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'Cat And Coup' Video Game Recalls Overthrow Of Popular Iranian Leader

A screen grab from the video game "The Cat and the Coup"
A screen grab from the video game "The Cat and the Coup"
In a new documentary video game tracing the life of the late Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran's hugely popular prime minister, users get to play his frisky pet cat.

In the new "The Cat and the Coup" game, the cat sets in motion many key historical events of Mossadegh's life, starting from his death under house arrest and moving backward through the pivotal 1953 Western-backed coup d'etat that saw his overthrow.

Released on June 16 -- Mossadegh's birthday -- the project was initially the brainchild of Peter Brinson, who teaches at the University of Southern California (USC). Early in the development, Brinson began working closely with Tehran-born Kurosh ValaNejad, the art director at USC's Game Innovation Lab, and a team of students at the university. (It's available online for free.)

Brinson says he was originally inspired by the challenge of making a conflict-focused game that engaged users without glorifying warfare.

"I knew early on that it needed an interesting premise, and that's where the cat comes in," he says, explaining that he chose a cat because of its incalculable nature. When you play the game, Brinson says, "you ask yourself -- both Iranians and Americans can ask themselves: Am I Mossadegh's friend, or am I his foe?"

Egyptian writer Issandr El Amrani of the popular blog praises the game as a "great idea" that will engage people on what he calls "the darker parts of Middle East history," particularly "the negative role Western powers played in helping dictatorships maintain control because of oil or other strategic interests."

"At a time when the entire region is overthrowing that old order," Amrani writes in an e-mail interview, "this game is very well-timed."

In The 'Spirit'

Released days ahead of a keenly awaited speech by U.S. President Barack Obama on the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Brinson says project is a response to U.S. effort to "give people in the Middle East democracy." Mossadegh's role in Iran, Brinson says, showed him "this isn't a new idea" in the region.

Hedayat Matine-Daftary, a 77-year-old lawyer, is not much of a game enthusiast. When he used to play chess with Mossadegh, his grandfather, he says, "I often resigned."

Ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh during one of his frequent interruptions of court proceedings in Tehran's military tribunal on November 20, 1953.

But he welcomes the "spirit" behind the new video game, saying he hopes it will give Mossadegh's legacy "some kind of universality" because it "should be universal and is not," given that the former prime minister is still largely unknown outside Iran.

Most Americans know little about Mossadegh, who served as prime minister of Iran from 1951-53. He remains a towering figure among Iranians, however, and many of Mossadegh's supporters count themselves among the Iranian opposition today. His charisma was such that "Time" magazine featured him as its "Man of the Year" in 1951, just two years before the CIA helped orchestrate a coup that saw his overthrow.

Politically 'Alive'

The removal of Mossadegh, then a hugely popular leader in Iran, was a covert operation by United States and Britain. The move, part of a larger strategic shift in Cold War politics, was triggered by Mossadegh's demand to nationalize Iran's oil industry and wrest it from British control.

The coup d'etat, code-named "Operation Ajax," brought Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi to power and made Mossadegh a prisoner in his own country for life.

The event left many Iranians disillusioned by what they saw as the duplicity of the West. This resentment, coupled with the repressive rule of the shah, helped to set the stage for the later rise of hard-line religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, who came to power in a 1979 revolution that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The game's art director, ValaNejad, born in 1966 in Tehran to an Iranian father and an American mother, says every popular protest in Iranian history, including the mass protests against Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad that began in June 2009, served as an "inspiration for a project like this."

This is because Mossadegh is still very "alive politically" in Iran, Daftary says. "He's not going to be part of history as a sort of finished book, the pages are still open, because coup d'etat left the pages open," he says. For Americans, "George Washington is part of history, but Mossadegh is still very much an open book in Iran," Daftary says, adding that "for the young people in Iran" especially, the "pages are still turning."

Fostering Communication

Brinson believes it's important that Americans learn more about important political figures of other nations -- particularly those directly affected by U.S. policy.

"Perhaps if this story takes place in a video game, that's enough to excite someone," he says. "In fact, we would love it if after someone plays this they go, 'Hmm, I'm gonna Google this,' or, 'I'm going to go look it up; maybe I'll even buy a book.'"

The two hope that the project will prompt questions and hope for a response from Iranians themselves in the form of a similar game.

"I see art as a form of communication," Brinson says, "and it seems pretty clear at this point that our governments, United States and Iran, are not going to get along" anytime soon. The U.S. and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1980.

Twenty-three-year-old Peter Cizek, a self-described "zealous" gamer who spends at least three hours a day playing in his native Slovakia, says that even though he's not Iranian or American, he was very impressed by the project.

"I know that this might sound weird, but the best thing is the creepy utopic background music and the sound effects," he writes in an e-mail interview, adding, "These kind of games are the future of education."

His only complaint?

"The fact that when it finally pulls you in, it ends."

Rather like Mossadegh's career.

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