May 7, 2021
USC Games Launches Scholarship Fund named for African-American Games Pioneer, Gerald A. Lawson
Take-Two Interactive is the endowment’s first contributor
By Hugh Hart
Jim Huntley normally likes to think of himself as fairly dispassionate, but last fall, the Professor in USC’s Cinema School’s Interactive Media & Games Division and Head of Marketing for USC Games became speechless during a Zoom meeting. His fund-raising campaign to create an endowment for minority students, launched in the wake of George Floyd's death, had finally gotten its first "Yes." Huntley recalls, "When Alan Lewis from Take-Two said 'We're in,' I got choked up. We'd been pitching this thing for months. To finally get validation from one of the largest gaming publishers in the world, I realized this isn’t me ‘tilting at windmills.’ Somebody gets it."
"It" is the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund for Black and Indigenous Students, which begins generating support for incoming students in the fall 2022 semester. The Fund, with initial funding from Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. will provide financial support for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing game design and computer science degrees from the School of Cinematic Arts and Viterbi School of Engineering. Danny Bilson, Chair of the Interactive Media & Games Division, expects the endowment to grow exponentially in the coming months. "We've gotten a very generous ‘seed gift’ from Take-Two Interactive to get the endowment started, but we want to get to more companies to participate and scale it up quickly to support more Black and Indigenous students and initiatives in our program," says Bilson. "This announcement is a call to arms for games and tech companies who want to drive social change: partner with us and invest in the inclusive and equitable future that we all want.”
Huntley and Bilson spoke to SCA News about the Lawson Fund's origins during the Black Lives Matter summer of 2020, their passion for creating a more inclusive games industry and the Black engineer who inspired the endowment's name.
Jim, you came up with the plan for the Lawson Fund last summer, but how long has the scarcity of Black talent in the game industry been on your mind?
Jim Huntley: The lack of Black people in the games has actually been on my mind since I started working in the industry in 2008.
Danny Bilson: From the time I started here [at USC in 2005] we've wanted to get more Black and Native American participation into our games program. When the George Floyd murder happened, I got all these letters: ’You must make a statement from USC Games.’ It was actually kind of upsetting to me: everybody's making statements but nobody's doing anything."
JH: As a Black former Games executive, a professor and a man, I wasn't going to put out a blind announcement: ‘Hey, we stand behind you.’ And then move on to something else once this blows over. Danny called me and said ‘Think of this problem like a business. What would you do if you were trying to solve this [diversity and equity issue] as a business problem?’
DB: After that, Jim spent like a zillion hours putting together a [Power Point] deck with research that explained the whole history, the numbers, the percentages, the education.
JH: I became relentless about working on a model for what the best strategy would be to get more diversity, equity and inclusion into the Games and Tech industries, and from that, the Lawson Fund was born.
In your view, why are there are so few Black and Indigenous people involved in game design?
Danny Bilson: It's not hard-hearted villains in darkened offices making decisions.
Jim Huntley: Today, having a strong network determines whether or not you're going to get a job, especially in the games industry. If you don't have [industry-connected] people in your network, especially in college, your opportunities shrink. And so, generation after generation, the issue propagates itself, and those organizations end up being non-Black and non-Indigenous-inclusive. When I was working on research for this project last summer, I racked my brain and couldn't remember meeting an Indigenous games professional in industry or an Indigenous student in my entire time teaching here.
DB: I've only had one Indigenous student.
JH: So we wanted to put something together that would focus on the least-represented groups in the industry.
Last fall you started asking game and tech companies to become donors. You didn’t get a commitment until Take-Two. How did you get the company on board?
Jim Huntley: I pitched the fund to Take-Two the same way I pitched to the other companies. The difference was their reaction to it, where they basically said ‘Hey this thing doesn't exist yet but we trust you, you have a good reputation. We'll be the first one to take the leap with you.’ Now that they’ve taken the first step, I’m going to go to—and back to—other companies that said it was a great idea but were wary of being first. Hopefully more will decide to come on board now. We’re very grateful for Take-Two’s leadership in this.
You named this endowment after the late Black engineer Gerald Lawson, one of the founding fathers of game design. He invented the interchangeable ROM game cartridge, designed Demolition Derby and belonged to the Home Brew Club along with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. And yet Gerald A. Lawson is not a household name.
Jim Huntley: I've been a gamer all my life but I only learned about Mr. Lawson in 2010 during a meeting when I worked at THQ. The fact that there was this Black engineer at the core of the gaming industry whom I'd never heard of shocked me! This industry wouldn't be here if Lawson hadn't come up with this [ROM] innovation! We spoke with Mr. Lawson's adult children, Anderson and Karen, and they gave us their full blessing to attach his name to this initiative.
Why do you feel it's important to nurture a more inclusive talent pool in game design?
Danny Bilson: Diverse teams build diverse content, although I don't call it "diverse," I call it “innovative.” The collaboration we teach here USC is super healthy, understanding different people's cultures, respecting them, working intimately together in teams because game creators take a lot of different forms. Artists, writers, engineers.
Jim Huntley: To Danny's point, [making games] revolves around a lot of different skill sets. There's art. There's music. There's writing. There’s engineering. There's animation. There are a million different things that it takes to get something good made in our space. So, from a diversity perspective, we need to make sure Black and Native American families are aware of these opportunities. We're going to keep doing what we've already been doing, in general, with middle school and high school outreach. For groups that are already at an economic disadvantage, we have to take that extra step and say ‘There are lots of jobs here and being in our program will improve your chances of getting a shot at them.’
Join the 2021 USC Games Expo on May 15th at 3pm EST/noon PST to play games, and hear more about initiatives like the Lawson Fund. Streaming Live at Twitch.TV/USCGames.