April 14, 2011

Video Game Innovator Dies at 70

Perhaps you’ve never once heard the name Gerald A. Lawson, but if you play video games, then you know his technology.

Mr. Lawson, an innovator in the gaming industry, passed away at the age of 70 over the weekend. Gerald – or Jerry as he is known – paved the way for modern video games. A self-taught engineer, Mr. Lawson was the one who changed the way gamers gamed.

As an employee at Fairchild Semiconductor, Lawson pioneered the Channel F, the first video game console that used interchangeable cartridges. The technology, which predates the Atari system by a year, set the standard for how games are played today.

“Jerry was an amazing personality,” said family friend David Erhart, who broke the news of Lawson’s death Monday on the Digital Press website. “He created part of the videogame industry history in Silicon Valley and it was always a pleasure to hear his stories about back in the day.”

Lawson started his tenure with Fairchild when the company launched “freelance engineering.”

“They wanted somebody to be able to go around and help customers with designs. I was available, and they knew I was an apps guy,” said Lawson in an interview with Vintage Computing, 2009

Lawson said that he actually found most modern games appalling.

“They're all scenario games considered with shooting somebody and killing somebody. To me, a game should be something like a skill you should develop — if you play this game, you walk away with something of value. That's what a game is to me.”

For him, it’s not about being able to program how a car should look or infinite details of games. It’s how the game itself is programmed, and many games leave little for the imagination.

“We're taking away from children's imaginations. Video games today — they don't even want to see anything unless the graphics are completely high-toned, right?”

Despite what Lawson might feel about gaming today, he is the man we should all be thanking as we sit in our rooms, controllers in hand, fighting the good fight, whether it’s set in a non-existent medieval world or a modern day urban city.

“I remember one time I was in Las Vegas, walking down the strip. A black kid came up to me and said, "Are you Jerry Lawson?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Thanks." And shook my hand and walked on past me. And I thought I may have inspired him,” recalled Lawson.

Speaking about Mr. Lawson in an interview, Pong’s creator Allan Alcorn said, “He’s absolutely a pioneer. When you do something for the first time, there is nothing to copy.”

Lawson is also one of the founders Videosoft, a software developer that produced games for the Atari 2600 in the early 1980s. Atari then grew more popular than the Fairchild Channel F. Lawson received an award from the International Game Developers Association on the development of innovation.

Michelle Amodio is a TMCnet contributor. She has helped promote companies and groups in all industries, from technology to banking to professional roller derby. She holds a bachelor's degree in Writing from Endicott College and currently works in marketing, journalism, and public relations as a freelancer.

Edited by Rich Steeves