Immersive Video Games: The Future of Education?


By Sarah Laskow

Tehran, September 1978. Black Friday. You’re young and reckless, a photographer in the middle of a protest against the shah. Your friend is beckoning you toward the front of the crowd. You try to force your way through a group of people. You want to be at the center of the action. Then the soldiers begin shooting.

Navid Khonsari is developing a video game about the Iranian Revolution, and he needs it to be exciting. You have to watch who you trust and how you talk to people—your family, the woman in charge of the revolutionary headquarters, the storekeepers who sell lemon and cheesecloth to protect your face from teargas.

“The line should be, ‘Oh, I played this sick game, where I was throwing rocks at these soldiers, and then I had to navigate the crowd once the soldiers started shooting,’” Khonsari says. “And then, ‘Oh, and it was about the Iranian Revolution, which was kind of crazy.’ ”

Khonsari knows how crazy games are made. For five years at Rockstar Games, he contributed to blockbuster titles in the Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto series, some of the bestselling games in the world. As a cinematic director—working on storyboards, directing voice actors, and shooting motion-capture scenes—he made games feel more like movies. Now, he has gone indie with his own company, iNK Stories, and his job is closer to a game designer’s—creating a sweeping vision for his new game, Revolution 1979, and finding the right people (and the money) to execute it. He thinks that games can do more than entertain, and he’s not shy about his role in making that happen. “What I’m creating is the template for how future generations are going to be engaging with history,” he says.

Khonsari, now 44, was 10 years old when his family fled Iran. They landed in Canada, where his father once studied medicine and Khonsari and one of his brothers had been born. The family settled in a small city north of Toronto, but Khonsari’s peers weren’t exactly warm and cuddly to the only Iranian they’d ever met. The new kid’s lack of English didn’t help. But pop culture did—Khonsari was fluent in Star Wars, video games, and comics. He grew up on Tintin, loved Marvel’s philosophical Silver Surfer, and later started reading the subversive work of Daniel Clowes as well as Art Spiegelman’s genre-transcending Maus.

Soon enough, he started writing stories of his own—comic books and movie scripts, which led him to film school. Not long after moving to New York City, Khonsari did a test shoot for Grand Theft Auto III, was hired to direct voice-overs for Max Payne, and, for half a decade, had a hand in every blockbuster Rockstar produced. Though he’s worked on games with huge budgets, Khonsari has a soft spot for quirky stories: His first project after Rockstar was Pindemonium, a documentary film released in 2008 about introverted, obsessive collectors of Olympic pins. He met his wife, Bessie, a filmmaker, while working on the movie; she became “co-everything on it.” Their next project together was her documentary film, Pulling John, about competitive arm wrestlers. Today, they live in Brooklyn with their two daughters, and while Khonsari tends to want to do “big, big, big grand things,” he says Bessie (who’s a collaborator on the new game too) “really appreciates the subtlety in the emotional journey of characters and putting that at the forefront.”

With 1979, they’re aiming to hit both notes. To create the game, Khonsari has been researching the revolution history as if he were making a documentary—by interviewing people from his parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Much of his research comes by way of his own family, including cousins who were in college during the revolution and relatives still living in Iran. He’s also enlisting academic and political experts, like the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour. Still a history major at heart, Khonsari says he is interested in moments of sweeping change—not just dates but stories from people’s personal experiences. His own experiences color the game too, and the one that most strongly influences it is his sense that most people don’t understand the real diversity of Iranian political opinions. “Someone like my grandmother, who lived in Iran, prayed three times a day and never ate bacon … she never wanted a theocracy,” he says.

When a player begins the game, he or she will get a quick run-through of the history of the revolution. But Khonsari is also working on building rich historical detail into the world that players will navigate. The main character is a photojournalist, and players can take pictures in the game and compare them with real shots of historical events. If they want to, they’ll be able to walk around an Iranian house, check out what’s on the walls, and turn on the TV and see Iranian TV shows. This exploration isn’t required to get through the game. But it’s there for people who are curious, and Khonsari thinks it could give players a sense of the revolution’s history, much like The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now taught a younger generation about the Vietnam War.

Although making the game educational comes second to making it fun, Khonsari wants players to understand that Iran has a deep history, with independent women and a secular life. “For us to be able to put in different types of stories, that’s the icing on the cake,” Khonsari says.

“It’s a very different animal; it’s very forward thinking,” says Asi Burak, president of the nonprofit Games for Change. “This game starts saying: This is a viable medium to say something smart. That’s not obvious to everyone.” And, Burak says, it makes the job of producing 1979 an uphill battle.

Games like this one often get plenty of good press, but the real challenge is grabbing the attention of actual gamers—and funders. 1979’s Kickstarter campaign didn’t meet its $395,000 goal late last year, but Khonsari says it helped attract potential investors. (And the success of the movie Argo, set during the Iranian hostage crisis, hasn’t hurt: It proves that there’s a mainstream appetite for stories from this era.) He is currently working on developing these leads and asking fans of the Kickstarter campaign to continue to donate through PayPal. “This is meant to be a mass-appeal project,” he says. “I’m still playing games, and I’m in my forties. I love being a gangster; I love taking out aliens. But I started getting fascinated with what would happen if you could engage people within a real experience but make it entertaining—make it a game.” The goal is to release the game’s first installment this summer. When that happens, Khonsari’s own gaming revolution will be alive and well.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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