When you think about video game developers before the 21st century, you may probably think that they were all white male developers. You may think of John Carmack, who developed games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. You may also think of Todd Howard, currently serving as director at Bethesda Game Studios, who joined the company in 1994. However, there were game developers of colour working in the industry before the 21st century like John Romero, who is of Mexican, Yaqui and Cherokee heritage. He has worked with Carmack at id Software. For this article, we are going to focus on Black game developers that helped shape the game industry into what it is today.
The Man Behind the Video Game Cartridge
If you have ever played a game on a Nintendo 64 or seen images and videos of one, then you might be familiar with game cartridges. Game cartridges were used to load and run games on consoles from the late 1970s to mid-1990s like the Atari 2600 and the Fairchild Channel F. Jerry Lawson, a Black engineer, is known for designing the Fairchild Channel F game console in the mid-1970s at Fairchild Semiconductor.
This changed the way video games were played because before the Fairchild Channel F was released, games could not be removed or changed as they were programmed directly into the game console. With the removable game cartridge, players could now buy a library of games and play them whenever they wanted instead of playing the game that was already installed on the game console.
Unfortunately, the Fairchild Channel F console was not commercially successful as the Atari 2600 console was more popular at the time in the late 1970s. This led to Fairchild Semiconductor moving away from video game development. However, Lawson’s contribution to the development of the game cartridge led to a big shift in the video game industry in the 1980s as games such as Space Invaders sold over 6 million cartridges in 1983. This wouldn’t have been possible without Jerry Lawson.
In 1980, Jerry Lawson left Fairchild Semiconductor and created his own video game development company called Videosoft where he produced a dozen games for the Atari 2600. His first game, Atom Smasher, was a shooting game where players must shoot atomic particles while dodging the moving particles themselves. Unfortunately, this company did not last as the video game crash in 1983 caused the company to shut down and many of its games were unreleased at the time.
However, thanks to video game archivists, six of his games produced at Videosoft were released in 2010 with his permission, including Atom Smasher, Depth Charge, SAC Alert, 3D Genesis, 3D Ghost Attack and 3D Havoc. Unfortunately a year later, on April 9th 2011, Jerry Lawson died of diabetes. He was honoured by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) as an industry pioneer for his work on the game cartridge. The IGDA has also created the Jerry A. Lawson Award for highlighting accomplishments from Black people in the game development community.
Black game developers in the 1990s
Because black people were underrepresented in the video game industry, Jerry Lawson is the only well-known and profiled Black game developer in the 20th century. There were other Black game workers in the 1980s like Alice Williams, who worked at Atari and installed printed circuit boards into arcade game cabinets. There were also Black-owned arcade businesses operated by D.C. Delores William (who owned Space II Arcade) and Delores Barrows (who owned TREATS Arcade). Unfortunately, their works and achievements were not documented and were lost in time.
However, in the 1990s, there was more recognition of Black workers in the video game industry. Tony Barnes is a game designer that has been working in the game industry since 1987. He has worked for several game companies like Electronic Arts and Rockstar Games. He has contributed to games like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Medal of Honour.
There were other Black game developers that got their start in the 1990s like Robert Collier and Tramell Ray Isaac who both worked as artists at Interplay Entertainment on Fallout 1 and 2. After working on Fallout, Robert Collier went to work for Sony Online Entertainment where he helped develop the EverQuest games. Tramell Ray Isaac went on to work with Obsidian Entertainment in 2005 where he helped develop Neverwinter Nights 2. He then left to join Sony Online Entertainment to work on Planetside 2 as senior art director.
Black game developers in the 21st century
With game engines like Unreal Engine and Unity becoming more common in the industry, this led to more Black people joining the game industry in many different roles. One of them is Marcus Montgomery, a game designer who joined the industry in 2001 who has worked with many different companies like Sony Computer Entertainment and Glu Mobile. He currently works at Oculus as a product manager where he implements VR Home features in Oculus Home. He also founded We Are Game Devs, a website dedicated to celebrating diversity in the game industry.
One of the developers highlighted on that website is Shawn Alexander Allen and he has some experience in the industry. He has previously worked with Rockstar Games as a Gameplay Capture Artist which means he would make the footage that would go into game trailers. After leaving Rockstar Games, he went on to create his own gaming studio called NuChallenger where he developed and publish two games: Treachery in Beatdown City, a 16-bit beat-em-up RPG and Don’t Give Up, a 2D RPG with no traditional roleplaying features. He also organises the Game Devs of Color Expo, a yearly conference that showcases games created by people of colour.
Another game developer I wanted to highlight is Adam Campbell, co-founder of POC In Play, Europe’s largest representation and inclusion video game movement. This movement was started because only 10% of people from ethnic minority groups work in the game industry and this lack of representation resulted in:
- Skills shortage that could be filled by people with the ability to take on game industry roles
- Problematic representation of cultures in games which could be fixed by having a diverse team
- Having a diverse team would help keep game stories fresh.
Adam has also recently created his own gaming studio called StudioAC Games where he creates games with diverse characters and stories.
Up and coming Black game developers to look out for
There are some independent Black developers and Black-owned studios that are currently developing or have developed impressive games. A lot of these developers and studios can be found on Black Game Developers, a filtered list of several Black game developers around the world.
Xalavier Nelson is a BAFTA-nominated independent game developer who makes innovative and interesting games such as Can Androids Pray, a choice based game about two angry mech pilots facing the end of the world. One game he has recently released is An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, a comedy adventure game where the player interacts with stock photos of dogs. As absurd as it sounds, it definitely looks like a game you’d want to try out.
Alex Francois is a game designer who makes point and click adventure games like The Slaughter, a noir detective story set in Victorian London. His most recent game is one he developed in lockdown called Finders, Keepers that tells its story through a dating app and gameplay is shown with a thumb interface.
Another game developer I think people should look out for is Ethan Redd, a game designer and creative lead of Virtuoso Neomedia, an independent video game production house. He is currently developing a set of games with fast paced gameplay and stylish graphics such as Raddmington, Killer Auto and Zodiac xx.
While black representation in the video game industry has definitely improved marginally since the 1970s, it could definitely be better than it is now. However, organisations like Game Devs of Color Expo and Humble Bundle with the Black Game Developer Fund are helping to lessen the inequality gap as they help to showcase and fund games made by black people. This couldn’t be said in the late 20th century or even the 2000s.