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Vol 1 No 1 (July 2019)

Video Game History and the Fact of Blackness

TreaAndrea M Russworm University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Video games studies, including many of our most inspired written accounts of video game history, is very white. Stories about US video game pioneers, from engineers and designers to early adopters and arcade patrons, tend to be mostly about the white men who created, consumed, and periodically saved the industry. Even now that game history is on the verge of becoming as queer and ostensibly nonconformist as some aspects of its games and culture are theorized to be, these new avenues of critical investigation speak most directly to a queer mainstream that has always been constructed as white. Although there is much to be inspired by in the proliferation of emergent video game histories that are more gender-inclusive, trans, or so-called diverse, with few exceptions these progressive accounts still tend to be White. White. White. Black designers, players, blerds, and technocrats have been excluded from the canon of old and new video game histories in much the same way Frantz Fanon theorized that blackness functions as a fact: an outwardly defined pejorative social inscription that justifies its alienation and exclusion.

And yet, the unbearable whiteness of video game studies persists even though video game history is not a color-blind history that just happens to star mainly white men (and sometimes white women) as its key players and innovators. Video game history has always included the labor, creativity, and resistant play practices of black people. Some of the obvious places to turn in this regard are to the black engineers, project leaders, and entrepreneurs who have made contributions both small and large. When referenced at all in video game histories, Jerry Lawson, founder of the first black-owned video game company and the lead engineer who created the industry’s first removable game cartridge, is often relegated to marginalia. During his lifetime, Lawson remained vocal about his exclusion from accounts of 1970s hardware design, and he was critical of the multiple systems of bias that prevented him from securing financing for some of his most promising projects, thus enabling companies like Atari and Apple to capitalize. Edward Smith, a self-directed black engineer who started out making calculators for APF Electronics, became the lead designer of projects that faltered commercially but anticipated future consumer desires to combine personal computing and playing video games on a single system. Smith, who was also known for handing out free home gaming consoles to black families in Brooklyn, proudly reflects on his career: “To be a man of color and a leader in the video game industry will be my legacy, and one that I am very proud of.”1 Yet, who among video game historians will disrupt video game history’s remediation of the fact of blackness by writing about such legacies and unacknowledged labor practices?

The technical and entrepreneurial ingenuity of black women must not be overlooked in new histories of video games. Scholarly efforts to document a history of black women’s contributions should also include studies of adjacent tech fields that have been immeasurably relevant to the formation of the video game industry—fields like mathematics and computation, aeronautics, and simulations. Most pertinent here is the civil rights era when black women were computers—mathematical and computational experts. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and other black women labored to hold electronic computers accountable and reliable. What might video game history become as it complements and engages such preexisting technological histories about race, gender, and labor?

Finally, there are good reasons to keep in view histories of black cultural production as ever relevant to our reimaginings of video game history. For example, in the Encyclopedia of Video Game History,I sketched a brief cultural history of the unique convergences between the video game industry and the birth of hip-hop. Hip-hop luminaries like the Wu-Tang Clan have described how their early experimentations with hip-hop form coincided with their active participation in both the arcade and home computing scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. Since four of the five elements of hip-hop (DJing, MCing, breakdance, and graffiti art) have been consistently integrated into video game design for decades, where are our longer cultural and technical histories that explore the ways in which the two industries used the same sound technologies? Where are the examinations of the many rap-influenced rhythm games and hip-hop video game soundtracks? Surely there remain complicated symmetries and lines of cultural and material indebtedness to explore here, or, as legendary hip-hop artist Biggie Smalls famously raps about video games and his economic mobility: “Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis / When I was dead broke, man, I couldn't picture this.”

In resisting the urge to drop the mic on this critical challenge to video game studies with Biggie’s words, I will simply say that video game histories have been white, white, white, but they need not continue to be.

Footnotes

1. ^ Benj Edwards, “Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine: The Untold Story of a Black Video Game Pioneer,” Fast Company, September 2, 2016, https://www.fastcompany.com/3063298/ed-smith-and-the-imagination-machine-the-untold-story-of-a-black-vid.