Black History Month: Jerry Lawson, the Father of Modern Gaming

Image source: Museum of Play

Over the past couple of years, the video game industry has attempted to remedy its diversity issues.

Various initiatives have been started to combat racism, address the systemic inequalities that exist in the industry and hire more people of colour. Because of this, we have received an influx of successful games that star people of colour; I’m looking at you, Spider-Man Miles Morales. We have received games made by people of colour, where projects have been infused with some of their cultural experiences to create an authentic representation of said culture. Again, I’m looking at you, Spider-Man: Miles Morales.

But this hopefulness, this want for inclusivity, sadly hasn’t always been the case.

Before the active fight for diversity became what it is today, various professional spaces were often regarded as “boys’ clubs”. White men dominated these boys’ clubs to the point where people of colour within certain industries were far and few between and, in some cases, non-existent. Due to this aggressive stance on exclusivity, a person of colour’s contributions to the video game industry risked either not being heard, blackballed, or erased altogether. One of those people was the incomparable Gerald Anderson “Jerry” Lawson, also known as the “Father of Modern Gaming”.

He was born in Brooklyn, NY, on 1st December 1940 to a father with an insatiable desire for scientific journals and a mother who was president of the PTA at a predominately white school in Queens (where Lawson later become a student himself). Due to his parents encouraging him to chase his scientific interests, Jerry relentlessly studied and explored anything he could to understand better the sciences around him, including chemistry and computing.

“I started very young. I went to school, but I was an amateur radio guy when I was thirteen,” Jerry Lawson said in 2009, during an interview with Vintage Computing and Gaming. “I was always a science guy since I was a kid.”

He would attend college twice but never graduate, resulting in his desire to further self-educate himself in the sciences, especially computing.

By the 1970s, Jerry’s passion for computing set him on a path leading him directly to what became known as Silicon Valley. He landed a job at Fairchild Semiconductor, starting within its sales division. It was there he met Ron Jones, and together they joined the Homebrew Computing Club as the only Black members. During this same period, Lawson would invent an early coin-operated Arcade game called Demolition Derby.

Some years after starting at Fairchild Semiconductor, Lawson was promoted to director of engineering and marketing, and it’s in that role that Lawson would change the video game industry forever. “I was in charge of all the new cartridges, how they were made, and what the games were,” he explained in the same interview with Vintage Computing and Gaming.

The Fairchild Channel F console, the first home console to have interchangeable games cartridges.

While holding this position, Lawson dramatically altered how business and ideas were handled at the company and allowed for a more creative approach to developing and experimenting with products. During a time when home consoles were just a mere blip in the imaginations, Lawson worked to make this a reality. Equipped with a team of other forward-thinking individuals, Lawson assisted in developing the Fairchild Channel F.

A ground-breaking home console, the Fairchild Channel F was the first console that allowed gamers the ability to change the games being played by way of interchangeable cartridges. If you’re a gamer, you know that this would set in motion a path of innovation and evolution from Atari, SEGA and Nintendo – and later Microsoft and Sony – as they all dabbled in the form of interchangeable game tech.

Unfortunately, despite leading the development, Lawson would go mostly uncredited in his innovation role as the other team members received credit for the industry-changing invention. It wasn’t until recently that Jerry Lawson was given the proper credit for his contributions to transforming the video game industry. In 2011, the legend was honoured as a video game industry champion by the International Game Developers Association (IDGA).

Sadly, the world would then lose a giant just 30 days after being honoured; Jerry Lawson passed away from complications of Diabetes in April 2011 at the age of 70.

Representation matters. With gamers becoming more diverse than ever before, the video game industry needs to place qualified people of colour, like Jerry Lawson, in roles and positions that can work to shift these spaces into true beacons of inclusivity. Just think of all the Black boys and girls who grew up without knowing that there was someone who looked like them that made Super Mario 64 possible through innovative tech, or the fact that they too could see themselves in a position similar to Lawson’s.

But it’s okay; actions of his breakthrough reverberate through the lineage of his people and other people of colour as they carry on the baton of change.

Natasha Broomfield-Reid, an equality, diversity and inclusion trainer and founder of Diverse Matters, stated something important during an interview with last year: “There’s so much research out there that shows that the more diversity you have, in particular race diversity, the more creative and innovative you are.” Lawson was one of the first prime examples of this, but I assure you, he won’t be the last.

Happy Black History Month.