It's a proud part of American mythology that people from all over the world get to come here and pursue their dreams. Navid Khonsari has one of those stories. The Iranian-American used to work at Rockstar Games as cinematic director, where he helped steer the vision on games like The Warriors, Midnight Club II and Bully.
However, for all the best-selling, critically acclaimed games Khonsari worked on, it wasn't until he went back to the Middle East that he really saw the surprising cultural impact of video games.
Khonsari spoke at this week's Games for Change conference about 1979, the real-world political action game that he's making through his iNKstories development studio. That game's set in Iran during the infamous hostage crisis that followed a violent regime change in that country. Part of that game's inspration comes directly from his resume.
During a visit to his homeland six months after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released, Khonsari found himself mobbed by teenagers in the small villager of Gombad after word spread that he'd work on the PS2 hit.
There's not much retail infrastructure in Iran but that's not much of an obstacle. "Iran has no copyright laws," Khonsari explains. "It's all black market. So you can buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto for $1. You can buy anything for $1. And Iranians are hardcore gamers. It's a huge gaming community. What's amazing is that it's not gender-specific. I was talking to girls like 16 years olds who were throwing lines back at me from San Andreas."
It's a given that gamers in Gombad — a small community in Iran's northwest region near the Turkmenistan border — would seize on the opportunity to peer at American culture through the PC version of GTA: SA. But it was the things they enjoyed most that surprised Khonsari.
"What was amazing was they weren't necessarily drawn to what the media and the critics always attacked about GTA games. The sex, nudity or the violence… none of that stuff was a big deal to them," he relates. Instead, it was the more mundane parts of San Andreas that resonated.
"They said it was a great venue for them to just listen to music, which is harder for them to do. And they can't just hop into a car and go places, either," he continues. "So they were like, "I just drive around in my car and listen to music. And it's wonderful." They really got into the everyday kind of things you could do in the game, like being able to go and get your hair cut. We put these things in the game because we believe that these are part of our activities in our daily lives. We take for granted that these are part of our activities in our daily lives."
When I mentioned that such a level of personal freedom must seem like a fantasy to players like the ones he met in Gombad, Khonsari agreed. "For them, it's a hyper version of kids who live in the suburbs and what they think the city's like. In this particular situation these guys are going, 'I get to make choices.' And, on top of that, look at the power and strength I have as a woman playing as this character. It's not gender-specific. It's not limited by who I am. It's my journey because I get to control that journey. I might be the shell of this person that I'm playing, which is CJ. But my desire is what's shaping this experience."
"The fact that CJ was black had a huge implication over there, too," offers Khonsari. "Because it wasn't the white character that's being pushed forward. And they're like, "Wow, there's a sense of openness. They've taken their main character and they've made him black. That's amazing."
Khonsari says that his experience in Gombad drove home something he always knew in his gut, which is that games can make foreign countries and cultures feel alive in a way that other mediums can't achieve. I'll have more about how he hopes to do just that for Iran with 1979 tomorrow.