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“Games are being underutilized as just entertainment”

When he was ten years old, he had to flee Iran with his family. In Canada, he quickly recognized the power and possibilities that video games offer to tell stories and unite people. In this interview, game director Navid Khonsari explains what to look out for when using historical events in games and the consequences he faced after launching a game that deals with the Iranian Revolution.

In your bio it says, that you have a „deep appreciation for pop culture because it connects and disarms people“. Can you elaborate on that?

Navid Khonsari: I think that pop culture is a global language and actually even a global culture. So where we have multiple challenges in communicating because of languages or not necessarily understanding the one another’s culture, pop culture allows us to find things in common. And this for me, was a personal discovery. Having grown up in Iran and moving to Canada, I couldn’t speak English well. I also came during the US hostage crisis, so Iranians were not necessarily looked upon favorably. Because of my love and appreciation for Star Wars movies and video games, and comic books, I was able to communicate with my classmates. I recognized the power in that, where as if I didn’t have those particular connecting points, I would have felt a lot more isolated and far more challenged in connecting to people.

Let’s talk about games and history, as this is a big part of our work at eCommemoration. How do games influence the perception of history nowadays?

Khonsari: I think games have an advantage over other disciplines that try to convey, portray or tell the historical stories of the past. And that is because we have the ability through the immersion of interactivity to put people in the shoes of those, who were directly involved within those historical moments. In using “1979 Revolution“, our game based on the Iranian Revolution, we were able to take people from all over the world and put them back in time and get them to experience what it would be like to be 18 years old on the streets of Iran, and to understand that the choices that are made during these historical times don’t necessarily result in the outcomes of what people wanted. That perspective allows us to have a little bit more humanity, a little bit more compassion and a little bit more understanding. Rather than just taking a look at what took place, looking at it intellectually and coming to some conclusions, you make it personal. Once we have that personal connection, then there is more understanding on behalf of your audience and I think a greater opportunity for dialogue. But in general their is a greater opportunity for dialogue in games because it lives online, it evolves with different perspectives and so the conversation continues, whereas it’s a lot harder when it’s in print or it’s in a documentary, because that is just what it is being presented . It’s not malleable.

You’re coming from the film industry. Why did you decide to do “Revolution 1979“ as a game and not a documentary? Is it because it would lack all these different perspectives you’ve just mentioned?

Khonsari: For me it was very important to tell the the story of what took place. It’s an event that had a massive impact on my entire family and generations to come, as we are now living all around the world and not in our home country that we were brought up in and have generational connections to. I felt that there were already documentaries, films, books and other material that had covered the events of the revolution quite well, but there was nothing in the interactive world. So for me, it was about making a game in a medium that rarely takes on history. I was excited by those challenges and the pursuit to taking on a whole new way of telling this well-known history.

In another interview you mentioned that you needed to make sure your sources are safe once “1979 Revolution“ was published. That sounds serious. What impact did the game have in general?

Khonsari: We wanted to make sure that the material was authentic. So we worked with multiple colleagues who are Iranian – as actors, as artists, as programmers, as researchers. All of them were concerned about the repercussions of how this material would be misinterpreted by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the implications it could have for them to travel back, or for their families. The game was banned in the country within two weeks and access was blocked. I was written up in the national newspaper as conspiring to “challenge or deprive the souls of young Iranians“.

That sounds even more serious.

Khonsari: Well, obviously I can’t go back to Iran. We also had multiple challenges on the digital front with attacks on our servers, my own personal information, my bank accounts and so forth, It was very difficult.

Knowing Iran, did you expect that reaction?

Khonsari: I knew what I was stepping into. I felt that we had a fair and balanced approach. We have characters in the game that represent the Islamic side, the intellectual side, the communist side, all of these people are in there to speak their mind, because all of these people were quite essential to bringing about the revolution. However, anything that comes from the West, regardless of who it is, the Islamic government of Iran is quick to dismiss it. As I am also not one to give up, we immediately translated the game into Farsi and put it on the iOS stores in Malaysia and in Turkey, and put it up for free so that Iranians within the country could then get access to via a VPN. Interesting enough, once that happened and people heard about it, we had people in Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt and other parts of the world taking the game, translating it into their own language and then providing us with the translation so that we could update the game. It was amazing to see how people recognized the plight of their own revolutions in what took place in Iranian 1979. It also was censored in the United States, I don’t want to just limit it to Iran. We had multiple challenges with distribution outlets and their concerns about the political elements of the game. We won the Grand Jury award at the gaming festival Indiecade and were specifically left off of editorial lists that celebrated all the other winners. because of the content.When it comes to video games – political content is something that most vendors purposely avoid – which is tragic.

This clearly shows how powerful this medium is, how powerful games are.

Khonsari: Absolutely. On the flip side we were very fortunate to see the impact the game had for those who embraced it. People whose mother or father are Iranian and who had never spoken about their experiences during that time were watching their children play 1979 Revolution, and they started sharing their own stories.. That was incredibly rewarding for us as a team and exactly what we wanted to achieve. This is the kind of impact that real world games can have, especially now when most people are getting educated about world events and history through the unaccountable channels insocial media. Those are opinions, those are not facts. So it’s important that a game like 1979 Revolution is there to share an accurate account of the people of Iran so that audiences can refer to and remember what happened so that we learn from history and not repeat it.

It sounds like you will keep on doing what you’re doing – despite the challenges.

Khonsari: Absolutely. We have a couple of projects in development.

You were a panelist at our eCommemoration Convention this year. In the panel you mentioned, that you once met a women in Iran, who played Grand Theft Auto, and that in the game she had freedom that she wouldn’t have in her real life. Is this the essence of games?

Khonsari: That was an eye opening for me, that really kind of set me on a different trajectory. Having worked on the Grand Theft Auto games intimately and had heard all the rhetoricaround GTA as being super gangster, and a violent game. When I was in in Iran in 2006, during the time when both Iraq and Afghanistan where occupied by the US Forces, I met a young Iranian girl (14yrs old) who said that America must be a pretty amazing place, she indirectly made a parallel between her freedom in the game GTA San Andreas to life in America. She didn’t play the missions – instead she listened to the radio in the car, went to the gym and fast-food restaurants and bought outfits – these were things that she could not do freely back home. It was at this point that I realized that games were being underutilized – they can be so much more than just Hollywood knock offs. Of course they certainly need to be entertaining because we want audiences to engage, but at the same time, there’s just so many more ways to be able to use this method of storytelling

Using historical events in games can be quite difficult: Accuracy, sources, etc. From your experience, what are the biggest challenges or even downsides when using history in games?

Khonsari: There are multiple challenges. Biases can be put into a game, no differently than the biases that we would find in other media. However, because I believe that games and interactive tools are far more powerful, immersive and personal, it could really change opinions. It’s important to go about the subject matters of history without an agenda and to not just show one side, especially because players and audiences have the ability to engage with other forms of materials to inform them on the story they are experiencing. Something we did at Rockstar Games on the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and we followed through with “1979 Revolution:Black Friday“, was to have a deep research team to do extensive interviews, to have a plethora of resources to draw from, whether it’s films, videos, pictures or witnesses, and really to try to tell the spectrum of the people’s story. And have our audiences look back at the past 40 years since the revolution and analyze what was real and what was smoking mirrors

Biases can be put into a game, no differently than the biases that we would find in other media. However, because I believe that games and interactive tools are far more powerful, immersive and personal, it could really change opinions. It’s important to go about the subject matters of history without an agenda and to not just show one side, especially because players and audiences have the ability to engage with other forms of materials to inform them on the story they are experiencing.

What does that mean?

Khonsari: I’ll give you a quick example. When Khomeini the clerical leader, was in France in 1978, he made multiple speeches. These speeches were spread throughout Iran on cassettes. And in those speeches he talks about the separation of church and state. He talks about the importance and independence and equality of women. So, I don’t have to do anything. I just need to put that material in the games and let audiences come to their own conclusion, because they can take a look at where Iran is right now and see that church and state are actually very much the same. And the gender apartheid is a direct result of the Islamic government of Iran’s mandate to hold back and diminish the role of some in society. This is one advantage that you have when you are telling historical stories with time on your side.

You have clearly proven how powerful games are. Why do you think games are still not considered serious, especially in the academic world?

Khonsari: In academia I’ve definitely seen a change. Maybe it’s because of the fact that the professors, those who are in academia, are now actually gamers. Did you know the average age of a gamer is 36. In fact, “1979“ is being used in a lot of schools, it’s involved with the multiple curriculums, I do regularly lectures at universities and high school classrooms. I wish that there was more content, because I know teachers and professors crave it and see how well students respond to it. I think those who would dismiss it, are missing the point that it’s not meant to take over the other mediums. But the reality is games. have an advantage and to adapt educators need to meet the students in the mediums they engage in. Because if you just turn a blind eye and say, No, this is the way it’s been done and this is the way it should be, then you’re not actually recognizing that most students spend endless hours have mobile phones, most people are engaging in ways that no longer are adaptable to that pan their computers and phones. That a reality of how they are experiencing and learning from the world. If your agenda as a educator is to get the material, the message, the history that your are teaching to your students, then you need to take a good look at the tools in your toolbox and see what’s going to help you achieve that goal.

Let’s take a look at our programme here at Körber-Stfitung. What came to your mind when you first heard about the eCommemoration Convention or eCommemoration as a concept in general?

Khonsari: I was very happy when the team at eCommemoration reached out, especially because it had a very focused agenda on history, and digital interactivity. For me, it was a no brainer to not only come, but to participate. To be honest, there’s so few conferences that actually focus on this sector. So, I was really excited to attend eCommemoration Convention. And certainly when I was in attendance, it really opened up my eyes to what a whole bunch of other people are doing. It was exciting.

What was the most interesting part for you at eCommemoration Convention?

Khonsari: What really resonated with me were the commitment of the speakers to their craft and to liberate voices of the unheard or silenced citizens. I was not only impressed, I was in awe of them, and the challenges that they had taken on from sharing the art sculptures and paintings of other cultures that were stolen by the British Museum with the help of AR or how to pay respect and homage to those who passed – that definitely touched me. And just the overall commitment. It was great not to feel alone in this endeavor of telling history and people stories and that together, with these colleagues we can be far more powerful – even if we’re scattered all around the globe. I cherished it and really nice to be a part of.

To end this conversation, let’s have a look into the future. How will we commemorate 20 years from now?

Khonsari: We will commemorate by using these experiences that have been created of history through digital experiences in our daily lives. BUT – will it be there in 20 years? What digital libraries will we have, and how do we commemorate that? I see digital history as getting stronger and stronger, being relived in ways that people have not imagined yet, to really participate in history, to really be there in the shoes of the other, and hopefully in 20 years more than anything else, there will be a correction of how history has been told because it’s coming from more of a global voice, rather than those who are able to put it to paper first and as a result, pursue their own point of view or their own agenda. The great luxury that digital experiences or the digital language has, is that at some point it can bypass the limitations of socioeconomic challenges and allow people from those places to tell their history rather than it being told by others. That will be the greatest gift that will come in 20 years hopefully.