Jerry Lawson was an engineer and early videogame pioneer who led the team that developed the Fairchild Channel F, a groundbreaking game console that was the first to make use of swappable ROM cartridges. It was ultimately eclipsed by the runaway success of the Atari VCS, which came out a year later, and Lawson never achieved the fame of other major industry innovators. But his name will adorn a new endowment for Black and Indigenous students established the University of Southern California's by USC Games program, with initial support from publisher Take-Two Interactive.
"Take-Two is honored to be the first industry partner in USC Games’ Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund," Take-Two chairman and CEO Strauss Zelnick said. "We are confident that our shared vision for enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our industry will be realized through the establishment of this fund and helping to enable students from Black and Indigenous communities to pursue their passions and creative futures in USC's renowned program."
Lawson, who died in 2011, was one of the few Black engineers involved in the very early days of the videogame industry. Before working on the Channel F, he created an early arcade stand-up called Demolition Derby; in 1980 he left Fairchild and launched a development studio called Videosoft, and later moved into consulting work. He was also a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, an early hobbyist group whose other members included Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Adam Osborne.
"It’s humbling to publicly announce this Fund in the wake of the verdict in Minneapolis, since Danny Bilson—the Director of USC Games and Chair of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division—and I started working on its framework during the racial justice marches in Summer 2020," USC Interactive Media and Games Professor and Head of Marketing Jim Huntley said. "We felt strongly that it should honor Mr. Lawson since it will support Black and Indigenous gaming students for generations."
The fund in Lawson's name will support Black and Indigenous students pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees in game design or computer science, and USC Games hopes to expand the initiative to support "other aspects of diversity and equity" in the industry. "The reason it isn’t called the Take-Two Lawson Fund is we really want more industry partners to participate and work with us to build something that is beyond a year or two, to something generational," Huntley told USA Today.
"We are humbled to know that his legacy will continue to inspire students, enrolled in the USC Games program, for generations to come," Lawson's family said. "One of my father’s greatest dreams was to inspire young people to be curious about science and technology. This endowment champions his vision."
Details on the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund for Black and Indigenous Students will be shared at the USC Games Expo 2021 digital event, which will begin at 12 pm PT/3 pm ET on May 15.