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Iran Has Tried to Kill This Video Game War Is Boring

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Iran Has Tried to Kill This VideoGame

Navid Khonsari wants to change how the world sees Iranand Tehran isnt happy aboutit

by MATTHEW GAULT

Navid Khonsari doesnt strike me as a spy. Thats because, despite what some Iranian newspapers will tell you, he isnt one. Hes an adopted New Yorker by way of Canada and Iran who spent the early aughts as the head of production on some of the most popular video games of all timeRockstars Grand Theft Auto series.

Khonsari helped to create Grand Theft Auto III and its follow-ups Vice City and San Andreas, wrote a graphic novel and directed several documentaries. He wants to do more and he thinks games can be bettertell better stories and instill a deep sense of empathy in their players.

His latest projecta narrative-driven adventure game about the Iranian revolution called 1979 Revolution: Black Fridayis his first attempt.

The game is fun and does a great job of juggling the nuances and complexities of revolutionary Iran. I learned a lot playing it and that almost never happens when I play video games. Khonsaris Inkstudiosthe production company he runs with wife and creative partner Vassiliki Khonsarireleased the game for mobile devices on June 16, 2016.

But the game is still hard to come by in Iran, where cultural affairs offices have deemed it un-Islamic. Worse, a conservative newspaper in Iran accused Khonsari of being a spy.

The accusation doesnt seem to phase him. I care a lot less about the controversy than I do people recognizing that we are trying to take gaming to another arena, he tells me.

We speak over Skype. Hes on vacation with his family. Children run behind him and laugh as we talk.

Im in Greece right now, he explains. My kids are on the couch. We just got back from the Acropolis. He tells me his wife is from Greece and he feels its important that his children grow up with a better sense of the wider world. He says he wants his video games to do the same for others.

Im a child of that, he tells me. Im the product of someone that grew up outside North America it made you better and stronger and more diverse.

Khosani is bald, with light olive-colored skin, large horn-rimmed glasses, eyes that arched in the middle as if in perpetual concern and a thick Brooklyn accent.

He strikes me as a man who wants to be understood.

It started off as this would be a great idea to establish a new genre of gaming, he tells me when I ask about 1979 Revolution. Games actually based on real, historical events.

After deciding to make a more realistic, narrative-driven, almost documentary-style game, he knew it had to be a personal story. If youre going to take this leap and youre trying to create the template you should go with something that you know.

Khonsari and his family fled Iran when he was just 10 years old, but the memories of his home country and its revolution followed him his entire life. He says he wants people who play his game to feel those experiences.

Its not just about learning the history of Iran, its about experiencing the moments of the revolution.

1979 Revolution follows Reza, a young college student who returns home from Germany to find the streets of Iran full of people demanding change. The character has no particular agenda, religious belief or political affiliation, but he does have a family. The game, smartly, focuses on Rezas relationships and strays into ideology only when it explains a characters motivations.

What we feeland I, personally, am a huge believer in thisis that games are by far the most powerful tool to truly put somebody in the shoes of those who have experienced it, Khonsari explains.

Im not there to tell you about the experience of the shah or the experience of Khomeini Its about the experience of the people. Thats what I align myself with. Thats what I saw when my grandfather, at the age of 10, took me out on the streets

I was like wow, everyones so happy. Everyones so hopeful. They really think that they can change the world, he recalls. Thats all you can understand at 10. You dont understand the economic or political complexities.

At leftNavid Khonsari. At rightVassili Khonsari. Inktudios photos

Khonsaris father was a doctor in Iran and the months that followed the revolution were busy. He explains his father would spend nights sewing up wounds resulting from clashes between civilians and the military then come home in an ambulance because it was one of the only vehicles allowed to be out after curfew.

He says he remembers the sound of gunfire and his mother telling him to stay away from the windows. The memories are visceral, a feeling more than a story. Even as a small boy, he knew the world had changed. You can sense, he tells me. You dont need to understand that complexity. You can sense that its changed. Thats what Im really interested in. Thats what has a huge impact.

Most of us cant relate to kings. Most of us cant relate to religious leaders. We can be in awe of them. We can respect them. But we cant be them, he continues. But what we can do is relate to other families that have conversations at the dinner table when one of your brothers is in the military and you believe the government needs to be taken down while your parents want everything to remain the same. Everyone can relate to that.

Were referring to it as vrit games, Khonsari tells me of this new genre he hopes to define. Hes riffing on cinma-vrit, a hands-off style of movie-making that allows for improvisation in fiction and discovery in documentary. The popular American docudrama Cops is cinma-vrit.

I left gaming and went into making feature docs. My partner at the timepresently in life and in the the studiowas a graduate from the school of visual anthropology. So as a result, she brought a lot of knowledge in that experience.

Id learned about documentary when I was at film school. Id made a short documentary. I understood the basic elements of it. But that sense of humanity, that personal touch really came from her influence. So vrit felt like the natural fit taking the best of her experience, the best of my experience, bringing it together and really engaging these new platforms.

No one wanted Khonsari to kickstart a new video game genre using stories of the Iranian revolution.

When we were looking for funding I went to the Iranian diaspora in Los Angeles, thinking this is going to be a slam-dunk, he tells me. One problemthey wanted to know what what side of the story he was telling.

As soon as Im like, Look, Im not telling any side, it was like going from being invited into someones house for tea and sweets and having these incredible artistic conversations to doing a follow-up two weeks later and theyre like, I dont want to hear about the revolution, I dont want to see the revolution, and Im, Whoa, whats going on?

Representatives of the deposed shahs descendants reached out to tell him they worried about the historical accuracy of the project. His initial Kickstarter bid failed to meets its funding goal.

Then there was the Islamic Republic itself. There were people getting in touch me with saying, This game is going to be full of lies because you are part of the problem. You are part of the diaspora that fled. Nobody was happy about it on both sides, so I was like, I must be doing something right.

I ask Khonsari if theres reluctance on the part of the Iranians who fled to look back on the past, and hes quiet for a moment. I think my fathers generationthose who had established a good life for themselves in Iran and basically picked up and lefthad a great sense of bitterness.

My father was incredible to put it aside, he continues. But I can imaginebeing my age and having kidswhat my dad must have gone through. There would have been a fair amount of resentment at having to start back at the beginning in your early 40s. So its a really tough time for that generation and they dont want to relate to it.

Khonsari says he thinks his generation handles the past better, but only because theyve Westernized so completely. I think the tragedy that lies presently is that, unless my generation starts looking at this with an honest eye and says, Look, the revolution was a revolution. It became the Islamic [revolution]. There were some major issues that existed in the 70s that led to this. It wasnt led by just one guy.

The whole nation came together to overthrow this king. And more importantly, to stand behind Khamani when they took U.S. hostages and then to go on to have this war with Iraq and then to back him up to go into a jihad against the Kurds.

Khonsari says he wants Iran to face up to the good and the bad of the revolution. The amount of people educated inside Iran compared to the 70s is massive. But at the same time corruption is just as big now as it was then. Its just a different person wearing the hat.

Iranian revolutionaries protesting in Shahyad Square. Photo via Wikipedia

Iranian newspapers have accused Khonsari of being an American spy. Then they banned his game. We heard about it from Iranian gamers who sent us, via Facebook, that they were trying to get the game on Steam, it got blocked, he tells me.

It was followed up by a press release from the Tehran Times by the commissioner of video games in the Islamic Republic. The titles like eight words, the title this guy has

Games like this can poison the minds of the youth and young adults about their country by means of false and distorted information, and also damage their spirit, National Foundation for Computer Games director Hassan Karimi said of 1979 Revolution.

The ban didnt surprise Khonsari, but Irans aggressive pursuit of the ban did. Theyve shut down 50 websites that have set up links, just torrent links, so people can download the game, he explains. Theyve actually gone down to the bazaar and torn up stores looking to see if they can find copies of it. Which is weird because its a digital game.

Protesters killed by the shahs soldiers in the summer of 1978. Photo via Wikipedia

Khonsari tells me hes heard more reports of this from friends and colleagues since the game came to iOSand he thinks he knows why. I can appreciate their attitude. Most of the things made in the West [about Iran] dont portray [it] in a favorable light. Their immediate, knee-jerk reaction is to dispel it. I think in this particular situation they did the same thing without really diving into the content.

He also thinks the Islamic Republic doesnt like 1979 Revolutions use of the notorious Evin Prison and its most notorious interrogator, Sayyed Assadollah Ladjevardi.

They dont like the way that he was portrayed, Khonsari says. He was in prison during the 70s and then became the interrogator and eventually the warden of the prison and was assassinated in the 1990s by the Iranian mujahedin faction. So hes kind of like this hero and we treated him like an interrogator. Which is what he was. He was ruthless and he killed a lot of people. So they werent happy about that.

Khonsari says that Tehran didnt like that he scaled back Islams importance to the revolution. There was a huge group of intellectuals, he explains. A massive movement of the left. They want to be like, No, were the first Islamic nation. We came by because of an Islamic revolution. That came by because the people wanted Islam and nothing less.

For Khonsari, the controversies around 1979 Revolution are less important the revolution he wants to start in gaming. He points to the big blockbuster titles that he used to work on, such as Grand Theft Auto. He says he loves them, but he thinks games can do more.

This medium is too powerful for us to just squander it in those ways, he explains. We should be expanding we should be exploring it, you know? This should be an educational tool. This should be a way for us to create cognitive empathy by being in someone elses shoes.

If theres a thesis for Khonsari as a person, thats it. He says he wants to create cognitive empathy. Its in every action he takes, every carefully-worded response to my questions, the way he defers and explains both sides of every issue, the way he smiles while he asksnot tellshis children to quiet down during our conversation.

Were getting the bulk of our news in 15-, 10-second tidbits on Facebook and then consider ourselves knowledgeable on a subject Imagine what we can do to make people in the United States, people who were part of Occupy Wall Street, be able to take a look and see what they might have had in common with young Americans, college students in the late 60s, early 70s who rioted against war. Who fought for civil rights. Who fought for feminism.

Khonsari says he thinks his games can connect people with history in a new way. Were doubling down on this, he explains. We believe in this. [1979 Revolution] is our first foray we know we can be faster, better.

The personal is key, he tells me one last time.

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