Gaming is a billion-dollar industry (and counting) that often neglects or shuts out Black gamers. Though overlooked, Black developers, engineers, programmers, and gamers have skillfully contributed to the business. High-profile founders like Dennis Matthews and popular streaming gamers like Swagg continue to bring visibility to the Black gaming community, but before them, who laid the foundation? Let’s take a moment to salute the three Black pioneers who helped shape the modern gaming industry.
Gerald “Jerry” Lawson
As a kid, Queens, New York native Jerry Lawson nurtured his love for electronics. He repaired TVs as a teen and made walkie-talkies. He eventually became an engineer and designer at Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp’s gaming division in the ’70s. There, Lawson led the team that invented the Fairchild Channel F (“F” is for fun), the first-ever video game console that allowed gamers to play several different games on one system via the first video game cartridge. It took some convincing from Lawson for the powers-that-be to believe Fairchild’s F8 microprocessor could be used for gaming, but his genius would ultimately influence future systems, including Nintendo and Atari.
“A lot of people in the industry swore that a microprocessor couldn’t be used in video games,” Lawson said during a 2005 speech. “I knew better.”
Before Reggie Fils-Aimé left his post as the first Black person to serve as president and COO of Nintendo of America, he was a celebrated pioneer for some of the gaming industry’s best-selling systems. The son of Haitian immigrants, Fils-Aimé helmed Nintendo from 2006 to 2019 and helped guide the development and launch of the Wii, the 3DS, and the Switch. Outside of hardware and software, Fils-Aimé also helped impact the industry-wide problem of “crunch time,” a stage in game development when developers are overworked in order to meet the release deadline.
“I believe the best way to lead them is through example,” he told VICE. “And it’s not only on work-life balance. It’s issues like diversity and inclusion…So that’s why I have a diverse senior management team. That’s why as a black man leading a Japanese company, I feel good about the things that we do to deal with higher-order issues and to deal with them in a way that models positive behavior.”
Dr. Gladys Mae West
Lovers of location-based games like Pokémon Go and Minecraft have the now-retired Dr. Gladys Mae West to thank. The brilliant mathematician and Virginia State University graduate began her career in the US Navy. In the ’50s and ’60s, she first served as a programmer working with satellite data that would help her develop the Global Positioning System (GPS). Today, her pioneering technology has helped the popularity of GPS-powered entertainment, but she remains humble about her historic contributions.
“When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?,'” she told Good Blck News. “‘You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’”