Jerry Lawson’s Fairchild Channel F (System II), the first microprocessor-based game console.

Retro Games by Black Creators

David S. Heineman

--

A List In Progress

Video games are a medium that have always had a very unusual relationship with the topic of race and racism. On the one hand, for some players, video games are a medium that introduce them to perspectives on the world that are held by people with skin color that is different than their own. For example, for many white children who play titles developed by Sony and Nintendo, video games can serve as an early introduction to many elements of Japanese history and culture. On the other hand, Japanese video games have often been some of the worst offenders in terms of how race is utilized or depicted in video games (e.g. the racialized caricatures that fill the Street Fighter series’ rosters, the colonial imagery of Resident Evil 5, etc.). Likewise, games by American and European developers have been instrumental in shaping how players around the world think about people of Middle Eastern descent (who are featured in so many military-based shooters), about the racial dynamics of our cities (the Grand Theft Auto series has always offered hit-and-miss satirical commentary on race), or about the culture of Indigenous Peoples (Prey [2006], the Turok series, much of the Assassin’s Creed series, etc.).

In recent years, as the size and scope of the industry has expanded and as new technological capabilities have introduced fresh possibilities for what audiences might expect from video games, the medium’s relationship with race has necessarily become more complex. There are now many well-known examples of industry-related racism outside of the games themselves: in online play, at video game companies, in video game streaming cultures, and in fan culture. There have also been considerably more examples of concerted push back against some of these problems and increasingly more efforts at creating a more intersectional and racially diverse gaming landscape both within the industry and within player cultures. Given the recent global focus on the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it seems likely that the industry will — like the rest of the technology and entertainment world — continue its own itnternal reckoning with how it has engaged (or not) Black individuals, hopefully doing so with an eye towards a better future.

There are many ways to consider this history, and there is undoubtedly a need for a more comprehensive exploration of how race/racism has factored into the industry’s development than this essay can provide. (For reference, Charlton McIlwain’s excellent book Black Software does some of this work for technology history more broadly.) What I will attempt to do here is offer a kind of overview of the impact and influence of Black creators in games that, today, are typically considered “retro”. Much of this work is informed by others’ prior writing on the subject, and there are links below that will direct you to some of those publications. If you have anything you’d like me to consider adding to this list or to this history, please reach out and I will be happy to give you credit for your contribution. I have also included some links at the end where you can check out the work of and show support for current Black creators in the video games industry.

I have attempted to select, synthesize, organize, and present much of this information in a way that encourages the reader to quickly locate, learn about, and play these games. By highlighting the work of those Black creators who helped forge the industry in the last half of the Twentieth Century, my goal is to both deepen our appreciation for their role in the industry’s history and to better understand how that past continues to shape the present.

Any list like this will probably always already be incomplete, but if there are people you’d like me to add, please do let me know. I’d love for this to be a valuable resource to people going forward.

The list:

1970s

Who: Jerry Lawson
What
: Fairchild Channel F/Channel F System II and Videosoft games
Why: Launching a year before Atari’s 2600 (VCS), the Fairchild Channel F console was the first dedicated video game console to use cartridges, the first to employ a microprocessor, and among the first to offer innovative controller designs. Those additions made it a machine that would serve as a kind of prototype for the next twenty years of game console development, even if its own fortunes were short-lived. Lawson also founded a development company, Videosoft, that would go on to develop games for Atari’s 2600 console, including some that employed the Amiga Power Module. Lawson’s legacy is one of innovation and risk, of pushing towards new technologies while fostering creativity in others.
Where: There’s a browser-based FCF emulator here. A browser-based Atari 2600 emulator is here.

Recommended games:
Alien Invasion (FCF)
Video Whizball (FCF)
Mogul Maniac (VCS)
Color Bar Generator Cart (VCS) (a cool tool for TV service techs)

Who: Ed Smith
What: The MP-1000, The Imagination Machine, The Imagination Machine II
Why: Smith’s work on these systems at APF Electronics was completed with an eye towards making emerging technologies available to a wider audience, with the machines priced much lower than the computers releasing by Apple and IBM at the same time. In a lengthy Fast Company profile, they note of Smith that his “friends were skeptical of his passionate interest in electronics. ‘When they heard what I was doing, they would say, ‘You would never understand that, a black guy can’t do this kind of thing. It’s not your world. They will laugh you out of the room.’” Years later, Smith would regularly bring extra systems back to the projects he grew up in, giving them to kids whose families wouldn’t otherwise have bought them. The games are interesting in their small differences from competitors at the time and worth a look to see what some early home cartridge/tape systems were able to accomplish. Like a kind of Sega-CD of its era, The Imagination Machine was designed to work as an add on for the MP-1000, utilizing their combined processing power to open up the system to work as a full-fledged home computer.
Where: You can find games and emulators here.

Recommended games:
Rocket Patrol (MP1000)
Space Destroyers (Imagination Machine)
Boxing (Imagination Machine)
UFO/Sea Monsters/Break It Down/Rebuild/Shoot (Imagination Machine)

1980s

At present, I can’t find much about Black creators in the video game industry in the 1980s. The last half of the decade was dominated by Japanese development studios like Konami, Nintendo, and Capcom, but many American arcade and home software developers also had profitable years in the decade. So far my Google and database searching has yielded little to nothing about the role of Black employees at American-based companies like Atari, Electronic Arts, Bally-Williams, Sierra, or Activision.

There are numerous reasons for this, of course: reasons that have to do with both systemic racism in the technology industry and with the historical relationship between STEM education and Black students. In short, there is little history about Black video game creators in the 1980s because there were very few Black people working in the video game industry. What I have found mention of are Black arcade operators, Black Atari repair technicians, and various Black office personnel; what I have not found is examples of Black game designers, programmers, directors, writers, etc.

Especially for this section of the list, please let me know if you have some information I can add!

1990s

Who: Tony Barnes
What
: The Strike series
Why: A budding homebrew developer as a kid in the 1980s, Barnes’ credits in the 1990s extend to a number of interesting titles (he worked as an Assistant Producer on Motley Crüe’s Sega Genesis pinball game, for example). Barnes’ biggest contribution to video game history in this decade was his work as a producer and designer for the Strike series, a series of isometric mission-based and vehicle-based military shooters whose entries included Jungle Strike (1993), Urban Strike (1994), and Nuclear Strike (1999), among others. More recently, Barnes has been key in work on the reboots of Medal of Honor (2010) and Strider (2014). He did an interview with Arcade Attack just last month, where he talked a bit about his work on the Strike series: “The fact that it’s not just dodging bullets and picking up power-ups …the fact that you can approach problems from different angles, sort of play your way. It’s good to empower players to problem solve the way they’d like to.”
Where: The 16-bit Strike games can be emulated-in-browser if you search for them here. The N64 version of Nuclear Strike is here.

Recommended games:
Jungle Strike (Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, many other ports)
Urban Strike (Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Game Gear and Game Boy)
Nuclear Strike (PS1, N64, PC)

Who: Gordon Bellamy
What
: Madden series, other classic sports games
Why: Gordon Bellamy was a key fixture at Electronic Arts as the company established its “EA Sports” branding, and he was especially key in shaping its flagship Madden NFL series. During the time where Bellamy was involved as a designer or producer, the series transitioned from being an “also-ran” early 16-bit sports title to the “must have” football game for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo by the end of the generation. During his time working on Madden ’93, ’94, ’95, and ’96 the franchise evolved in leaps in bounds: it first acquired the NFL license, then added the NFLPA license, then offered a “create-a-player” feature. Bellamy also contributed to some other sports titles in this decade, including Bill Walsh College Football ’95, IMG International Tour Tennis, Fox Sports College Hoops ’99, and Alexi Lalas International Soccer.
Where: Genesis Madden games can be emulated in browser here. Bellamy’s tennis game is on the same site here.

Recommended games:
Madden NFL ’94 (Genesis and SNES)
Madden NFL ’95 (Genesis and SNES)
IMG International Tour Tennis (Genesis)

Who: Morgan Gray
What
: Star Wars games
Why: Gray was early in his career in the 1990s, but towards the end of the decade he would end up working as a tester or designer on a number of well-loved Lucas Arts games, including the excellent Jedi Knight — Dark Forces II (1997), X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (1997), and the Curse of Monkey Island (1997). It would be in the next decade where Gray would really make his mark in the industry, as he has since helmed several well-regarded entries in the Tomb Raider series (e.g. Legend, Anniversary, and Rise of the Tomb Raider), served as Senior Producer on the Dark Void titles, and worked on a smattering of other projects of interest. In an interview from 2008, Gray commented on his experience as a Black creator in the video games industry: “I was at the ‘blacks in gaming’ event at GDC. Each year it gets bigger and bigger but it’s still like, ‘Wow, this is still kind of small.’ We need to think broader. I just don’t think the information is getting out there, probably specifically to the black youth in terms of what can be done.”
Where: You can find most of the Star Wars games still for sale on Steam or GOG.

Recommended games:
Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter — The Balance of Power (1997)
Star Wars: Jedi Knight — Dark Forces II
The Curse of Monkey Island (1997)

Who: Marcus Montgomery
What: Army Men series, Uprising X
Why: Montgomery, who cut his teeth as a playtester for games like Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Crash Bandicoot, and Daytona USA, closed out the 1990s by working as a designer on the PlayStation hidden gem Uprising X (1998) and two Army Men: Air Attack titles, which were both multiplatform. In the decades since, Montgomery has gone on to work as Lead Designer for both retro-inspired titles (e.g. Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 and 1942: Joint Strike, both of which are excellent) and for some of Harmonix’s music-based games (e.g. Dance Central 3, Rock Band 3). More recently, outside of working on games as such, Montgomery has created the site We Are Game Devs, which states that its mission is to “celebrate the diverse talent of the video game industry” and to ”feature artists, game designers, programmers and producers through candid conversation about the craft, business and culture of the video game industry.”
Where: The first Army Men: Air Attack game can be downloaded here. Uprising X is browser-emulated here.

Recommended games:
Army Men: Air Attack (PS1, N64, PC)
Uprising X (PS1)

Who: Felice Standifer
What: Jet Moto, Twisted Metal 2
Why: Standifer’s earliest credits on Mobygames’ site are for her work on two of my personal favorite PlayStation games: Jet Moto and Twisted Metal 2. Standifer served as an Assistant Producer on these titles, both of which set new high-quality marks for their respective subgenres. Unsurprisingly, in the decades since, Standifer’s has taken on roles as a more senior producer on the ATV Offroad Fury games and on the outstanding Motorstorm series for the PS3 — games that make her résumé read like a kind of “greatest hits” of extreme sports racing titles in the history of the medium. In an interview from 2008, Standifer noted that she had increasingly found people of color across departments at Sony in her time at the company: “I do definitely stand out. Females are one thing, let alone a person of color — it’s very rare. But being here at Sony, when it comes to race, there have been several people in product development that were male. But producers, artists…I’ve always known people of color since I’ve been in the industry from the test department, from the product development department, in all of the areas.”
Where: You can emulate both Twisted Metal 2 and Jet Moto at Archive.org.

Recommended games:
Twisted Metal 2 (PS1)
Jet Moto (PS1)

The 2000s and Beyond

While this list has focused on the 1970s/1980s/1990s, there are certainly many early 2000s games that, today, are very much part of “retro” culture. Some of the Black creators listed above have continued to do great work in the industry, and others still have joined their ranks. Perhaps in a future update I will extend this list to more recent retro titles — but for now I want to focus on fleshing out the sparse history above.

Have something to add? Please get in touch!

External Articles of Interest:

Black Skin is Still a Radical Concept in Video Games [on Race & Graphics Technology]

Fast Company’s Ed Smith Profile

MTV’s Black Professionals in Games series [Archive]

Replaying Video Game History as a Mixtape of Black Feminist Though

Strong Museum of Play’s Black History Page

Links to Support Black Creators in Video Games:

Rad Magpie’s “Support Black Developers”

IGN’s “Games Developed By Black Developers You Should Look Out For”

Humble Games’ Black Game Developer Fund

This essay was designed to accompany the July 2020 “Together Retro” event for the Racketboy.com retro gaming website. You can read more about the club here, or follow along with this month’s play along here.

--

--

David S. Heineman

Professor & documentary filmmaker whose research and teaching focuses on rhetorical and critical theory, new media, and visual culture. | www.davidheineman.net