precisely because they are conceived in detached and autonomous circumstances, and so remain a pernicious means of perceiving—and dealing with—the world at large.

Latour calls instead for the facility to grasp not isolated objects but the profoundly open and unpredictable relations among interconnected things, meaning the constantly shifting scenographies of interests, accidents, contradictions, conspiracies, changes in fortune, allegiance, currency, weather, and so on. And while, amid the ever-increasing prevalence and visibility of networks, we are surely becoming better at apprehending these relations—and their knock-on effects—and the effects of those effects—he maintains that our ways of looking are still way too grounded in the old mode. In a talk titled “A Cautious Prometheus” (2008), he notes how the fallacy of facts is reflected in the old models of modelling, from architectural renderings and mechanical blueprints to scale models and prototypes, from perspective drawing and projective geometry to Computer-Aided Design and Google Maps. In their various distillations, flattenings and abstractions, he says, all bear a marked lack of resemblance to the phenomena they purport to represent; ultimately, their simulations or ‘gatherings’ are less utopian than simply atopic. Hence his persistent call for new ways of drawing things together—making things public not from a resolutely objective, external point of view, but from within and while going with the flow.

Offered here as a thought experiment, then, the mundane Mafia Game is a simple, precarious and not altogether serious means to set up a different kind of vantage—of what openness and contingency look like from the inside. Contrary to the usual omniscience of the bird’s- or God’s-eye view common to the modelling techniques listed above, when called upon to play either Honest or Mafioso, one’s perspective of the whole encounter is always from within, as an invested player. Indeed, as a proxy participant of what’s gaining ground as Object-Oriented Philosophy, Latour often speaks of ostensibly inert phenomena in terms of fully-loaded “betting” and “gambling” “agents” and “actants.” It’s not surprising, then, that easy-assembly role-play seems an appropriate format to witness how a given situation’s “object” plays out—or perhaps orients itself.

Crucially, the game’s short-lived alliances, enmities, suspicions, accusations, and protests assemble and collapse not only within a single round or single game, but with exponential complexity from one game to the next, and from one day or week to the next. When a recurring group of players become acquainted with both each other and the game, and as burgeoning real-world relationships overflow into the fictional scenography, negotiations become perceptibly contaminated and, naturally enough, entropic. As the game’s founder Dimma Davidoff proclaims: “The third game is great.” Beyond that, who knows?

Davidoff further asserts the enigmatic and wholly Latourian injunction that “Players are free to introduce new procedures during the game, but no one has to follow them unless s/he finds their usage at that moment reasonable.” Such chronic, baffling contingency sounds a lot like that recounted by Latour in his summation of “The Year in Climate Controversy” for Artforum in December 2010. He writes:

of course, there is no single institution able to cover, oversee, dominate, manage, handle, or simply trace an issue of such shape and scope. Even a summit of all the nations of the earth, preceded by the most strident media campaigns, could not digest an issue so intractable and so enmeshed in contradictory interests as this one … myriad changes at all levels of existence, from cars to clothes, from architecture to industry, from agriculture to sewage. How could we imagine a global agreement amid so many entangled interests?

With this in mind, potential players are pointed in the direction of Wikipedia’s “Mafia (party game)” page to witness the extent of supplementary roles that have been added to the game’s countless commercial and hobbyist adaptations over the past couple of decades. Examples include the Teenage Werewolf who must say the word “werewolf” at least once each round, the Dentist who may select any other player at night and remove all of their teeth to prevent them speaking during the following day, and the Village Idiot whose only objective is to convince the rest of the town to kill him.

Davidoff dismisses such additions as superfluous, merely distracting from the game’s basic coefficient: “The only knowledge in the game is Mafia connections, everything else is artificial.” And yet Latour would surely counter that an altogether artificial game is entirely appropriate these days; in fact, implies a whole other scenario in which the redesign of the game—and the ability to observe the consequences of that redesign as and when they happen—and to respond to those consequences in situ—becomes the game itself: The New Mafia Rules.

During the week beginning 18 July, 2011, for instance, a group of us introduced our own new character, a “Rupert Murdoch” who, in addition to his/her initial designation as Honest or Mafioso, is also privvy to the nightly carnage. First thing next morning, Murdoch is required to deliver the news to the whole community, the veracity of which depends entirely on his/her daily discretion and/or whim. Ultimately and uniquely, Murdoch’s aim is neither to eliminate nor safeguard the rest of the players, only to perpetuate the game—and his or her presence in it—for as long as is practicably possible.