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Q&A: Respawn's Mohammad Alavi works for greater diversity in game dev

Next year, Respawn's Mohammad Alavi will be coming to GDC 2020 in San Francisco to present a promising Advocacy track talk on "'Apex Legends': Fighting for Character Representation and Diversity" in which he'll discuss the specific roadblocks Respawn faces as it expands Apex Legends' diverse cast of characters.

It's shaping up to be an interesting talk, given that the Apex Legends team has to navigate the hurdles of supporting and updating a live game played by tens of millions of people around the world.

Alavi's own background is equally interesting; a pre-med student who turned down medical school to turn his passion for modding into a full-fledged games career, he recently sat down to chat with us (via email) about his work and what you can look forward to from his talk.

Hey Mohammad, tell us a bit about who you are and your path through the game industry!  

I was born in Iran and fled with my family during the revolution in the early '80s. We were refugees seeking asylum when we immigrated to the US. While I would describe my childhood as happy, my formative years were certainly difficult living in southern Virginia with a name like Mohammad.

I grew up on a steady diet of Atari and Nintendo, and first started making games when I was introduced to Magic. I couldn’t afford the cards, so I just created my own version of the game with art and rules I drew on index cards. I eventually started making my first digital creations with the Duke Nukem 3D level editor. 

I went off to college and studied pre-med, but making video game levels was always my hobby. With the advent of the internet and the explosion of Half-Life mods in the late '90s my passion flourished, but I never considered it an obtainable career.

I got accepted to medical school in 2002, but instead of going I decided to take a risk and follow my dream instead. Two years later I got my first job working on Call of Duty 2, and the rest is history. I’ve essentially been working with the same core group of people for the past 15 years, helping create franchises like Modern Warfare, Titanfall, and Apex Legends

How did your family feel about you going into games instead of medicine? Have you met many other folks in games who have a similar path?

I lied to my parents and told them I didn't get into medical school. I knew there was no other way to convince them that I should make video games instead. They were extremely disappointed when I told them, but by the time I shipped the original Modern Warfare, they were very proud of me. Ultimately they just wanted me to be happy, successful, and self-sufficient. I've never met anyone who took quite the same path I did, but I've met many devs who started in very different careers.

Why did you decide to pitch this talk for GDC 2020?

Diversity in entertainment is something I'm passionate about, and I hope to inspire other devs to advocate for better representation.

The media I consume has greatly affected my outlook on societal norms. I'm grateful for the pioneers in entertainment who broke a lot of barriers to make various lifestyles, cultures, sexual orientations, etc more acceptable.  As a society we've made great strides towards treating each other better, but we still have a long way to go. I feel if given a platform to promote diversity and representation, it's almost my responsibility to do so.  

Also, from a purely self-serving point of view - some of my favorite forms of technology and entertainment were created or crafted by those who would not have had the opportunity decades ago because of their name, the color of their skin, or their sexual orientation. Think of all the great talent we've already lost due to close-mindedness. It would be a shame to deprive ourselves of the next great visionary simply because we didn't offer a society where they could flourish.

Any specific creators or pieces of media you want to shout out as being particularly influential for you?  

James Cameron did an amazing job creating female action heroes in leading roles during an era dominated by machismo. When I found out the main character I was controlling in Crysis was an African-American I was surprised - it caused me to question my own assumptions on why I thought that was odd. I remember the first time I saw two gay men kiss on True Blood I was shocked - now seeing various forms of sexuality on TV is as familiar as breathing. I think the casting of trans actor Hunter Schafer and the writing of the trans character Jules on Euphoria is handled so incredibly well.  

There are far too many influences to keep going and I'm sure there are more that subconsciously affected me that I don't even realize, but the point is they all shaped what I considered socially acceptable.

What do you hope your fellow game makers will get out of your talk?  

I feel we're at a point where I at least don't need to explain the "why" - why diversity and representation in media has great value. But the "how" is still a bit of an unknown.

I didn't appreciate the constant struggle against established systems and ways of thinking that make it difficult to bring greater diversity to entertainment.  There's a reason underrepresented people stay underrepresented, and it wasn't immediately obvious to me. I imagine it's not immediately obvious to many people. I hope my talk sheds some light on what kind of obstacles creators will face and how to overcome them.

Next year GDC 2020 runs from Monday, March 16th through Friday, March 20th. This will be the 34th edition of GDC, and now that registration is officially open, you'll want to take a look at the (ever-expanding) session schedule and your GDC pass options -- register early to lock in the best price!

For more details on GDC 2020 visit the show's official website, or subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitter, or RSS.


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