Navid Khonsari has been a legal resident of the United States for 17 years. He's worked on games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Resident Evil 7, and an interactive story about the Iranian Revolution called 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. These days, though, he doesn't feel entirely welcome in the US or Iran, and he's worried about what'll happen if he leaves.
Image credit: Alchetron.
"I'm cautious, is the best way to put it," Khonsari, a green card holder, told me over the phone, voicing his concern about President Trump's Muslim ban. "There have been updated statements saying that green card holders should have no issues entering the country, even though there would be a secondary interview that would take place, but I'm still worried."
The ban initially applied to and affected many green card holders, but the Trump administration has since clarified the language surrounding it. Still, Khonsari doesn't want to risk it. "I'm married," he said. "I have two children, and I want to make sure that if I go abroad that I can also be able to come back to my home and to my family and not be locked out."
"None of the facts show that members of these nations have led terrorist attacks on American soil," he added, pointing to reports that no American has been killed in the US by anyone from those seven Muslim-majority countries in more than 40 years. "Where my mind goes is, is this actually the proper approach for security vetting, or is this just based on a racist idea of what a certain group of people are predisposed to do?"
Khonsari stands to be affected more than many, directly and indirectly, by the Trump administration's policies and the simmering pockets of racism and resentment bubbling up around the world. He even told me he's regarded as something of an "American spy" in Iran. 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, which came out last year, is actually banned in the land it's about, the place it's a tribute to. It puts Khonsari in an odd spot. But he's seen the effects of his own work, and that's what keeps him going.
"I went to Iran, and kids who were playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas — which I worked on — came over to me, and we started having a conversation," said Khonsari. "Their idea is that America must be an incredible place. I asked them why, and they were like, 'Well, because you can drive around wherever you want. You can listen to the music that you want, and you can go buy clothes, and you can work out.'"
"This [aspect of GTA: San Andreas] is a celebration of the American way of life, and I got to be part of the team that helped bring that experience to fruition," he added. "The opportunity only came because I came to America. When there's pushback [against the government] in my statements, it's because of my love, not my frustration or my anger. My love and the idea of where we were going and the possibilities of what we can be. Knowing that it's not a one-way road, that it has to be done with an acknowledgment that there are different people with different needs and different backgrounds, but that we all still strive for similar things and ideals."
When Khonsari was ten years old, his family left Iran. The 1979 Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 American diplomats and citizens were held in Iran for 444 days, had US-Iran tensions at a fever pitch. Meanwhile, schools were shutting down, and the country's soul — what it meant to be an Iranian — was in flux. Khonsari's parents had lived in Iran their entire lives, but they made the excruciating decision to leave and move to Canada. They wanted a better life and a good education for their kids, so they tore themselves from the fabric of the place that made them.
Khonsari told me multiple times that he adores America. He loves the ideals of freedom and opportunity the nation espouses, the culture we've carved into cliffsides and foisted upon eagles. He even understands the desire for increased security, given that he lived in New York at the time of 9/11. He also loves Iran, the homeland of his family and many people he cares about. At this point, though, it seems that neither America nor Iran particularly love him.
"I think when [1979 Revolution] got banned," said Khonsari, "[the Iranian government] saw it — because it was made [in the United States] — as a form of propaganda. The game is called 1979 Revolution. It's not called The Islamic Revolution, so as a result, that had some pushback. If they're not controlling their message, it's considered propaganda, or what we like to call fake news now. It's exactly that. If it's not in line with what the message of the regime is, it's deemed to be propaganda or untrue. Strangely enough, we're now seeing that happen over here."
Having lived it, Khonsari sees parallels between what happened then in Iran and what's happening in America now.
"The fact is," said Khonsari, "there's so many elements of this that are mirroring what took place in Iran. People who were frustrated fought for change, and then that change morphed and kind of got hijacked into something they were never really a part of or believed in at the beginning, except for a minority of outspoken people that really pushed it. They wound up on the other end of it under a theocratic leadership."
Khonsari made 1979 Revolution: Black Friday to help people understand the moral ambiguity of the situation — the good intentions, painful outcomes, and humanity at the heart of it all. He wanted to depict Iranian culture as it truly was, not as this menacing alien tapestry of otherness, but as a country of people who wanted the same things everybody wants: to live free and happy, to laugh, love, and maybe even partake of some good old-fashioned American pop culture.
"I made that game with the idea of trying to break down barriers so that people from the West could see what Iran was like in the 1970s and what their initial ideals were to come about and to start a revolution — the change that they wanted to bring about and the liberties that they wanted to achieve," said Khonsari. "And then how that revolution also morphed into something else and how they wound up under a theocratic leadership."
Khonsari wanted to help humanize a populace that's been relentlessly dehumanized over the years, painted as religious zealots and potential terrorists. He told me the game inspired discussions on Steam of how people in Iran actually dressed and acted at the time. It corrected misconceptions and helped people understand how much they had in common.
I pointed out that it's kind of sad that people need to see others in clothes that fit a hyper-specific definition of "normal" in order to accept them, but Khonsari replied that there's a power in pop culture, a sort of cultural glue that can assemble disparate parts into a more understanding, accepting whole. "While you'd love to show people in the way that they are and how people accept it," he said, "think about how much further you'll get by having something people can assimilate with, something they can find in common, rather than having nobody experience that movie because it's so specific to the culture."
Despite everything going on in the world now, Khonsari still believes what he did when he first set out to create 1979 Revolution. He believes in the power of pop culture — of games, movies, TV, and music — to heal divides, to unite people whether they're separated by geography or ideology. He's felt that resonant force in his own life, and he wants to pass it on, because people need to understand each other now more than ever.
"In the end the greatest thing that the United States has ever exported is pop culture," said Khonsari, pointing to examples like Star Wars. "All this stuff is taking place on a political level. Iranians, I mean Iranian civilians, love America. They love the pop culture. They love the movies. They love the music. They love all of that kind of stuff. That's not just Iran, that's around the world."
"Take a look at the late '60s and early '70s," he continued. "It was the musicians, it was the artists that became some of the voices to bring about change, to bring about resistance. I think art and music and games and films and books is actually what allowed me to become integrated with North American society and how I started having conversations with my friends. How I created friends when I first moved to Canada when I was ten years old was that common conversation about arts, about video games, about movies, and I think that shows us how similar we are. I really believe that there's great opportunity and that my job is just getting started."