If it feels like we’ve talked at length about how just important Black people are to the video game industry, it’s only because there are still many people who need to learn this lesson. Despite what lackluster representation may suggest, Black folks form a vital part of the culture both as players and creators. In fact, the video game industry as we know it would not exist without the groundbreaking work of African-American engineer Jerry Lawson.
You’d think a pioneer as peerless as Lawson would be as famous as Shigeru Miyamoto or Gabe Newell by now, but only recently has Jerry’s story entered into the mainstream. That’s thanks to writers, journalists, and documentarians determined to celebrate Jerry’s legacy now, since we failed to appreciate him for most of his life.
In this episode of PCMag’s video game show, The Pop-OffThe Pop-Off, author Anthony Frasier joins us to talk about his new audiobook, Raising the Game, which sheds light on Lawson’s untold story. Watch the interview or read the transcript below (edited for clarity).
Jordan Minor: So, first just give us a little background on who you are and what you do?
Anthony Frasier: I am the CEO of ABF Creative. We are a multicultural podcast network and production company. So, we like to use data-driven approaches and production to make podcasts for ourselves, but then also for some of your favorite brands.
Right: Anthony Frasier.
JM: We’re here to talk about your recently released audiobook, Raising the Game: The Untold Story of Jerry LawsonRaising the Game: The Untold Story of Jerry Lawson. The untold story is that Jerry Lawson is this engineer, this hidden figure, this founding father of video games, and he is an African-American. He’s a Black guy. Now that some people know about him and his contributions to this industry, you’ve created this awesome audiobook explaining who he is to even more people. What inspired you to pursue this project?
AF: In 2011, I actually traveled to Silicon Valley. My first day there, I saw a flyer on the ground for a memorial service honoring the late Jerry Lawson. I said, wait, who’s this? I just dug deep. He’s the inventor of the video game cartridge. And that stuck with me. I actually ended up going to that memorial service and learning so much about him.
Then I went home and did more research. I saw that there was this big debate over whether or not he invented the video game cartridge. It was just always this big question mark on who really invented it.
Who was Jerry Lawson? I saw that there were a lot of people from that same era who became huge and had all these different accolades. But for some reason his story kind of faded to the back. It’s ironic that he is the only Black man who was part of all of this, too. That really inspired me to dig deep and find out. The audiobook is really a kickoff that challenges anyone else to go out and find more on him. I see it as the beginning of something much bigger.
JM: You mentioned that when you first heard about him, and first started researching, it was the year that he died, unfortunately. In recent years, there’s been this renewed interest in him, but we have to rely on secondary sources. We can’t interview him, but you were able to talk to his two adult children. What was their reaction when you approached them and told them that you want to do this project?
AF: They were very open [and] honored that I wanted to tell their father’s story. There were a lot of people reaching out to them, and my pitch to them was like, “Hey, I want to do the most anyone has done.” Then hopefully that inspires more people to do more after me.
I remember Netflix [High Score] came out with something, and it was like a nice 15-minute, 13-minute segment, but it wasn’t digging really deep. I really wanted to talk to not just his children, but even more people. I really wanted to know this man and his career. Just from that alone, they were very receptive.
JM: I listened to the whole thing. I loved it. But I’m curious about something. There are just so many fascinating little bits and asides, how you talk to these other retired and older executives in the games industry who worked with Jerry in the past. You mentioned that some of them seemed to forget who he was or certain details about him. That surprised me.
AF: John McAfee! Jerry’s son was like, “Hey, John McAfee used to call the office, used to be in the garage with my father.” He used to call the house almost all the time, and then when I reached out to John McAfee, John McAfee actually threatened me. John McAfee was like, “You send one more email, I am going to sue you.” His wife even sent a separate email saying, “I’m begging you, please, don’t email John. Please don’t, I beg of you.” And I’m just like, wow, is it that serious?
JM: That’s journalism. That’s how you know that you’re doing the real hard-hitting work.
AF: John was having a lot of different issues, so it could have been anything else. But I felt like we were robbed of a great story. I felt like we could have really gotten a great story out of that.
JM: You may have just answered my next question, but, what to you was the most surprising thing that you learned or uncovered over the course of your research?
AF: The biggest thing was the fact that Jerry Lawson was self-taught. Here’s this guy who did all of this amazing work, led entire divisions at Fairchild Semiconductor, was pretty much tasked to create this video game console, had never, ever stepped foot into a school to learn any of it. To me, that was amazing. He was doing that way before it was embraced in modern times.
JM: There was no internet.
AF: Right. Back in the 1970s, if you didn’t have a degree, you weren’t stepping in certain rooms. Then to not have a degree and also be African-American in the 1970s? Oh my goodness. I was really surprised. That just goes to show you how intelligent this man was. People like Nolan Bushnell, everyone, they all knew it. This guy was a complete genius at what he did.
JM: The George Washington Carver comparisons I found very illuminating.
AF: Companies like Activision literally built their company off the back of his information. There wouldn’t even be an Activision if it wasn’t for Jerry reverse engineering the Atari and writing a guide on how everybody can create their own cartridges for Atari. A billion-dollar company that we know and love today wouldn’t even exist if he didn’t do what he did.
JM: The whole idea of video games as a market would not exist if not for cartridges.
AF: Not in the way it is now, no.
JM: Yeah, you really can’t undersell his contribution there. His kids have said that more people have now become interested in Jerry’s story. We’re seeing more people talk about Jerry Lawson and what he’s done. We’ve seen the Strong Museum of Play kind of have the Fairchild Channel F console there as a historical artifact for gaming.
AF: Right. They [the Strong Museum] actually reached out. They said they wanted to talk even further and figure out ways to collaborate. We actually were supposed to visit the museum as part of the research for this, but we had to do everything during COVID. So, it just made everything a little bit harder.
JM: I think it’s proof that there are some bits of progress in games culture in regards to recognizing Jerry, and recognizing and celebrating Black excellence in gaming, period.
JM: The biggest game of the moment right now is Deathloop, by a Black director, Dinga Bakaba. It has a Black lead, and people love that game. It’s getting great scores. Having done this project now, and seeing how we’ve gone from Jerry’s era to now, what are your thoughts on the state of Black representation in gaming? Within games and on the engineering end, the technical end?
AF: On a technical end, I think we need more Black and brown people behind the scenes. That will easily start to reflect on the front. The back is always going to reflect the front, you know? If we get more people in those roles, those high leadership roles in programming, I think we’ll start to see some changes in some of the kinds of characters and representation that we see.
It’s very interesting. I think there is progress, not much, but there is progress when you see Deathloop and you see other games. I think we’ve come a long way from the Afro Thunders of the world. I hate to say it, but the best game that represents us is NBA 2K. I don’t hate to say it, I think they do a really good job. If you go into the MyCareer mode and you look at the different hairstyles that are in that game, you start to see that they really know their audience.
JM: Spike Lee did the story mode for one of those games, so…
AF: Right, exactly. They really know their audience. And I think that if there are game developers and people in leadership roles that are listening to me speak right now, I would say, go to that game and go check out their create-a-player modes. Go to their different hairstyles. Check how they really try to represent the culture in many different ways. I think there’s something you can borrow from that and implement in other games. We are starting to see progress.
At the last E3 I saw some trailers, Microsoft’s zombie game, State of Decay, looked really good, and they had a Black lead in that. I don’t know if she’s an actual lead, or if it was just a trailer model, but either way, I thought that was really good. They’re really starting to show Black women and Black men in these games who look like real actual Black people. That’s always a good thing.
JM: Say you could put your audiobook in front of anybody in the game industry, the most powerful people, they have to listen to it. They have to just take it all in. What do you want the biggest takeaway for them to be from Jerry’s story?
AF: Hire more Black people! Straight up, I do know that people like Phil Spencer and Matt Booty are aware of the audiobook. They’ve listened to it. Sarah Bond over at Microsoft has also listened to it, and paid homage to Jerry on her LinkedIn page, as well. So there are executives who are listening to the audiobook, and responding to it openly.
Microsoft just made an investment in the USC endowment that’s in Jerry Lawson’s name. They made a significant contribution in naming Jerry, and I thought that was really great and thought that was amazing. So we’re starting to see it getting in front of these high-end executives who have control over the hiring. I think as long as we do that, Jerry’s legacy will start to live on.
JM: We just had the Game Devs of Color Expo, and it’s great to see places like Microsoft and Nintendo get behind those events with scholarships and support. It could be faster. It could be more aggressive. But the progress is happening, I think.
AF: Somewhat, it’s happening. I think once we start to see those changes happen, we’ll start to see less and less foolery going around in the industry. You saw the allegations that are starting to come out. This is all because you’re just not hiring the right people. When you start to hire the right people in those places, not only are you going to get better games, but you’re going to get a better culture.
That’s what we’re not talking about, either. It’s not just about the games that people are playing and the representation, but it’s also the work culture, the vibe. Do people love working there? People are going to love working in very diverse spaces. This isn’t even an opinion. There are actual statistics and research that backs these things up. And so, once the game industry starts to move towards that, I think we’ll start to see a difference.
JM: Could not agree more. Anthony Frasier, here’s your chance to give us your best plug for the book. Since it’s an audiobook, we’ll be hearing your voice a lot. So you might as well tell us yourself in your own words.
AF: If you want to really get exposed to someone who was an amazing person, a genius, the George Washington Carver of our times, that person is Jerry Lawson. You’re going to learn about someone who revolutionized gaming. You wouldn’t be enjoying the medium that you play every day if it wasn’t for him. You used the perfect description, “hidden figure,” because that’s exactly what he is. Soon enough, a lot more people are going to know his name. You’ll see the movies, you’ll see more books, all of those things on the way. So tune in now.
JM: The book is Raising the Game: The Untold Story of Jerry Lawson by Anthony Frasier. Available now as an Audible original audiobook. Anthony Frasier, thanks so much for joining us.
AF: Thank you. I appreciate you bringing me on.
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