Storytelling, Game Design, and MS-13

The other night I saw Sam Logan, author of a recently-published book on the MS-13 criminal organization. There were a couple of interesting parallels to our class discussion.
MS-13 is a very powerful and scary gang that originated among the El Salvadoran community in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and is now in some 1,200 towns in the U.S. They are particularly difficult for law enforcement to contain, as they are a very loosely-networked group — a couple of guys in CA and a couple of guys in Texas will plan a bank robbery in Colorado, using a car someone else stole in Reno, etc. This is also their weakness, as they have no strong leader or central structure, and have a lot of power struggles.
Language was one of the group’s original structuring barriers — they got together because they wanted to speak their dialect (and smoke a lot of weed and beat people up, but in a somewhat organized way – you get the picture.) This relationship with personal and social identity (often with language as a mediating force) is a common theme.
One thing you will hear about from the game people is the way that people in multiplayer online games find each other and form groups. Commonly there will be someone with a “scribe” role, explaining who the group is and what they are doing to others, and a “linking” role, connecting the group in and out of others.
I asked Logan if MS-13 has anything like that. In fact, groups hold “destroyer parties,” where they talk about deals, crimes and fights – who was in them and why they happened. Older members pass on ghost stories of past times. Tattoos are common, and can refer to deals done, murders, identification with the group. The tattoo artist is a kind of scribe, and people wear their stories on their faces.
When the FBI started going after the group with RICO statutes, one of the first things the group did was to change the tattooing.
Frequently people have a hard time getting out of MS-13, not only for fear of revenge, but because they don’t know what to do with themselves, or who they might relate to, if they left.

One Response to “Storytelling, Game Design, and MS-13”

  1. Alex Agloro says:

    Interesting correlation… the format of “scribes” and “destroyer parties” (whether you call it that or not) must be a structure that works because it’s used online in the gaming world, and in organized crime. And more than likely, both groups came into this structure on with their own design. I don’t think I could relate this in terms of MS-13, but in other social interactions, especially among youth, are online interactions and “real world” social exchanges shaped in one direction? Clearly, “real world” interactions shape exchanges online, but are exchanges online shaping exchanges now that take place in the real world? My vote would be yes, that exchanges online have “real world’ cause and effects.