More than 25 years after its creation, a party game that enables participants to pretend they are Mafia hitmen remains wildly popular in Azerbaijan. Some regular players contend that the game is a reflection of daily reality.
Created during the perestroika era by Moscow State University psychology student Dmitry Davidov, the game, called “Mafia,” steadily gained popularity across the former Soviet Union during the twilight of the Communist era. These days in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, large groups of young people routinely gather in parks, cafes and bars to play the game and to decide, via deduction, intuition or just plain guesswork, who are the mafia assassins, and who are not.
The game starts with a moderator distributing cards that assign each player one of three roles; mafia hitman, a regular citizen or a detective. Only the two players assigned to be the hitmen know each other’s identities, and they attempt to dupe the remaining players into believing they have no mafia ties. In turn, citizens and the detective race against time, trying to identify the mafia members before the hitmen “kill” all the other players.
The game is mostly the domain of the young, educated, and urban. Lasting sometimes for several hours at a stretch, it routinely supplies informal entertainment at seminars, conferences and other gatherings. “In many cases,” recounted non-governmental-organization project coordinator Sabuhi Gafarov, the game is the preferred choice over heading out to a disco.
Restaurant-bars in Baku have started to cater to this demand, offering, for hours on end, food, drink and a large room for players and spectators. Rates for access to widely advertised games run from between 10 to 15 manats ($12.75-$19.13). Managers of restaurant-bars in Baku that host games declined to speak with EurasiaNet.org.
Twenty-five-year-old Tofig, who has organized mafia clubs for a year, says the “40 to 50 people” who come to his events usually enjoy acting and want to learn how to disguise their emotions.
Other young Azerbaijanis believe that the game’s role playing have practical applications. “Like in the game, Azerbaijani citizens have a strong instinct for self-preservation,” commented 24-year-old hydrologist Nurane Akhundzade, a passionate player. “People do not trust anyone; at the same time, they do their best to prove that they are the reliable ones.”
A 2012 survey of 1,204 Azerbaijanis run by the Caucasus Resources Research Centers echoed that opinion; 71 percent of respondents in the prime demographic for mafia-players – 18 to 35 years old – said they have little or no trust in other Azerbaijanis, and only 25 percent expressed some degree of trust.
Azerbaijan routinely scores at the bottom of international evaluations of respect for civil rights, and as among one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The government rejects such findings as biased.
Not all Azerbaijanis see a parallel between the game and everyday existence. Blogger Ali Novruzov claims the game is meant just “to kill spare time” and provides nothing but an “outburst of emotions and some fun, if the company is good.”
The game’s original developer, Davidov, has cautioned against taking interpretations of “Mafia” too far. "I'm against taking it seriously all the time,” he told Wired in a 2010 interview.
But Deyanet Rzayev, a Baku psychologist, suggested the game can help individuals develop useful skills in an authoritarian political environment.
“It is game of acting,” Rzayev noted. “You learn how to act well. That is what we need to learn well to survive in this society. Unfortunately, manipulation and falsehood have become part of our survival.”
“Besides, we have a gap in our entertainment life,” he continued. “We do not have many [entertainment] choices, except restaurants. … It [the game] also brings people together. Nothing else can make people voluntarily be together for hours like this game.”
Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist focusing on Azerbaijan.