On Thursday, Google published a playable Google Doodle game honoring Black video game pioneer Jerry Lawson on what would have been his 82nd birthday. Lawson, who died in 2011, played a pivotal role in the development of the Fairchild Channel F console, which introduced the concept of programmable video game cartridges to the market in 1976.
On Google’s home page, the Doodle shows a pixellated cartoon of Lawson beside a rendition of the Channel F console and a TV set. Upon clicking the image, the Doodle loads a custom web browser game inspired by Super Mario Maker that allows players to build and edit games using retro tile-based graphics. After a brief tutorial that introduces elements of Lawson’s history, players can select preexisting games to edit or create their own.
Throughout the Doodle game, the motif of the Channel F’s distinctive yellow cartridge (which allowed interchangeable games) ties the experience together.
Channel F development began in 1975 after Fairchild licensed microprocessor-based game console technology from a Massachusetts-based firm called Alpex, which initially invented the cartridge concept. Knowing Lawson’s history with video games (and his friendship with Atari’s founders), Lawson’s bosses at Fairchild assigned him to explore the engineering viability of the project.
While under development, Greg Reyes led the Channel F project, with Lawson handling electronic circuit design (and initially designing its unique eight-way joystick), Nicholas Talesfore leading industrial design, and Ron Smith covering mechanical engineering, with contributions from others as well. While Talesfore and Smith developed the Channel F’s distinctive cartridge itself, Lawson often gets general credit for its invention due to his essential role in bringing the overall console to the market—and his historical importance as the first known Black video game engineer.
Channel F history aside, Google’s Doodle itself—put together by Nate Swinehart—is a notable achievement that highlights Black pixel artists such as Lauren Brown and Davionne Gooden. It’s legitimately fun to play, and any creations made with it can be shared with others online.
For more information on Jerry Lawson, check out this interview the author conducted in 2009 for Vintage Computing and Gaming, which is sadly the only in-depth interview with Lawson published during his lifetime before he passed in April 2011 from complications of diabetes. Due to efforts from Google and others, Lawson’s pioneering legacy as a Black game engineer will live on.