Tag Archives: storytelling

A Soviet-era storytelling game trains you to bluff, lie and sometimes tell the truth

A tense moment during a game of "Mafia" in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of the English Mafia Club of Kiev)

A tense moment during a game of “Mafia” in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of the English Mafia Club of Kiev)

Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

The storytelling parlor game “Mafia” crosses borders, transcends culture and bridges the language divide in ways you’d never expect.

There are no game boards or joysticks involved in Mafia — just words — and a setup that’s probably as old as human settlement: An uninformed majority of civilians against an informed minority, the Mafia. One side has power in numbers, the other has the power of knowledge.

Since 1987, Mafia has become a television series in Latvia, a World Championship event in Las Vegas and a training tool for the Russian security services. But I was still surprised to learn that Mafia was actually invented in the Soviet Union by Dimitry Davidoff, then a psychology graduate student at Moscow State University.

Dimitry Davidoff in the 1980s (Courtesy of Dimitry Davidoff)

Dimitry Davidoff in the 1980s (Courtesy of Dimitry Davidoff)

Davidoff tells me that even behind the Iron Curtain, he never doubted Mafia would become a global hit. In his day, games that were popular in the Soviet Union were all based on the idea of “us” vs. “them.” But in Mafia, as in real life, we ordinary civilians have no idea who the real enemies are — or whether the enemy is an enemy at all.

It turns out he struck a universal nerve. And once you get the hang of the rules, it’s also wicked fun.

But for today’s global entrepreneurs, Mafia has become much more than a game. “I think I use it all the time in real life,” says Sam Lundin, who founded a website named Vimbly that helps New Yorkers find cool and adventuresome activities. He even hosts as monthly Mafia meetup.

Lundin says he’s drawing on his Mafia skills “anytime there’s any kind of negotiation or problem-solving scenario going on, or someone is either bluffing or not bluffing in a business environment. Are they really telling the full story? Are they not?”

A Mafia meetup in New York (Photo: Alina Simone)

A Mafia meetup in New York (Photo: Alina Simone)

It also helps him expand his bag of tricks: “You might think of a new trick that would work really well to root out who the mafia is, but then everyone sees that you use that trick and you have to figure something new out genuinely,” he says. “I think the entrepreneurial world is like that in that it’s not structured. You constantly are figuring out new tricks.”

Sam was born in America, but he’s in the minority at a recent meetup. Most of the players are from China, Russia, South America or one of the many other places where Mafia is being put to strategic use. That includes Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.

“I believe in Kiev we have maybe 30 or 50 clubs. Maybe even more,” says Eugene Bazhenov. He started an English-language Mafia club back in 2010, and it immediately caught on with Ukrainians.

“The initial motivation is, of course, to improve English. But then they get addicted to the game because it’s really fun to play,” Bazhenov says. People have even found dates — and spouses — through the club. “It’s a really good place to meet people, whatever your purpose is.”

A Mafia game in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of the English Mafia Club of Kiev)

A Mafia game in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of the English Mafia Club of Kiev)

As for Eugene’s purpose? “At that time I was working for a company and I wanted to have my own business, but I didn’t have network, I didn’t have money to start the business. So it was totally nothing,” he says.

Nothing, that is, but a bunch of people crazy about Mafia, which is actually how Eugene achieved his goal. He ended up creating two companies with the help of expat Mafia players, one from Denmark, the other from Australia. Today, most of his closest friends, he tells me, are foreigners he met through the club.

It turns out, pretending to kill one another can really bring people together.

Meanwhile, back at Lundin’s Mafia meetup, a Chinese woman named Joy is killing it — pun totally intended — for the civilians, picking off Mafia one by one.

She keeps insisting her English isn’t very good, but she’s had a lot of practice at the game. About six years ago, Mafia — or the “Killer Game,” as it’s known there — became huge in China. Dozens of brick-and-mortar clubs sprang up across the country, complete with high-tech screens and audio systems blasting sound effects — all of which are completely unnecessary, given this is purely a storytelling game.

A Mafia game in China (Photo courtesy of Silvia Lindtner)

A Mafia game in China (Photo courtesy of Silvia Lindtner)

The game is known in China as "The Killer Game."Silvia Lindtner, who teaches at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, spent two years in China researching the Killer Game phenomenon. As she discovered, the Killer Game boom had everything to do with the booming Chinese economy:

“They were like, ‘We have to deal with people we are not at all familiar with. We sometimes have to convey a particular message to our customers, or to our clients, and you sort of have to sometimes pretend to be someone else in these settings.’” Lindtner says.

Playing Mafia wasn’t just a way to hone those skills: It was a great way to establish a competitive advantage. “These were skills they believed were utterly necessary in Chinese society, in international business relationships, and they were also saying that these were skills that would distinguish them from other people in China,” Lindtner explains.

These kinds of concerns weren’t on Dimitry Davidoff’s radar when he created Mafia. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, the thought of a business application for the game never crossed his mind.

He actually designed Mafia in part as a means of understanding the bloody history of the Communist regime: Change the word Mafia to KGB, and the game becomes a metaphor for the Stalin era, where anyone could be an informant and a lot of innocent civilians get killed.

But 25 years later, Davidoff is now living in the United States and he’s made a business out of Mafia. He licenses it for various uses, and even served as a consultant for a Mafia movie that will be released next year in Russia.

The youthful version of himself that invented the game back in the Soviet era might even point at the Dmitry Davidoff of today and call him “Mafia.”


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When New Yorker Rose Monintja speaks her native tongue, the memories of her rural Indonesian upbringing flood back

Rose and Alfrits Monintja outside of their home in the New York City borough of Queens. The Monintjas are originally from the village of Sonder in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are among an estimated 100,000 people who speak the disappearing language Tontemboan. Photo: Bruce Wallace

Rose and Alfrits Monintja outside of their home in the New York City borough of Queens. The Monintjas are originally from the village of Sonder in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are among an estimated 100,000 people who speak the disappearing language Tontemboan. Photo: Bruce Wallace

Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Bruce Wallace…

Manhattan’s East Village has a storied literary past, but on a recent Sunday, there was a different sort of bookish chatter in the neighborhood.

A group had gathered to celebrate the literary traditions of Indonesia–specifically the traditions of five of that country’s nearly 800 languages. It was the first in a series of events put together by a group called the Endangered Language Alliance to shine light on the literature of disappearing languages – ones that have a shrinking number of native speakers.

Tontemboan is the most endangered of the five languages — today it’s spoken by somewhere around 100,000 people. Like most disappearing languages, it’s not being passed along to younger generations.

Rose Monintja, a native speaker, read “The Story of Lumimuut and Toar,” which, like a lot of creation myths, is a strange one. It involves a crow and a perspiring stone, a couple handfuls of dirt magically turning into an island, and two main characters that are part Adam-and-Eve and part Oedipus.

“Our parents, they speak Tontemboan, “Monintja says. “But in the school I didn’t learn Tontemboan. In the school: Indonesian language.”

She says her Tontemboan-speaking parents actually encouraged her to learn Bahasa Indonesia—the country’s national language. Her parents thought it was key to their kids getting a better education than they had.

She and her husband Alfrits both left the thousand-person village they grew up in, moving first to a provincial capital, then to Jakarta. In the mid-90s they moved to Queens, an immigrant-rich borough in New York City. They both still understand Tontemboan, but their speaking is a little rusty.

The stories they’ve been asked to read by the Endangered Language Alliance are actually not known today among native speakers—they’ve been gathering dust in a study put together 100 years ago by a Dutch missionary.

“Many of these missionaries had a real authentic interest in the religious beliefs and the spiritual life of the people they were trying to convert. And, ironically, now our only window into that world is through their work,” says Daniel Kaufman, a specialist in Indonesian languages and founder of the Endangered Language Alliance.

The Dutch study collected tons of information about the Tontemboan language, but, since it’s written in Dutch, it’s been inaccessible to Tontemboan speakers. Kaufman thinks it’s high time that linguists start restoring this kind of knowledge to people who still speak these languages.

“Many, many people feel that knowledge, and history, and culture has been taken from them by Western academics and never returned,” he says.

It’s particularly fitting that the Monintjas are performing these stories, since the Dutch missionary originally recorded them in the same small village where Rose and her husband were born.

Reading through the Tontemboan story, and getting ready to perform it on stage, brought back strong memories of that village for Rose.

“When I’m reading this I just feel like so close,” she says. “Like I’m there–I’m here but I’m over there, I’m in my village. I just almost cry because I can…oh my gosh…my dad is pass away already three years ago. I just remember him all the time when I hear that. Because in my ear, he’s always calling me, ‘Oh, Rose, Kumano ko mayo oh.’ Tontemboan stuff, I love that.”

Rose and her husband get together regularly to speak in Tontemboan with other expats in the area, trying to keep the language and memories alive. And they were pleased to discover that their daughter had managed to pick up some. Rose’s parents spent a lot of time with them when their daughter was first born.

A few years later, her daughter noticed Rose’s leg bothering her. Out of nowhere, the daughter came up with the Tontemboan phrase for “your leg is in pain” that she remembered hearing her grandmother say. “I say ‘What!? Oh my gosh, she knows that!'” Rose remembers, smiling.

Rose said she even bragged on Facebook about performing Tontemboan in New York City. And she got props from her daughter, now 12-years-old, after her performance. Rose thanked her daughter, although she didn’t say it in Tontemboan, she said it in Indonesian, which her daughter understands better.


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