The Dutch Festival of Games opened Wednesday with the mayor of the Netherland’s oldest city introducing gaming’s oldest pioneer: Ralph Baer.
After a ceremonial game of Pong on a replica of Baer’s original “Brown Box” against the mayor of Utrecht, the 86-year-old inventor smiled at his victory, and proceeded to tell an eager audience of developers and academics how he invented the home console, showing original documents described as “the Magna Carta of video games.”
Margaret Robertson then took the stage to deliver a keynote on The First Forty Years. “Ralph Baer changed my life,” the former Edge editor began, adding that this statement might sound like an exaggeration, “but let me assure you, it isn’t.”
“My bread and butter is writing about games, thinking about games, breaking them, fixing them,” said Robertson, who is currently consulting on several game design projects.
Games, she said, are how she makes friends and spends time with the friends that she already has, adding that they consume both personal life and professional life.
“My life is defined by the technology that Ralph invented,” said Robertson, adding that following Baer’s presentation was “an honor and rather humbling.”
What Forty Years Affords
“I’ve been thinking a lot about where games have got to, and where they want to go. I spend my life defending games,” Robertson continued, noting that she is called by the mainstream UK press when they have questions about games. And they’re standard questions: violence, additive, expensive, “if they’re too male, which is an interesting question for me to have to answer.”
She notes that other defenders excuse games by saying “we’re a young industry, these are teething troubles, we’re taking baby steps.” But Robertson points out that “we’re not as young as we used to be. We’re 40 years old – and that’s a conservative estimate.”
So what does 40 years get you? Robertson looks at the first photograph from 1826, and sees a marked improvement forty years later. She looks at the first movie from 1888, and sees that by 1928 sound was introduced. Looking at television Robertson notes that forty years after the first broadcast, shows start broadcasting in color.
“We’ve made a massive sweep of progress in those 40 years – or have we?” she asks. At this point Robertson shows a slide of games forty years ago – Pong. And then she shows a slide of games today: Rockstar’s Table Tennis. “And suddenly, I don’t see this amazing shift.”
“I see the fact that, forty years ago, we were playing ping pong. And three weeks ago, we’re still playing ping-pong. And suddenly, I don’t feel so good about the progress games have made in forty years. And I think I’m not alone. I think it’s something the games industry at large feels about itself sometimes.”
“I feel we have a progress gap... $100 million to make GTA IV? 1000 people? What could Ralph have done with 1000 people and $100 million? These are extraordinarily huge numbers.” This puts the industry in a position of being slightly ashamed of itself, and unable to present itself publicly, said Robertson.
“I love the games industry," she continued. "As I said at the beginning, it really is my life. One of the things I love about the games industry is that I get to work with so many brilliant people. I’ve never met so many people who think they have the best job in the world.”
“But it’s not an industry without its secrets. And I think there’s an odd undercurrent, too, that doesn’t get talked about a lot. And that’s that it isn’t as sure of itself as it should be," she explained. "The reasons for that are all depressing. It’s an industry that’s amazingly ignorant about itself.”
“I spent a lot of time in meetings with people who know very little about the industry they represent,” said Robertson, who recalled the story of an industry luminary recently saying that he game industry has no indie sector whatsoever. “And he’s perfectly serious.”
“This happened again and again and again,” she continued, describing pitch meetings where people would excitedly say, “this has never been done before," and adding that the games industry is “weirdly prejudiced against new ideas.”
“Console war. What is that? There is no console war. There is no winning.” We have this black-and-white obsession that’s led to hostility and antagonism that can sometimes come between people, said Robertson, citing the skepticism of the mainstream industry at the start of the serious game movement, and sees that happening again with ARGs.
She estimated that every three-and-a-half weeks, everything in the industry changes. She says that each issue of Edge was a “document of how the world had changed.”
“Pay attention,” she urged the audience of professionals and hopefuls. “It’s incredibly difficult to stay on top of it, but incredibly crucial that you do,” and stressed that developers who don't think they have the time to play games should prioritize it.
“Whether we like it or not, we are changing lives,” concluded Robertson. “This is a concept that makes the game industry very uncomfortable. And I think that’s for two reasons. One of them is, it’s really scary, it’s a terrible responsibility. If we’re changing minds, are we changing them for the better?” Are we keeping people from spending more time with something richer, more rewarding?
Robertson says she has no patience for either of those. “What we do have is the fact that we are changing people lives. I am the fact. I have had my life changed.”
“Who’s next?” she asked.