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USC fund for Black and Indigenous students honors Black engineer who changed video games

·4 min read
Jerry Lawson, who oversaw the creation of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.'s Channel F home video game system, the first to use interchangeable game cartridges; shown here in a scanned photo from Black Enterprise magazine.
Jerry Lawson, who oversaw the creation of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.'s Channel F home video game system, the first to use interchangeable game cartridges; shown here in a scanned photo from Black Enterprise magazine.

An oft-forgotten pioneer in video game history, Jerry Lawson, the Black engineer who helped kickstart home game consoles, is being honored with an academic endowment.

USC Games at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, announced Thursday it has established The Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund for Black and Indigenous Students, an initiative to increase minority representation in games and tech. Recipients will be known as Lawson Scholars.

Take-Two Interactive Software, maker of games such as "Grand Theft Auto V" and "Red Dead Redemption," made what the company described as "a very significant endowment" to create the fund.

Jim Huntley, a USC Interactive Media & Games professor and head of marketing, said he got the idea for the endowment during the summer 2020 protests and the school's deans of cinematic arts and engineering approved. "We felt strongly that it should honor Mr. Lawson since it will support Black and Indigenous gaming students for generations, and is only made possible with the shared vision and support from Take-Two Interactive," Huntley said in a statement.

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Remembering a game changer

Lawson, an engineer and designer at Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. in Silicon Valley, led a team that created a game system using Fairchild's F8 microprocessor and storing games on cartridges. "A lot of people in the industry swore that a microprocessor couldn’t be used in video games and I knew better," Lawson said during a speech at the 2005 Classic Gaming Expo in San Francisco viewable on YouTube.

Some of the artifacts relating to the career of Jerry Lawson, who oversaw the creation of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.'s Channel F home video game system, the first to use interchangeable game cartridges
Some of the artifacts relating to the career of Jerry Lawson, who oversaw the creation of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.'s Channel F home video game system, the first to use interchangeable game cartridges

The Fairchild Video Entertainment System, later named the Channel F (for "Fun"), began selling in 1976 – a year ahead of the Atari 2600 – establishing the concept of a console that could play an unlimited number of games. That foundation led to today's global video game market, which is projected to surpass $189 billion in 2021, according to research firm Newzoo.

“The endowment honors Mr. Lawson and helps Black and Indigenous students pursue their passions and careers in game design and allows us to also support one of the best academic programs in the United States,” Take-Two Chairman and CEO Strauss Zelnick told USA TODAY. “He never got the recognition that he deserved, but I’m very happy to play a small part in honoring his memory.”

The fund is positioned as the "starting point" and serves as "a call to action" for the game and tech industries, Huntley said. "The reason it isn’t called the 'Take-Two Lawson Fund' is we really want more industry partners to participate and work with us to build something that is beyond a year or two, to something generational," he said. "If there are other companies interested in participating in the fund and investing in the future of diversity, equity and inclusion in games and tech, we’d love to have you join."

Take-Two previously established a Game Design scholarship program with New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2019. Among the organizations the company partners with are Black Girls Code, Games for Change, Girls Make Games and Gay Gaming Professionals. And members of its game development teams including Rockstar Games, 2K and Private Division regularly act as mentors to students of varying ages and programs.

Video game companies should be supportive of a diverse and inclusive workforce because the result is better games, Zelnick said. “We believe that real progress and diversity throughout the entertainment business can be achieved by supporting the education and training of the next generation of creators," he said. "If we are successful in that endeavor, then we will help to create a larger pool of talent to eventually be recruited by Take-Two or our competitors."

In addition to helping more Black students and students of color enter the industry, the fund also likely results in more knowing Lawson's story and contribution.

Huntley said he only learned about Lawson 11 years ago while working at game publisher THQ. "I was shocked I had been doing marketing for 25 years and had never heard of him," he told USA TODAY. "The fact a Black innovator started and helped form the commercial video game industry, and I hadn’t heard of him, floored me."

The Lawson family – Catherine Lawson, daughter Karen, son Anderson and grandson Mason – said in a statement to USA TODAY: "We are humbled to know that his legacy will continue to inspire students, enrolled in the USC Games program, for generations to come. One of my father’s greatest dreams was to inspire young people to be curious about science and technology. This endowment champions his vision.”

Information about the Lawson Endowment Fund will be part of the USC Games Expo 2021, which streams live starting at 3 p.m. EDT/noon PDT on May 15. The show will feature over 70 games made entirely by students and teams who collaborated across the globe.

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USC endowment for Black, Indigenous students honors video game pioneer

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