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09.30.10

The Mafia Moms

A surprising new group is addicted to the popular social game Mafia Wars. Brian Ries talks to moms who spend their days taking care of their children—and robbing drug dealers.

It usually takes about 15 minutes for Donna Cairnes, 43, to get from her daughter’s school to her seat at the head of her burgeoning criminal empire, based out of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Dona Keefe, a 40-year-old mother of three living halfway across the country, is at the helm of her own the minute she slips behind her desk at her office in Indianapolis.

It’s this sort of maternal/criminal double-life that makes achieving a healthy sense of life-balance so difficult for a Mafia Wars Mom.

The players of Mafia Wars, a social-network game in which participants assume the role of a mobster and build an organized-crime empire, are overwhelmingly male—around 70 percent, according to Zynga, the company that created the game. Not surprising, given all the fighting, robbing, drug dealing, and “icing” that goes on. But some of these gangsters have found that the woman cooking dinner downstairs is at least as ruthless as they are.

The average social gamer is a 43-year old woman. But the vast majority of these women flock to the plethora of maternally oriented social-network games like FarmVille (grow a farm!), FrontierVille (pioneer a town!), and Café World (run a café!). The moms playing Mafia Wars, on the other hand, are scaring off thugs, robbing drug dealers, collecting protection money—and earning piles of cash.

Mafia Wars, built by Zynga on Facebook, has grown like wildfire since being introduced in August 2008. The text-based game now claims upward of five million daily players, who are generating an estimated 21,218,834 monthly active uniques as they register over one billion player-vs.-player actions, 30 million tournament matches, 600 million fights, and 300 million robberies.

Dona Keefe, the mom from Indianapolis, is all-too-familiar with this during-school, after-dinner, full-time gangster business. She says it was her boyfriend who first got her hooked, admitting he’s "worse than me," before cheerily adding, "It's his fault!"

During the peak of her time running with the mafia, Keefe would check in up to 10 times a day—both from work, where she sat at a computer with Internet access “all day long,” and from the relative sanctity of her home, hours after her two youngest, aged 8 and 10, had gone off to bed.

"It was insane," she says, "I was literally addicted. I could have it open all day long and just jump on for a minute." She’s since cut back on her game play to once every two days following a recent sanity-focused hiatus. “I’m trying not to get addicted to it again.”

Lisa Dunckley Clark, another Mafia Wars Mom, plays almost daily—in the afternoon, in the evening, and at night. Her youngest is a little bit older, 17, which means her only real obstacles to icing the neighborhood’s drug dealers are the jobs around her house. "I play when my chores are done,” she said.

There’s even a Facebook group for these Mafia Moms (and Dads), which promises to be a place where parents who are hooked on Mafia Wars and may need “a little break from life, sports practice, school and homework” can go for a “time-out.”

It’s this sort of maternal/criminal double-life that makes achieving a healthy sense of life-balance so difficult for a Mafia Wars Mom.

John Sweeney, a Godfather in the game's community, host of a Zynga/Facebook podcast, and founder of the Facebook group "Don Sweeney's Pimping Club For Mafia Wars" (“Your Official ADD ME Club For Mafia Wars”), tells me he knows of a number of mothers playing the game in the Mafia Wars True Alliance—the clan of players he oversees. Fathers and their sons are playing, too.

"One of the good things about it being on social network," Sweeney told me, "is not only can you play, but little chat windows pop up and you can talk to people. Families seem to think it’s a good way to keep tabs on the kids."

Donna Cairnes, who occasionally dabbles in some of Zynga’s other games for their cross-promotions, admits balancing the Mafia Wars/mom balance is “a constant battle.”

An average day for the Brooklyn mom involves taking her 8-year-old to school around 8 a.m., beating up drug dealers with baseball bats from 8:30 a.m. to noon, followed by chores, picking her child up from school, and a few hours of homework assistance until about 7 p.m. That’s when she finally gets back onto Facebook to play Mafia Wars until bedtime.

Asked how she finds the time to be both homemaker and gangster, she replied, "A clean house is a sign of a broken computer!"

"I have those days where I just have to pull the plug out of the wall and just say that's it,” she said, noting it's especially hard with a game that is always giving its players the chance to “level up.” And then there’s the constant “gifting” to be done—a feature that allows players to trade found items to help each other build their collections. Keeping up with all the gifts, Cairnes says, can take up to an hour.

“People are crazy, that’s the way the game is,” she admitted, “but in being a mom, some things come first.”

Fighting the urge to play isn’t exclusive to Mafia Wars, and it most certainly isn’t affecting moms alone—this compulsive aspect has been noted regarding a number of the successful social games. Some players and experts will readily admit they are operating at the whim of an addiction, and that could wind up being bad for the kids.

Dr. Hilarie Cash, a co-founder of an in-patient Internet addiction recovery program named Restart, has heard the stories. Through her work, she’s spoken with of a number of people who’ve seen their friends and family members unhealthily caught up in their Facebook games.

"These games are designed to be extremely addictive," Dr. Cash says. "If you're a stay-at-home mom, once it takes hold, it starts interfering with the time it takes to spend with a kid."

She explained how video game companies such as Zynga are very psychologically sophisticated, having figured out learning principles and a reward structure to keep people hooked with a constant stream of points, rewards, and gifts. "That's absolutely consciously built into the games," she says, "I've talked to video-games developers who acknowledge this."

Cairnes believes this is especially true with Mafia Wars. "They have so many things going on, like their promotions they do for a weekend,” she said. “I'm just trying to get it all done."

Unlike an addiction to drugs or alcohol, where one’s children are hopefully kept far from the source of the problem, many I spoke with in the Mafia Wars community said bringing the kids into the Family (capital “F”) can actually be good for the family. It’s a way to bridge the lifestyle gap that separates a kneecap-popping gangster from a child-rearing mother.

Dona Keefe, the mother of three, says she’s long played with her boyfriend, but more recently invited her children to play along too after they spent many a night watching over her shoulder. Now, the family is the Family, and all are sharing weapons, achievements, and tips.

"I did it because it was fun with the kids. You could send them things, and they could send stuff back."

Sweeney says for parents who play with their kids, it’s better they know where their children are and what they are doing, “so they aren’t out getting in trouble in the real world”—just in the game.

“The world’s so crazy,” the Godfather adds, that parents “just do what they can.”

Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.