Iran’s Gaming Pioneer Mahdi Bahrami Brings the East to West

Math and art are a natural combination for Iranian game designer Mahdi Bahrami.

After fretting that his visa application would be rejected, Mahdi Bahrami, of Iran, recently made his first trip stateside this March. At San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference 2014, before a conference room overflowing with people, the 21-year-old game developer was hunched over his laptop, his curly brown hair peeking over the flip-screen of his laptop.

With a few clicks of his mouse, the large circle rotating and dilating on the screen behind him began to swirl colorful patterns in arabesque. This was an early level in his prize-nominated game Engare (Persian for incomplete pattern), which refigures sacred Islamic geometry into playable, solvable, brain-picking material.

“[In Esfahan] we have very beautiful patterns, like you see in the mosques, in many different ways,” said Bahrami in a thick Persian accent.

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This conference scene — a singular Near Easterner dangling his Persian-infused puzzler over slack-jawed Western developers like a hypnotizing, otherworldly mobile — is rare. Iran is a country with centuries of experience in the application of mathematics to artistic imagination, which naturally has all kinds of implications for a medium like games. However, U.N. and U.S. sanctions against Iran have put a damper not only on Hassan Rouhani’s uranium-enriching regime, but also the emerging arts.

“U.S. sanctions make troubles only for people, for students, for families, but not [for] government,” blogged Bahrami last year. And you can add game makers to the list. While Iran maintains an Eastern influence, the best-known games are made in the West. Developers in Iran are practically unheard of.

Unlike other Iranian artists, like filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is well-known in the States for his protest film “This Is Not a Film,” Bahrami’s works are apolitical, abstract and street-legal. Nonetheless, it is an uphill battle being a game developer in a country where the only games you can purchase are cracked copies of the biggest hits for two dollars at the bazaar.

“[An Iranian customer] would be crazy to buy my games,” Bahrami once told me.

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Back in 2010, Bahrami’s nationality kept getting in the way of success. He had recently won a cash prize of $5,000 for his puzzle-weaving jumper game, Bo — a lot of money for a high school kid. However, there was an issue receiving his check because no American bank would transfer funds to Iran. Another of his games, Everything Can Draw! (the prototype that eventually became Engare) earned him a trip to the Tokyo Game Show in Japan, the Japanese equivalent of E3. He went, although it was impossible to book a hotel in advance because major credit card companies don’t do business in his country. To add insult to injury, his Xbox Live Indie Games developer’s account, which he used to create KooChooLoo!, was banned.

So, he got out.

After graduating high school in 2012, he moved to Breda to study game design. Relocating to the Netherlands was a tectonic shift for Bahrami, who was born and raised in Iran. Specifically, he didn’t like going clubbing or drinking beer the way other students did, and found himself making games inspired by his homeland. The first was Farsh (Persian for carpet), a clever tile-slider about rolling and unrolling Persian rugs the way he did as a child in Esfahan.

“It [had been] five months since I had seen my family, and this was the game I made when I was alone,” he said. The game was dedicated to his mother, who wove carpets in her younger years.

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One of Bahrami’s earliest games was an ornate and calligraphic Tetris clone, preceded only by a copyright-infringing SpongeBob-themed underwater city game. He took his first crack at Engare, the title that eventually brought him westward, when a high school geometry teacher posed the riddle: what is the path of a point on a round object when it rolls in a straight line? The game that he made in response led to his appearance on the Iranian tech show “Sefro Yek” on channel 7, which was broadcast nationally.

Despite his upbringing, Bahrami doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as “that guy who makes games about Iran.”

“I don’t think Iran as a country is important to Engare. What’s important to Engare is geometry,” he said. This may sound contradictory when you consider the game’s twisting and profound geometry is an undeniable throwback to the Islamic world. Its pleasing soundtrack, orchestrated with exotic santoors and hand claps, falls squarely in the Persian folk music genre. Also, the game’s elaborate patterns are found on everything from dinnerware to places of worship in Iran, where they proliferated for thousands of years because ancient Islamic artists were not allowed to portray living creatures for fear of idolatry.

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But “those people were not only artists. They knew mathematics … they tried to use abstract mathematical shapes to express their feelings and their art,” he said, later adding that this is very similar to what game designers are trying to do with video games.

As Bahrami stands at the threshold of a burgeoning career, he faces a difficult choice about which direction to go. The first option is to continue down the path of Westernization that has brought him to the Netherlands and the United States, which could lead to greater opportunities, like rubbing shoulders with famous game personalities. There is a photo on Facebook of him hanging out with Braid’s Jonathan Blow.

The second option is to return to the embargoed country from which his creative juices flow. He is determined to do the latter.

“I will go back at some point in the future,” he said. “To be a game developer, it doesn’t matter where you live. All you need is a computer.”

 

Headshot courtesy of Joram Wolters.

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