Though often overlooked, Black pioneers in technology, design, and engineering have shaped the world of modern gaming as we know it. This year, in honor of Black History Month, we’d like to shine a spotlight on five Black trailblazers who have transformed the way we play.
Gerald "Gerry" Lawson - Inventor of the Video Game Cartridge
One of the most prolific pioneers of the early gaming industry, Gerald “Gerry” Lawson changed the way we play games forever – by developing the world’s first video game cartridge.
In 1970, Lawson began his career as an engineering consultant with Fairfield, an electronics manufacturing company specializing in transistors and integrated circuits. There, he worked on the revolutionary Fairfield Channel F, the first home entertainment system to utilize swappable cartridges instead of built-in games. While the Channel F did not receive widespread commercial success, it would lay the groundwork for consoles like Atari, NES, Intellivision, and more.
Lawson would continue his legacy of Black representation in gaming when in 1980, he would leave Fairfield to start Video Soft, one of the first Black-owned game development companies.
Take-Two Interactive, our parent company, proudly supports USC Games and the Gerald A. Lawson Fund. The Gerald A. Lawson Fund provides support for students from underrepresented communities who wish to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in game design or computer science from USC’s prestigious program. Take-Two’s contribution supports a student enrolled in USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering’s CS Games Program.
Dr. Gladys Mae West - The “Hidden Figure” of GPS
While not a game designer or engineer, Dr. Gladys Mae West’s role in the development of global positioning systems (GPS) has had a lasting impact on the world of modern gaming: helping to make location-based games that rely on GPS possible.
From a young age, Dr. West was determined to pursue a life of education. In 1952, she obtained her Masters degree and graduated Valedictorian in the universally-male field of mathematics at Virginia State University. Following university, West would become the second Black woman ever hired and one of only four Black employees at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia.
During her career, West’s award-winning astronomical research, analysis, and calculations of satellite data would become the foundations for the first geodesic model of the Earth, and the basis of modern GPS.
Ed Smith - Developer of the Imagination Machine
The 1970s saw rapid growth in the home device entertainment industry. Ed Smith, among the first Black engineers to work on early video games and PCs, helped lead the charge.
In his autobiography, Imagine That!, Ed details the hardships of growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Brooklyn, and how a love of learning and technology motivated him to pursue a career in engineering.
Hired by APF Electronics in 1976 to create calculators, Smith would soon become lead on more ambitious projects, including developing the next generation of gaming systems. His work would include development of the M1000 cartridge-based gaming system and add-on expansion module, the Imagination Machine: the very first combination video game console and home computer system.
Alice Washington - Atari’s Coin-Op Division’s Wonderwoman
Some of the most under-recognized pioneers in the early gaming industry were those in manufacturing roles, like Alice “Wonderwoman” Washington.
Washington was among many anonymous Black workers behind-the-scenes of Atari’s coin-operated arcade manufacturing plants of the 1980s. Her work installing printed circuit boards (PCBs) within the game cabinets allowed the machines to function smoothly and properly. Without the work of Washington and other unsung heroes in assembly, many of the iconic arcade titles we know and love would never have been possible.
Muriel Tramis - The First Black Female Game Designer
French game designer Muriel Tramis is considered to be the world’s first Black female game designer.
Born in Martinique in 1958, Tramis was a computer engineer before she was a video game designer, receiving her training from the Institut Supérieur d’Electronique de Paris. Muriel would go on to join Coktel Vision in 1986, a French game studio best known for its educational and adventure titles. During her 17 years at the company, Tramis would be the creative force behind some of the company’s best-selling titles.
Much of her work, including her first game Méwilo, explored social and political themes of imperialism and slavery, largely inspired by her own life and ancestry in Martinique.
These five early pioneers are just some of many talented Black individuals who have made lasting contributions to gaming. It’s an important time of year to recognize that gaming history is also Black history, but important all year round to acknowledge that our industry has more strides to make in diversity, equity, and inclusion.