Video Game Development

RIP Jerry Lawson

Last week one of the pioneers of the gaming industry passed away. This man engineered the modern console. It was only in March that he was honoured by the International Game Developers Association.

And yet you probably never heard of Jerry Lawson, the creator of the first cartridge-based videogame console.

Something that set Jerry apart from most people working in the gaming industry is that he was black.

Jerry was born in 1940 and grew up in a federal housing project in Queens, New York. As a kid, he operated a ham radio; as a teenager he earned money by repairing his neighbors’ television sets.

In the 1970s, living and working in Silicon Valley, he was the only African-American to join the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early hackers that included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

He went on to design the Channel F console for Fairchild Semiconductors, the first gaming machine to use interchangeable cartridges.

 And he went on to become the industry's best kept secret.

The gaming industry certainly has liberal roots. Take Atari for example, Nolan Bushnell had a beer tap in his office and employed a bunch of hippies to assemble arcade machines. When Atari was sold to Warner and the technology of Battlezone was to be used for military purposes, some developers refused to contribute to the project.

In the early days Apple had countercultural sensibilities about it, just look at the 1984 commercial.

But despite this liberal outlook, the gaming/ computer industry dominantly favoured white male subjects. This was the origin of the industry – young educated "hackers" (think of Space War and its creators or Ralph Baer).

It took decades to overcome this hardcore technicity mindset, the Wii was the first console to successfully challenge this outlook. While gaming reaches new demographics, it'd be interesting to look into who is actually responsible for its contents.

If my students are anything to go by, games are still predominantly made by white men.

Video games might have a comparatively liberal background, but their (Western) history is almost exclusively Caucasian at the expense of other ethnics.

They represent a culture that makes it difficult for other influences to assert themselves and perpetuate the ideal gamer of the 21st century as likely being male – and white.

All this make Jerry's achievements even more impressive. Hopefully he will receive the recognition he deserves!