Video games have been around for a long time, and they’ve continued to develop over the years into cinematic masterpieces.
However, at the forefront of the games industry are pioneers who created the building blocks that helped pave the way for what we see today.
Without game cartridges, we wouldn’t have evolved to modern-day consoles and disc-based games. Without arcade machines, we wouldn’t have multiplayer games.
And, without the contributions of the inspiring creators we’ve highlighted below, the modern-day video game industry wouldn’t be where it is today.
So, in honour of Black History Month, here are 4 Black creators that you should know, who have made a tremendous impact on the games industry and continue to inspire us.
laying the foundation for modern-day games
Gerald "JERRY" Lawson
Considered the ‘Father of the video game cartridge’, New York-born Jerry Lawson first left his mark on the industry at age 30.
One of the few Black engineers in the gaming industry during the 1970s, Lawson created the classic arcade game, Demolition Derby — in his garage.
During his time at Fairchild Channel F, Jerry worked as an Electronic Engineer. He designed the Channel F video game console, which led to the creation of the first commercial video game cartridge.
Thanks to the work done by Jerry Lawson, the advent of the video game console was born.
Atari followed his lead and released the Atari 2600 a year after the Fairchild Channel F.
While the Atari saw more success than Lawson’s home console creation, his work paved the way for this type of system and developments in microprocessor-driven games.
In 1980, Lawson left Fairchild to form his own company - Video Soft - which developed games for the Atari 2600. It was also the first Black-owned video game development company, a huge feat, especially in the 1980s.
Video Soft went on to develop nearly 12 Atari titles and grossed $400k (in 1982), but unfortunately as competition grew and the video game market began to crash, Lawson decided to close shop on Video Soft.
In 2010, 6 finished and unfinished games created by Video Soft were released. See them for yourself.
Though he passed in 2011, his legacy lives on, most recently within the Netflix documentary High Score where his children recount their father’s past, his love of technology, and his passion for inventing.
Jerry Lawson was also inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York. Learn more about Jerry’s legacy.
Considered to be the first Black female video game designer, Muriel Tramis made significant contributions to the early days of video games.
Having grown up on Martinique in the Caribbean, Muriel broke down barriers in more ways than one. Her early career began as an Engineer, and she later joined Coktel Vision — a French game developer — in 1986. Thus began her journey into video games.
Tramis has fond memories of working with Coktel Vision, having been empowered to oversee the development of Méwilo, a 1987 Atari game. This 1st-person point & click adventure was influenced by Tramis’ background, and she oversaw the project from a perspective of both her IT engineering knowledge and literary creativity.
In speaking with The Guardian, Muriel recounts:
“My editor entrusted me with the project management of his adventure games because my engineering training allowed me to understand the technical aspects of development, programming of interactions, and integration of images and sound. He was of Armenian origin and probably for this reason, was very open-minded to diversity."
Following Méwilo, Muriel went on to develop, write, and direct a number of successful games across different platforms with Coktel Vision, including Lost In Time, Gobliiins, Geisha, Urban Runner, and Fascination.
Muriel also worked on Freedom: Rebels In The Darkness, an action and Strategy game released in 1988. The story is set in her home island of Martinique, and follows a slave who leads the charge to escape from a sugar plantation.
A revolutionary story for its time, Freedom: Rebels In The Darkness can be revisited and played at OnlineClassicGames.
Notably, in 2018, Muriel Tramis was appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honor (Légion d’honneur) in France, making her the first woman and second game designer to ever receive this high-ranking merit.
These days, Tramis continues travelling to advocate for and speak with young women, encouraging them to pursue careers in science and technology. She is also working on a new game called Remembrance, pulling from her rich history and culture to explore the abolition of slavery and colour prejudice.
edward lee smith
Ed Smith was a pioneer in the games industry and one of the first Black engineers to work on video games. Best known for his work on the Imagination Machine, Ed helped bring the first hybrid video game console and personal computer to a consumer market.
Born in New York, Smith grew up in a poor neighbourhood and faced racism and segregation from an early age. Despite the hand he was dealt, Smith, from an early age, had an intense curiosity about how things worked.
Ed quickly taught himself how to repair basic electrical appliances, continually upgrading his knowledge and skills, which eventually led him into a career in tech - and a consistent focus on making a better life for himself and his family.
Smith studied Marketing and Computer Science before becoming a traffic control tech at Marbelite. With the boom of microprocessor-based circuit designs, Smith’s job sent him to vocational classes to learn how to work with microprocessor circuits.
His next career venture took him right into video games. Ed began working at APF Electronics as an Engineer in Manhattan, making his dreams a reality with help from the man who hired him.
Despite being the early 1970s and Smith having grown up in one of New York’s most impoverished neighbourhoods, “race never played a part during the hiring process”, which allowed Ed to contribute vastly to the company and make history in the games industry.
With his passion for tech, experience with electronics, and education in microprocessors, Ed was the perfect co-designer for the MP1000. He designed the hardware and built prototypes for this cartridge-based game console.
Growing up in a poor neighbourhood, Smith was all-too-familiar with the dangers and lack of opportunity that come with it. Because of this, he aimed to make a difference by bringing unused consoles set aside by the company back to his hometown.
In an interview with FastCompany, Smith recalls:
“Every other day I would take a console back home to the neighbourhood and give it to someone in the projects that I lived in. So, when I was done, there were probably a good 50 people that I knew in the projects playing the MP1000."
Not long after, Ed Smith began work on the Imagination Machine. This was the world’s first combined home video game system and personal computer, which reached the shelves of large merchandisers such as Sears.
He designed and built every part of the Imagination Machine, a transformative innovation for the industry, and turned Ed Smith into the first APF microprocessor specialist. The console even came with a game called Rocket Patrol, available on every machine.
All these years later, Ed continues to be an important figure in the games industry. He is a consultant, speaker, and expert in the industry, and is an advocate for STEM education.
You can learn more about Ed Smith in his self-written biography, Imagine That!.
With a relatively more modern introduction to becoming an influential figure within the video game industry, Tanya DePass’ work unknowingly began on October 17, 2014 when she Tweeted, “I need diverse games!”
A comment made out of frustration quickly turned into a game-changing (literally) career.
Tanya has been playing games for most of her life, having started with arcade games and staying up-to-date with modern gaming. Not just involved with games as a hobby, she also began streaming on Twitch, amassing more than 20,000 followers with her tabletop RPG gameplay, including as a cast member of Rivals of Waterdeep, an actual play D&D show.
Tanya DePass is also a writer, journalist, and award-nominated editor. She founded and is the Editor-in-Chief for the podcast Fresh Out of Tokens, which “addresses issues of diversity, inclusion, intersectionality, and feminism in gaming”, and she is also a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) speaker, consultant, and advocate.
Growing up, Tanya saw firsthand the changes within the games industry and just how far technology advanced over the years with regards to computing systems, video game consoles, and graphics.
However, within that time, something DePass noticed even more was the use of the same character archetypes over and over again. This severe lack of representation punctuated itself each year with every new game release.
On that day in 2014, after watching an announcement for some of the year’s biggest games coming to life, she made the Tweet that went viral.
This was the catalyst for the founding of her non-profit organization, I Need Diverse Games.
According to their website, I Need Diverse Games (INDG):
“...seeks to bring projects, works and research by marginalized folks to light. We also seek to discuss, analyze and critique identity and culture in video games through a multi-faceted lens rooted in intersectionality."
Today, INDG “hosts conferences, funds trips to gaming conventions and publishes articles centered around diversity in the gaming industry”, according to In the Know. They work hard to increase representation not only in the industry from a career standpoint, but also in who we see when we boot up our games.
propelling the industry forward
We celebrate the work that these incredible individuals have done for the games industry, from helping develop the building blocks for technological advancements in video games, to encompassing the diversity and representation we see in games today.
By learning more about the work that these individuals have done, and celebrating them during Black History Month and beyond, we are reminded of the power and long-lasting changes that one individual can have on an expansive industry such as this.