BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
[GAME SOUND EFFECTS/UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. A new video game, “1979 Revolution: Black Friday,” projects the player into an uprising, widely covered and often distorted by the media, the Iranian revolution that ousted the corrupt US-backed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and installed the repressive Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The game covers the two days leading up to and including September 8th, 1978, Black Friday, when hundreds of Iranian protesters were gunned down by government soldiers. We see all this through the lens of the main character and aspiring Iranian photojournalist named Reza Shirazi, just back in Tehran from studying abroad. You can choose the actions he takes, whether to, say, take a picture or pick up a rock. The fates of his friends may hinge on your decision.
BABAK: Don’t do this, Reza, trust me. You throw that rock and it’s gonna change you.
ALI: You can do this, make a stand.
BABAK: Just drop it, Reza.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Reza, you walk the streets. You pass car radios, airing news reports in Farsi or English, your choice.
NEWS ANNOUNCER: The Iranian government says that the death toll from the terrorist attack on Cinema Rex in Abadan has officially reached 400.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The young photojournalist, Reza, is loosely based on the life of the game maker himself, an Iranian-Canadian, Navid Khansari.
NAVID KHANSARI: My grandfather took me out to the streets, and I was an extremely curious child and always looking out the window of our third-floor apartment and finally he said, okay, let's go. While I didn't understand what was taking place, I think, you know, something that really resonated with me was listening to the concern in my mom's voice when I was standing by a window and if soldiers were shooting up in the air and her concern about a bullet coming through the window and just saying, “get down.” The idea of “get down” was just something I’d seen in movies, and now it was playing in my living room.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The person that we are essentially playing in the game is in a tug-of-war between the urge to document the revolution and a kind of longing to join in. Is that a tension that you struggled with?
NAVID KHANSARI: Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s a tension that most of us struggle with. We don't represent the far right, we don't represent the far left. We’re kind of stuck in the middle and, on certain decisions, we waver between one side to the other.
[GAME CLIP/SOUND EFFECTS]:
BABAK: Reza, Reza, over here.
BABAK: You okay?
REZA: Yeah, okay.
BABAK: Where’s Ali?
REZA: I lost him.
BABAK: Why did you throw the rock, Reza? What are you, a Freedom Fighter now?
REZA: I, I lost myself.
BABAK: You’re here to observe and document, okay? Take your pictures now before they teargas the place. Show the world what’s going on in our streets.
NAVID KHANSARI: I didn’t want to make just a game. I wanted to create a world that allows the player to actually control and write their own narrative. And I think by putting people in directly those shoes, by putting them on the streets of Tehran, it’s much easier to dispel what we've seen over the past 35 years of how Iran has been portrayed, because it's not just about clerics and it’s just not about women covered up in veils. This revolution was termed “the Islamic revolution” only after the revolution took place, but if you take a look at all the people that were involved in it, Islam and its representation was a fraction, was a part of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you describe a crucial choice that you as a player can make that has a fateful impact on something in the game?
NAVID KHANSARI: When you are in the protest and you come across your cousin Ali, and Ali’s a member of the mujahedin, he is the Che Guevara of, of our story, charismatic, a rebel but also has gone down a dark path by embracing violence. Your closest friend, Babak, who also happens to be from a totally different social class, is on the other side.
ALI: They’re taking Abbas. Final chance to redeem yourself. Do what’s in your heart!
BABAK: Don’t listen to him, Reza; it’s not the only way.
REZA: I’ll stick to taking pictures.
ALI: You disappoint me, Reza.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s a decisive moment?
NAVID KHANSARI: Yeah, are you in or are you out? When he doesn’t pick up the rock, he goes to his place of strength, which is documenting what takes place. But when he throws the rock, then what it does is ensues others around him to start throwing rocks, and the situation eventually leads towards a riot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This game is really graphic at times. We scrub blood from the body of a stabbing victim, we are threatened with torture by an interrogator more than once. You felt you had to show that.
NAVID KHANSARI: Absolutely. I mean, look, that character that you are being interrogated by is named Asadollah Lajevardi, the actual interrogator in Evin Prison after the revolution.
ASADOLLAH LAJEVARDI: Now, what is my name?
REZA SHIRAZI: I don’t care who you are!
[SOUND OF SLAP/SHOUT, COUGHING]
ASADOLLAH LAJEVARDI: Why can’t you show me the decency of remembering my name?
NAVID KHANSARI: We want to create a real experience, we need to understand how they were interrogating people and the tough choices that you make, because in an interrogation you choose between bad and worse. And we wanted to make sure that that would draw you into this experience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You released the game earlier this month.
NAVID KHANSARI: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: About a week or so later, the Tehran Times reported that Iran's National Foundation for Computer Games banned your game because it, quote, “could poison the minds of the youth and damage their spirit.” Was it a surprise that the Iranian government agency banned your game?
NAVID KHANSARI: I was surprised at their reasoning. Usually, they just say that this is no longer available because it's American propaganda. But all they’ve really done is actually gotten more and more people within Iran excited to play the game. The torrent sites are, you know, off the hook right now; people are ripping the game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, let us stipulate here, ‘cause the listeners don't know - we haven’t mentioned it yet - you helped produce a lot of the violent “Grand Theft Auto” games. I mean, you’ve been in the blast of controversy for extreme violence in those games for a long time. But how does this violence compare or contrast with how you used it in “Grand Theft Auto”?
NAVID KHANSARI: Well, it's interesting, you know, the violence that you have in “Grand Theft Auto” is very - is a direction that you could take, and that's based on how you want to play it, and I guess you would say it's based on your own morality or how entertained you want to be. When I was in Iran, for example, I was in a small town and I came across a, a group of young, young kids who had actually lined up to talk to me. And –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When was this?
NAVID KHANSARI: This was 2006. I was having breakfast and there's a line up with maybe like 20 kids from the village, and they had all played “Grand Theft Auto” and they had seen my name in the opening titles. I’m the only Iranian, so they’re like, hey, can we chat with you, can you sign this for us? And almost none of ‘em spoke about the violence. Most of them spoke about getting in a car, driving around, the endless radio stations they could listen to, they can go to the gym and work out, then they could go to a takeout place and eat as much as they can and then go and buy clothes.
And that was the majority of what the conversation was about. And one girl, I remember, she said, America must be a pretty amazing place if you could do that. And, for me, it totally changed my perception, and I think that was the first time that I actually started thinking about the impact games can have across so many different ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In what way do you think the game most profoundly [LAUGHS] challenges the predominant Western media narratives of Iran?
NAVID KHANSARI: Like anyone who's working within any kind of medium that's trying to reflect life, you want to be authentic. This is not a part of the world that's often covered, so we wanted corner stores, markets, the bakery, these elements that reflect Iranian day-to-day living. What you’re experiencing in the streets that you’re walking through, the people that you’re seeing in their 70s garbs, the conversation that revolves around pop culture, the subtext of everything was no different anywhere around the world at that time.
BABAK: Oh yeah, really?
REZA: Yeah, man. I’ve told her about you and your legendary disco moves.
BABAK: [LAUGHING] John Travolta - Baba - has nothing on me!
REZA: [LAUGHS] Nice.
NAVID KHANSARI: When I arrived in Canada, it was during the US hostage crisis. There was an aggressive tone in the air. It was a few days before Christmas, the first Christmas that the hostages weren’t gonna be back home. And I think I was able to break down the stereotypes that people have by using the exact same tools that I'm using in this game. I could relate to everybody when we talked about Star Wars, when we talked about games, when we talked about books. As we started connecting, all of those stereotypes slowly melted away because people just got to understand that we actually have something in common.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Near the end of the game we’re in Reza’s parents’ house the night before Black Friday, and he comes across their photographs, letters and some videos. They all hearken back to a more peaceful time.
REZA: I’m supposed to be looking for the camera, but I got to check out Baba’s home movies. [MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
I have to take this back and show my buddies in Germany. They didn’t believe me when I said we had beaches in Iran. [LAUGHS] Wait ‘til they see this. [PAUSE] Oh, please don’t tell me this is where I – yeah, that’s my first day of school.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where did this footage come from? What are we seeing in these videos?
NAVID KHANSARI: Well, that footage is actually footage my grandfather shot in Iran on Super 8. That first one with the Caspian Sea is actually my mom in a bathing suit at the Caspian Sea. And that first day of school is me going to school in Iran. My grandfather had been documenting from when my mom was a little girl –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
NAVID KHANSARI: - all the way to seeing her kind of grow up, the, the – all the different weddings that took place, the big rituals around the religious holidays where you would be making huge, huge meals and taking the offerings to those who were, you know, not as fortunate as you. I mean, this goes from the 50s, so for me, it's one of the ways that I can kind of connect to a Iran that I knew and a culture that I still celebrate. And I think that was important to kind of get in there.
But I also thought, when I was looking at these, and I showed it to people who didn't know anything about me, they were like, that looks just like my home movies from the 70s, you know. I - it was incredible in that way. And that made me think, wow. It’s a tool now that I've used consistently because I really do believe at the core of all of us that there's this ability to be able to connect, if we just break down all these illusions that we’re so different from one another.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Navid, thank you so much.
NAVID KHANSARI: Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Navid Khansari is the creator of “1979 Revolution: Black Friday.” Next month, you will be able to find it on your smartphone.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Dasha Lisitsina. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Cayce Holford and Casey Means.
This week we’ll have to say goodbye to our beloved Associate Producer Kimmie Regler. We’ll miss her excessive and never-waning good cheer, her manta, “It’ll be great” and her always- replenished bowl of almonds. We will really miss those almonds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks, Kimmie, for Shakespeare, nihilism, counter-narratives, for Flibanserin - the stories, not the drugs - and for being you. Here’s to the unbreakable Kimmie Regler.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC's vice president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.