Distinguished Scholar: Foaad Khosmood

Man working on computer next to dog.

It might seem surprising that the co-founder of the world’s largest game-developing event didn’t have access to a computer growing up. But as a child in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, Foaad Khosmood and his family were more focused on survival than computer games.

“Tehran was getting bombed and rocketed all the time,” Khosmood said. “We used to go look at the rubble afterward. I saw six- and seven-story buildings flattened.”

While Khosmood has been in the United States since he was a teen, his life experiences continue to drive his actions, as an activist who has protested war and a professor who has worked to make the democratic process more accessible to the public.

“I do always want to have an impact here,” said Khosmood, one of three Cal Poly faculty members honored as a 2019-20 Distinguished Scholar.

During the eight-year war with Iraq, Khosmood’s father emigrated from Iran with his two sons, fleeing first to Turkey and then Germany, when Khosmood was in the sixth grade. Unable to work in Germany as an immigrant, Khosmood’s father moved the family to San Jose, California, where the family survived on public assistance as Khosmood’s father pursued a real estate career.

“It was very difficult for him,” Khosmood said. “He didn’t have great language skills.”

Garage Sale Gems

However, he was good at finding deals from Silicon Valley garage sales and swap meets.

“That’s where we got lots of really old, cheap computer equipment,” Khosmood said.

At 16, Khosmood had his first computer gear — though it was probably 10 years behind the then-current technology. But the teenager found computers logical and creative, and, after graduating high school in Irvine, he figured out a way to pursue computer engineering in San Luis Obispo. “I immediately maxed all loans and grants, and I was working, too.”

At Cal Poly, he was the technology manager for the Mustang Daily (now Mustang News), occasionally writing for the student paper. Along with future comedian Eric Schwartz (also known as Smooth-E), he also co-hosted “Talk of the Town,” a show on KCPR, the student radio station, that touched on philosophy, feminism and environmental issues.

Foaad and Weird Al
Khosmood met Cal Poly alumnus and entertainer “Weird Al” Yankovic after writing a piece about him for the Mustang Daily.

After graduating in 1999, he worked in industry for five years, including a stint as a software engineer at Intel.

“It was the biggest paycheck I had ever seen, and I really liked my co-workers, but there were a lot of other things about it that I wasn’t crazy about,” he said. “I felt like I had very little creative input into the final product that I was working on. This is typical of most engineering positions.”

Game On

With a desire to conduct research, he returned to Cal Poly for a master’s degree (2005) and eventually earned a doctorate in computer science from UC Santa Cruz.

“Even through grad school my dad was still trying to convince me to become a medical doctor,” Khosmood said. “He thought this was going to be a lifelong poverty thing.”

As a Cal Poly graduate student, he was involved in the Progressive Student Alliance, giving speeches and helping organize anti-war events during the second U.S.-Iraq war. He continued anti-war organizing at UC Santa Cruz. He also co-founded Global Game Jam as a grad student.

The GGJ is an annual hackathon, where teams assemble around the world to create games within a 48-hour period.

Group of students
As a graduate student, Khosmood helped found Global Game Jam, which is a game developing activity that takes place in around a120 countries. Here he is pictured with Cal Poly students during a Gam Jam in 2013.

The event rapidly grew far beyond anyone’s expectation. By the fourth year, Khosmood suggested they create a nonprofit corporation, which they did, using his San Luis Obispo bedroom as headquarters. In the GGJ, held in-person in January 2020, participants at more than 930 locations in 118 countries created 9,601 games.

While 48 hours is not enough to fully form games, often, Khosmood said, great ideas develop there.

“What comes out of this is fresh ideas, new approaches, and those things can be worked on some more,” Khosmood said. “Some big titles came out of Global Game Jam.”

Success stories include Johann Sebastian Joust, GlitcHiker, Mushroom 11, Surgeon Simulator, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Höme Improvisåtion and A Normal Lost Phone.

While there is a perception that games don’t matter, Khosmood said, GGJ provides a gateway to STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, for many who might be intimidated by science and math.

Also important to Khosmood is how democracy works — something he began to focus on after joining the Cal Poly faculty in 2011. As research director for the Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, he promotes using technology to solve policy challenges, including Digital Democracy — which created full-transcript, searchable legislative proceedings in California and three other states — and AI4Reporters, which seeks to build an auto-generated artificial intelligence-driven news wire service covering state legislatures.

Foaad speaking
As a graduate student at Cal Poly, Khosmood participated in multiple anti-war events. Here he is speaking at an anti-war rally on Dexter Lawn in 2003.

“This spoke to me directly from my experience at Cal Poly,” said Khosmood, referring to his Mustang Daily experience. “I saw how important news operations were.”

In an era of newsroom cutbacks, the service will help smaller publications provide important coverage of government and policy. Just like his decision to leave industry for school, the project reflects Khosmood’s desire to do more meaningful work.

“I wanted to be part of the solution,” he said.

The Cal Poly College of Engineering understands there has been an enormous amount of turmoil and transition due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). As we continue offering support to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, we also continue providing critical updates as well as college highlights. Ours is a college full of creative and bright engineers and staff. For more information on COVID-19 visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. For more information on how Cal Poly is responding to COVID-19, visit the Cal Poly Coronavirus website Coronavirus website.

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