Black History 365: Gerald “Jerry” Lawson

Thursday December 1, 2022 interactive Google Doodle honors Jerry Lawson, a pioneer of modern gaming

Anyone who goes online Thursday December 1 can stop by the Google homepage for a special treat: A set of create-your-own video games inspired by the man who helped make interactive gaming possible.

Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, who died in 2011, would have turned 82 on Dec. 1. He led the team that developed the first home video gaming system with interchangeable cartridges, paving the way for future systems like Atari and Super Nintendo.

Lawson’s achievements were particularly notable considering he was one of very few Black engineers working in the tech industry in the 1970s. Yet, as his children told Google, “due to a crash in the video game market, our father’s story became a footnote in video-game history.”

Recent years have ushered in new efforts to recognize Lawson: He is memorialized at the World Video Game Hall of Fame in New York, and the University of Southern California created an endowment fund in his name to support underrepresented students wishing to pursue degrees in game design and computer science.

Thursday’s Google Doodle is another such effort. It features games designed by three guest artists, all of whom are people of color: Lauren Brown, Davionne Gooden and Momo Pixel.

Users first begin by maneuvering an animated Lawson through a path marked with milestones from his own life, and from there they can select more games to play. Each has its own aesthetic, aim and set of editable features — so people can build their own game, channeling the spirit of innovation that Lawson embodied.

In a Google video explaining the Doodle, Anderson Lawson said he hopes young people will be inspired by the games and the man behind them.

“When people play this Doodle, I hope they’re inspired to be imaginative,” he said. “And I hope that some little kid somewhere that looks like me and wants to get into game development, hearing about my father’s story makes them feel like they can.”

Lawson was an inspiration in the field and to his family

Gerald Lawson’s life was “all about science,” as his son put it. He tinkered with electronics starting at an early age, and built his own radio station — using recycled materials — out of his room in Jamaica, Queens.

After attending Queens College and City College of New York, Lawson drove across the country to Palo Alto, where he joined Fairchild Semiconductor — starting as an engineering consultant and working his way up to director of engineering and marketing for its video game department.

Lawson helped lead the development of the Fairchild Channel F system, the first video game system console that used interchangeable game cartridges, an eight-way digital joystick and a pause menu. It was released in 1976.

“He was creating a coin-operated video game using the Fairchild microprocessor, which later with a team of people led to the creation of the gaming cartridge and the channel F system,” Anderson Lawson said. The “F” stood for “Fun.”

In 1980 Lawson started his own company, VideoSoft, which was one of the first Black-owned video game development companies. It created software for the Atari 2600, which helped popularize the interchangeable cartridge system that Lawson’s Fairchild team created.

He continued to consult engineering and video game companies until his death at age 70.

And while Lawson may be known as the father of the video game cartridge, his kids also remember him as a dad who nurtured and inspired them.

In a 2021 conversation with StoryCorps, Karen and Anderson Lawson recalled that some of their earliest memories were playing games that their dad’s team designed — joking that they only later realized he was putting them to work as testers and bug-catchers.

“If everyone was going right, he’d figure out a good reason to go left,” said Anderson, who cites his father as the inspiration behind his own decision to pursue computer science. “That was just him. He created his own destiny.”

And now Google Doodle players can create their own destinies — or at the very least, games — in his honor.