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USC Games and Take-Two Interactive have created a new endowment to fund Black and indigenous students in game design and engineering.
Named after video game pioneer Gerald Lawson, the endowment will support racial equity and inclusion for gaming and tech, said Jim Huntley, USC Interactive Media & Games professor at head of marketing at USC Games, in an interview with GamesBeat.
USC Games, ranked as Princeton Review’s No. 1 games undergraduate program in North America, received significant seed funding from Take-Two, the publisher of games such as Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, to start the fund. It will begin awarding scholarships for the 2022 school year.
The fund will provide student support for Black and Indigenous students who wish to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in game design or computer science from USC’s program. With financial support from additional game and technology companies and donors, USC Games’ goal is to expand the initiative and support other aspects of diversity and equity, including salary support for additional Black and indigenous faculty as well as labs and projects that addressed issues that affect these marginalized communities.
It doesn’t include Latinx students yet, primarily because they have better representation than the Black or indigenous students. Over time, the program could be expanded, with support for more underrepresented professors. The percentage of Black students in the USC Games programs hovers around 3% or 4%.
After the events of last summer — the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement — Huntley and Danny Bilson, director of USC Games, started working on the fund. They felt strongly that it should honor Lawson.
“We were talking about what can we do in our little corner of the world to make a difference for Black as well as indigenous students who have been underrepresented in the game industry since its inception,” Huntley said. “And so it was a lot of hard work to put together a plan to address that issue. We wanted to really come up with a plan that was going to be generational. We didn’t want to have it just be another round of charitable donations and charitable giving. That’s very important. And we think it certainly has a place. But we wanted something that had longevity.”
Gerald A. “Jerry” Lawson led the team that invented interchangeable ROM cartridges used in the Fairchild Channel F, one of the early home gaming consoles that predated the Atari 2600. Born in 1940 in Brooklyn, New York, he credited his lifelong interest in science to his first grade teacher, who inspired him with stories about the prolific Black inventor George Washington Carver. Lawson became one of the few Black engineers in the gaming industry during its inception. He also developed the arcade game Demolition Derby and was a member of the legendary “Homebrew Computer Club” whose members also included Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
Lawson passed away in April 2011, and he is being celebrated posthumously for his contributions. A month before he died, he was honored as an industry pioneer by the Interactive Game Developers Association (IGDA). In 2019, he received the ID@Xbox Gaming Heroes award at the Independent Games Festival, and his contributions are on permanent display at the World Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. He is survived by his wife, Catherine, and two adult children, Karen and Anderson, who told his story in High Score, the Netflix documentary series about the developers of early video games.
“He was the one that came up with popping the card in and playing the game,” Huntley said.
Take-Two has also supported other organizations including After-School All-Stars, The Animation Project, Black Girls Code, ESA Foundation, Gameheads, Games for Change, Gay Gaming Professionals, Girls Make Games, Hidden Genius Project, and School of Interactive Arts. The Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund marks the company’s second collegiate scholarship program dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion within the industry, joining Take-Two’s MFA in Game Design scholarship program with New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts that was established in 2019.
Returns from the endowment will support qualifying graduate and undergraduate games program students in both the School of Cinematic Arts and the Viterbi School of Engineering, beginning in the fall 2022 semester. Donations to the fund will be ongoing.
“We want this to be something that the industry gets behind en masse. This isn’t a USC Games exclusive initiative,” Huntley said. “This is really a starting point for what’s really going to be a marathon, which is how do we make some systemic change in the game industry. Now, this one fund won’t suddenly snap your fingers and see a change in a year. But we do think over time with investment and other companies coming on board and other donors, we actually can make a dent and get more black and indigenous students through our program.”
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