Google’s interactive Doodle today celebrates the life and accomplishments of video game pioneer Gerald “Jerry” Lawson on what would have been his 82nd birthday. The Doodle lets you play five retro pixel-art platformers in your browser — with two even letting you play as Lawson. The Doodles’ creators want to inspire young people to follow in his footsteps, and it includes a built-in level editor and creator to nudge them on that path.
Lawson was known as the “father of the video game cartridge,” which he developed as Director of Engineering and Marketing at Fairchild Semiconductor. In 1976, the company released the Fairchild Channel F home console, with Lawson serving as lead developer. The Channel F (the “F” stood for “fun”) was the first system with interchangeable game cartridges, a novel concept in an era when games were permanently coded into hardware. Interchangeable ROM-based cartridges were a massive breakthrough that let users build entire libraries rather than playing one game ad nauseam.
Today’s Doodle includes games from guest artists and game designers Davionne Gooden, Lauren Brown and Momo Pixel. “The concept starts with the player as a little Jerry Lawson,” explained Brown. “This takes us through anecdotes about Jerry’s life, parts of his journey that he went about to create the cartridge. Once you complete the level, you then get to create your own game with an editor that allows you to reimagine the level design and innovate like Jerry Lawson did.”
Along with the cartridge advancement, Lawson’s Channel F was the first console with an eight-way joystick and a pause menu. Although it wasn’t a commercial success, Channel F’s innovations would influence later systems that dominated home gaming over the following decades — it was a predecessor to platforms like the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Even in today’s world of always-online digital games, the top-selling console — the Nintendo Switch — still (optionally) uses a form of cartridges.
Lawson faced considerable challenges during his early years at Fairchild as an African-Amercan man in a field that wasn’t known for being racially diverse. He noted that working as an engineer as a 6-foot-6-inch Black man would surprise people, with some reacting with “total shock” when they saw him for the first time. Additionally, he was one of only two Black members of the Homebrew Computing Club. This group included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, along with other Silicon Valley pioneers.
After his innovations at Fairchild, Lawson left in 1980 to start his own company, VideoSoft, one of the first Black-owned video game development firms. VideoSoft closed five years later, and Lawson consulted engineering and video game companies for the rest of his career. He passed away in 2011 at 70 from diabetes complications.
“When people play this Doodle, I hope they’re inspired to be imaginative,” said Anderson Lawson, Jerry’s son. “And I hope that some little kid somewhere that looks like me wants to get into game development. Hearing about my father’s story makes them feel like they can.”