August 12, 2014

The Cat and the Coup acquired by LACMA

SCA Professor Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, Art Director of the School’s Interactive Media and Games Division, used their talents in game design and art to share the story of Mohammed Mossadegh, the Prime Minister of Iran who was overthrown in a coup, to create the documentary video game The Cat and the Coup.

Eight pieces of their work were acquired for the permanent collection of the Los Angeles CountyMuseum of Art (LACMA) in June 2014.  The work, curated by Dr. Linda Komaroff, will be featured in the Islamic Art Collection. The Cat and the Coup Installation includes:  the video game itself, a 15 minute Walk-through video of the game, 5 Archival Inkjet Prints (stills from the game), and a Fur-covered magnifying glass, a prop made to bring the game to life.

“LACMA’s Islamic art collection contains many examples of Persian manuscript illustration of the type digitized for the game, which will give viewers a new perspective on the arts of the book in Iran that aligns with the digital age in which we live,” says Komaroff. 

Since its debut in 2011, The Cat and the Coup has received multiple awards including Indiecade’s documentary game award. It was a finalist for the Nuovo award at the Independent Games Festival and Runner Up for the Knight News Game award at Games for Change.

In developing the video game, Brinson was interested in creating a game that would tell the story of Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh and the engineered coup that brought him down in 1953. Throughout the game, the player, as the cat, learns about different events Mossadegh experienced.

Brinson wants people to know about this moment in history, “We’d hope that The Cat and the Coup would be like a message in a bottle,” he says. “We were always hopeful that somebody in Iran or people in Iran would find it, it’d be this strange discovery for them to look at.” The game was successful in reaching people in Iran. Brinson recalls an article by GameemaG.ir  that highlights the fact the U.S. citizens can be openly critical of their government.  Translated from a video in Persian, Madhi Fanaei said, "There is a question here; How does a country allow its researchers to create such a game to criticize its own policy. Is honesty the best policy?"

While the game was a political exploration for Brinson, Kurosh ValaNejad’s connection to the subject matter is personal. As an Iranian-American, ValaNejad says he felt it was important to help Brinson portray the story as accurately as possible. The only fictional part of the game is the cat, which acts as a guide through history, and has a hand in toppling the late Prime Minister. “There is a lot of embedded stuff, and a lot of it is personal,” says ValaNejad.

All of the images placed in the game are used as expressions of the political tensions, values and cultures of the time. ValaNejad says he hopes students who play the game look for learning opportunities. “We’re hoping that it sort of sparks students to maybe look deeper for their own meanings in some of these graphics,” he says.

LACMA curator Komaroff likes that ValaNejad’s artwork for the game is so authentic. “ValaNejad’s inclusion of the paintings is anchored in the cultural heritage of Iran and points to their continued relevance, while simultaneously showing some of the new trajectories in art made by contemporary Iranian artists,” she says. “The Cat and the Coup is representative of the creative links between the past and present that LACMA seeks to highlight through the exhibition of Islamic and contemporary art from the Middle East.”

After the release of the game, The Cat and the Coup gained media attention for its style and use of gameplay in nonfiction storytelling.

It even gained the attention of Mohammed Mossadegh’s nephew. In an exchange of emails, the nephew sent ValaNejad a hand-drawn family tree that showed how the game designer was himself related to the late Prime Minister. These moments only added weight to the impact of the game.

Now with recognition from an established art museum, the success of the game is gaining more credibility as an educational tool and an art form, paving the way for similar games in the future. It’s a genre of gameplay that is very important at SCA.

“Being allowed to experiment and try game designs and develop games that aren’t an obvious choice has been really fun and inspiring,” says Brinson. “It’s a very supportive community for anything that’s new. Whether it’s the faculty, peers or the students, USC folks are up for a lot of things as long as it sounds exciting. ”

To find out more about The Cat and the Coup visit: http://www.thecatandthecoup.com/