Google/Screenshot by NPR
Anyone who tunes in on Thursday (and that includes you, if you’re reading this) can stop by Google’s homepage for a special treat: a set of build-your-own video games inspired by the man who contributed to make interactive play possible.
Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, who died in 2011, would have been 82 on December 1. He led the team that developed the first home video game system with interchangeable cartridges, paving the way for future systems like the Atari and Super Nintendo.
Lawson’s accomplishments were particularly notable given that 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 collapse of the video game market, our father’s story has become 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 has established an endowment fund in his name to support underrepresented students. wishing to get degrees in game design. and computing.
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 start by maneuvering an animated Lawson through a path marked by milestones in his own life, and from there they can select more games to play. Each has its own aesthetic, purpose, and moddable feature set – so people can create their own game, channeling the spirit of innovation that Lawson embodies.
Google/Screenshot by NPR
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 get inspired to be imaginative,” he said. “And I hope that a little kid somewhere who looks like me who wants to get into game development, hearing about my dad’s story makes them feel like they can.”
Lawson was an inspiration on the pitch and to his family
Gerald Lawson’s life was “entirely devoted to science”, as his son put it. He tinkered with electronics from an early age and built his own radio station – using recycled materials – in his bedroom in Jamaica, Queens.
After attending Queens College and the City College of New York, Lawson crossed 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 came out in 1976.
“He was creating a coin-operated video game using the Fairchild microprocessor, which later, along with a team of people, led to the creation of the game cartridge and the F-channel system,” Anderson Lawson said. The “F” stood for “Fun”.
Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
In 1980, Lawson started his own company, VideoSoft, which was one of the first black-owned video game development companies. He created software for the Atari 2600, which helped popularize the system of interchangeable cartridges created by Lawson’s Fairchild team.
He continued to consult with engineering and video game companies until his death at age 70.
And although Lawson is known as the father of the video game cartridge, his children also remember him as a father who nurtured and inspired them.
In a 2021 chat with StoryCorps, Karen and Anderson Lawson recalled that some of their earliest memories were of playing games made by their dad’s team – joking that they didn’t realize until later that he put them to work as testers and bug catchers.
“If everyone went right, they would find a good reason to go left,” said Anderson, who cites his father as the inspiration behind his own decision to pursue computer science. “It 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.
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