Black History Month: Major Milestones From African Americans In The Gaming Community
In honor of Black History Month, XP Sports is shining a light on major milestones from African Americans in the gaming community. While African Americans have been and remain underrepresented in game development professions, the gaming industry wouldn’t be what it is without the contributions of pioneering black engineers and game designers like Gerald “Jerry” Lawson and Ed Smith. In fact, some have even dubbed Lawson as the “Father of Modern Gaming.” So, let’s take a closer look at some of the major milestones from African Americans in the gaming community.
The Creation Of Demolition Derby
Jerry Lawson joined Fairchild Semiconductor in San Francisco as an applications engineering consultant within their sales division in 1970. While living and working in Silicon Valley, Lawson created the early arcade game Demolition Derby in his garage. He completed it in 1975 using Fairchild’s F8 microprocessors, making Demolition Derby one of the earliest microprocessor-driven games.
The First Cartridge-Based Home Video Game Console
In the mid-1970s, Lawson became Chief Hardware Engineer and director of engineering and marketing for Fairchild’s video game division. He led the team that designed the Fairchild Channel F console, which was released in 1976. The Fairchild Channel F was the first home video game console with removable game cartridges. This was a revolutionary development because most game systems had the game programming built into the game hardware, which could not be removed back then.
The Channel F console featured a wide variety of controls, including a unique 8-way joystick designed by Lawson, as well a ‘pause’ button, which was a first for a home video game console. While the Channel F was not considered commercially successful in its day, the cartridge approach was popularized when the Atari 2600 was released in 1977.
Ed Smith, one of the first African-American electronics engineers in the video game industry, worked on APF’s first cartridge-based video game system around 1977. He took the lead on designing the prototype for the console, drawing from a wide range of inspirations. With contributions from APF’s design team and engineers in Hong Kong, he developed the console’s electronic design. The MP1000 launched commercially in mid-1978 and sold well at first, even though it received mixed reviews from critics.
The Imagination Machine
APF debuted its personal computer, the Imagination Machine, at the 1979 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. APF’s marketing materials emphasized the Imagination Machine’s potential as a creative tool for music, art, language, education, and programming.
“What the firm showed off at CES was a large off-white computer base unit with an integrated full-sized, full-stroke keyboard and a built-in cassette tape drive for data storage,” according to Fast Company. “The base unit and console would be mated via a J-shaped connector that plugged into the MP1000’s cartridge port. With the two units combined, the Imagination Machine relied on the Motorola 6800 CPU in the MP1000 and added an additional 8K of RAM, making for 9K of memory in total.”
Since the Imagination Machine was a fully programmable microcomputer, which could be somewhat tricky for people to operate, Smith’s boss changed his role to technical specialist as a way for him to talk to people in-person about the Imagination Machine, which he co-designed. Smith was so successful pitching the Imagination Machine that he decided to switch from engineering to sales in order to sell the machines that he helped build. He traveled the country in 1980 showing off the Imagination Machine to executives at department stores and computer retail chains. However, Smith left the video game field when APF Electronics ceased operations in 1981.
The First African American-Owned Video Game Design Company
In the early 1980s, Lawson left Fairchild and founded Videosoft – the first African American-owned video game design company. Lawson’s video game development company made software for the Atari 2600, which had displaced the Channel F as the top system in the market. Lawson ran Videosoft for about five years before it closed. Then he started taking on consulting work.
“Although the company closed in the wake of the 1983 video game industry crash, Lawson’s efforts blazed a trail for future black game developers such as Antonio ‘Tony’ Barnes (Strike series, Medal of Honor, and Strider), Gordon Bellamy (Madden NFL Series), Morgan Gray (Tomb Raider series), Marcus Montgomery (Rock Band 3 and Zombie Gunship Survival), Felice Standifer (ATV Offroad Fury series), Lisette Titre-Montgomery (Dance Central 3 and South Park: The Fractured But Whole), and Karisma Williams (Kinect Adventures! and Forza Motorsport 6),” according to The Strong National Museum of Play.
Lawson Honored As An Industry Pioneer
By The International Game Developers Association (IGDA)
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) honored Lawson as an industry pioneer for his work on the game cartridge concept in March 2011.
Lawson Honored With The ID@Xbox Gaming Heroes Award
At The 21st Independent Games Festival
On March 20, 2019, Lawson was honored with the ID@Xbox Gaming Heroes award at the 21st Independent Games Festival for leading the development of the first cartridge-based game console.
The World Video Game Hall of Fame
The World Video Game Hall of Fame at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York has a permanent display of Lawson’s contributions to the gaming industry. “However, not all contributions to the video game industry show up in game credits,” according to The Strong National Museum of Play. “Black women and men have also performed a variety of roles in the industry, including in video game arcades, in corporate boardrooms, and on assembly lines that can be challenging to document.”