Navid Khonsari wants to change how the world sees Iran — and Tehran isn’t happy about it
by MATTHEW GAULT
Navid Khonsari doesn’t strike me as a spy. That’s because, despite what some Iranian newspapers will tell you, he isn’t one. He’s 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 time — Rockstar’s 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 better — tell better stories and instill a deep sense of empathy in their players.
His latest project — a narrative-driven adventure game about the Iranian revolution called 1979 Revolution: Black Friday — is 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. Khonsari’s Inkstudios — the production company he runs with wife and creative partner Vassiliki Khonsari — released 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 doesn’t 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. He’s on vacation with his family. Children run behind him and laugh as we talk.
“I’m 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 it’s 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.
“I’m a child of that,” he tells me. “I’m 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 you’re going to take this leap … and you’re 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.
It’s not just about learning the history of Iran, it’s 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 Reza’s relationships and strays into ideology only when it explains a character’s motivations.
“What we feel — and I, personally, am a huge believer in this — is that games are by far the most powerful tool to truly put somebody in the shoes of those who have experienced it,” Khonsari explains.
“I’m not there to tell you about the experience of the shah or the experience of Khomeini … It’s about the experience of the people. That’s what I align myself with. That’s what I saw when my grandfather, at the age of 10, took me out on the streets”
“I was like wow, everyone’s so happy. Everyone’s so hopeful. They really think that they can change the world,” he recalls. “That’s all you can understand at 10. You don’t understand the economic or political complexities.”
Khonsari’s 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 don’t need to understand that complexity. You can sense that it’s changed. That’s what I’m really interested in. That’s what has a huge impact.”
“Most of us can’t relate to kings. Most of us can’t relate to religious leaders. We can be in awe of them. We can respect them. But we can’t 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.”
“We’re referring to it as vérité games,” Khonsari tells me of this new genre he hopes to define. He’s riffing on cinéma-vérité, a hands-off style of movie-making that allows for improvisation in fiction and discovery in documentary. The popular American docudrama Cops is cinéma-vérité.
“I left gaming and went into making feature docs. My partner at the time — presently in life and in the the studio — was a graduate from the school of visual anthropology. So as a result, she brought a lot of knowledge in that experience.”
“I’d learned about documentary when I was at film school. I’d 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 vérité 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 problem — they wanted to know what what side of the story he was telling.
“As soon as I’m like, ‘Look, I’m not telling any side,’ it was like going from being invited into someone’s house for tea and sweets and having these incredible artistic conversations to doing a follow-up two weeks later and they’re like, ‘I don’t want to hear about the revolution, I don’t want to see the revolution,’ and I’m, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’”
Representatives of the deposed shah’s 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 there’s reluctance on the part of the Iranians who fled to look back on the past, and he’s quiet for a moment. “I think … my father’s generation — those who had established a good life for themselves in Iran and basically picked up and left — had a great sense of bitterness.”
“My father was incredible to put it aside,” he continues. “But I can imagine — being my age and having kids — what 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 it’s a really tough time for that generation and they don’t want to relate to it.”
Khonsari says he thinks his generation handles the past better, but only because they’ve 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 wasn’t 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. It’s just a different person wearing the hat.”
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 title’s 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 didn’t surprise Khonsari, but Iran’s aggressive pursuit of the ban did. “They’ve shut down 50 websites that have set up links, just torrent links, so people can download the game,” he explains. “They’ve actually gone down to the bazaar and torn up stores looking to see if they can find copies of it. Which is weird because it’s a digital game.”
Khonsari tells me he’s heard more reports of this from friends and colleagues since the game came to iOS — and he thinks he knows why. “I can appreciate their attitude. Most of the things made in the West [about Iran] don’t 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 doesn’t like 1979 Revolution’s use of the notorious Evin Prison and it’s most notorious interrogator, Sayyed Assadollah Ladjevardi.
“They don’t 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 he’s 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 weren’t happy about that.”
Khonsari says that Tehran didn’t like that he scaled back Islam’s 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, we’re 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 else’s shoes.”
If there’s a thesis for Khonsari as a person, that’s it. He says he wants to create cognitive empathy. It’s 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 asks — not tells — his children to quiet down during our conversation.
“We’re 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. “We’re 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.