Gaming

Gaming in colour: uncovering video games’ black pioneers


In the 1970s, in the fledgling days of the video games industry, an engineer named Gerald “Jerry” Lawson designed one of the earliest game consoles, the Channel F, and also led the team that invented the game cartridge, a defining innovation in how games were made and sold. His son, Andersen Lawson, recalls that he was often working on gaming projects in the garage of their family home in Santa Clara, California. “There have been conversations recently about the struggles he might have had that were related to his colour,” he says. “Was it difficult [for him]? Yes, I’m quite certain. But I never heard any grumblings from him. And I’m also certain that he earned his respect … My father was a person of colour and I think that would inspire young people today to jump in and help move the industry along.”

Black people, and especially black women, are still underrepresented in the video games industry. The Independent Game Developers’ Association records that only 2% of US game developers identify as black; in the UK, meanwhile, according to UKIE’s 2020 census of the entire industry, 10% of its workers are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). But black innovators such as Jerry Lawson have been present and influential since the earliest days of the video games industry – and there is not enough recognition for their achievements.

Jerry Lawson after retirement.
Jerry Lawson after retirement. Photograph: Courtesy the Lawson family

Lawson was featured in Netflix’s High Score documentary series on the history of video games last year. Born in New York in 1940, he developed a strong interest in electronics during his youth, when he often fixed his neighbours’ small appliances as a hobby. This influenced his decision to become an engineer, and after moving to California, he became a member of Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist collective that included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak among its members. It was his work as an engineer at San Jose-based Fairchild Semiconductor, though, that was truly pioneering. As a side project, he created a coin-op arcade game called Demolition Derby, and as a result he was approached by his bosses to become the lead engineer in the company’s new gaming division. He died from complications of diabetes in 2011, aged 70.

After moving on from Fairchild in 1980, Lawson founded Video Soft, which created games for the Atari 2600. The games were never publicly released, however, and following the notorious North American video game crash of 1983, he shut up shop in 1984 and worked as a consulting engineer thereafter. “Another company had the idea for the console but it was Fairchild that commercialised it,” says Andersen Lawson. “My dad was the person responsible for putting the team together … and they were able to achieve something that has been long since forgotten.”

Lawson’s Demolition Derby arcade game.
Lawson’s Demolition Derby arcade game. Photograph: ArcadeImages/Alamy

New York-born Ed Smith, meanwhile, is a retired engineer who helped develop APF Electronics’ Imagination Machine, a hybrid console and home computer system. Companies such as APF expanded into gaming in the 70s and early 80s, providing opportunities for talented engineers. “As a black person, it was more about having the opportunity to be gainfully employed, no matter what area of work I was doing,” Smith tells me. “I had a child at a young age and the biggest thing for me was to get a good job. Luckily, I got into the field of technology and that was the point from which everything else just flowed.”

As well as engineering, his work on the machine included developing schematic diagrams and game testing. Smith’s innovative work at APF was deeply influential to future generations, but the company itself did not withstand the video game crash. “I thought our game would be one of many in the marketplace for years to come… my expectations were that I would be in the industry for the long term; the reality was that after the market tanked, I had to go and work in other areas,” he says.

Eventually, Smith found long-term work in tech sales and retired about two years ago to focus on writing Imagine That!, a book about his life. It recounts his struggles as a young black man in 1960s America. “We had our share of things that caused us to go out and to protest at that time. And it was pretty much the same things that we’re dealing with today – which is unfortunate,” he adds.

Muriel Tramis.
Happy creativity … Muriel Tramis. Photograph: Coktel Vision

A third black innovator from the early days of the video games industry is Muriel Tramis, who is considered to be the first black female video game designer. She lives in France but grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique, in the Lesser Antilles, and began her career as an engineer, programming military drones. She first made her mark on video games while working at French developer Coktel Vision, which she joined in 1986.

Tramis says that this was her happiest time, professionally speaking. “I had found a way to combine IT and literary creativity,” she told the Guardian. “My editor entrusted me with the project management of his adventure games because my engineering training allowed me to understand the technical aspects of development, programming of interactions, and integration of images and sound. He was of Armenian origin and probably for this reason, was very open-minded to diversity.”

Méwilo, the 1987 Atari game that Tramis wrote and directed in collaboration with writer Patrick Chamoiseau, drew on Martinique’s rich history. She says: “When I wanted to create my first script, I wanted it to be in the style of a historical novel. It’s natural that I was inspired by the island’s history, because it was unknown, or poorly known, to the rest of the world and had all the ingredients to create intrigue, drama and mystery. The history of the Antilles is part of the history of France, but this region has known the pain of slavery and colonisation. This is the origin of many traumas which are visible in Creole society and mixed societies in general.”

Tramis left Coktel Vision in 2003, but thinks fondly of her time there. “I liked the period so much that after a detour through virtual reality applied to urban planning, I am about to create my own video game development studio,” she says. “About 30 years after my first game, I am working on a future story.” Her upcoming game features black heroes and shows how skin-colour prejudice is the origin of present-day discrimination.

Tramis’s game Méwilo, 1987, from French developer Coktel Vision.
Tramis’s game Méwilo, 1987, from French developer Coktel Vision. Photograph: Coktel Vision

She was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2018 and says it was an honour not just for herself but for her friends, family, her country and the “sisters” across the world, whom she hopes to inspire. Tramis is keen to encourage more women into technology and science, given the skills shortage in Europe: if women represent 50% of digital users, “they must also be 50% of designers, engineers and technicians”.

Though names like Lawson, Smith and Tramis do sometimes show up in video game history books, the contributions of many other black people in the fledgling days of the industry have gone entirely uncredited. “It parallels what we know about black women’s participation in the space program,” says TreaAndrea Russworm, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, who discusses black women’s contribution to games in her article Replaying Video Game History as a Mixtape of Black Feminist Thought (co-written with fellow black female academic Samantha Blackmon). “The book and film Hidden Figures has made it very obvious to us now that black women were there, but they weren’t headliners: they weren’t the astronauts, but they were the human computers, the labour force that was essential to the program, and they worked for many years unrecognised.

“At the Strong Museum [the US National Museum of Play], where they have archives on Midway and Atari, you can flip through their company newsletters, and you’ll come across photos of black women … they sometimes have a title or a caption saying who they were. But a lot of times, they don’t.”



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