the fact that the history of video games thus far only spans a few
decades (in fact, less than half a century at this point), its story is
still quite rich with notable events and inventions, as well as the
people behind them. Some names from the early days have emerged, most
notably Nolan Bushnell, who is widely considered the "Father of the
Video Game Industry".
another name is finally getting its due, as perhaps the true father of
the medium, and while he still has a way to go, Ralph Baer, creator of
the Magnavox Odyssey and the game concept later known as Pong,
is determined to let his story be heard. Baer made a special appearance
this past Saturday at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New
York as the star of the Video Games 1.0 exhibition. The museum houses
numerous video games from throughout its history (they claim to be the
very first institution in the United States to recognize the medium as
an art-form, having done so since the late '80s), and its most recent
edition are replicas of the TV Game #2 and Brown Box, both prototype
systems created by Baer in 1967 and 1968 respectively, that ushered
video games into the living room.
sitting down for a conversation in front of the audience, a short clip
was shown from forty years ago, in which Baer presented his idea for an
all-purpose box that he was courting cable television providers with
the idea of funding. Baer predicted that individual electronic devices
that only had one use were "on the way out", and instead there would be
a single device that would attach to televisions to allow people to do
a variety of things, such as view pay television, buy items, even play
games. If anything, since the title of father of home video games might
be hard to wrangle from a certain other party, perhaps a more fitting
moniker might be the Nostradamus of gaming.
Ralph Baer surrounded by some of his many inventions.
conversation covered highlights from his entire career, which
correlates with many of video game's baby steps, starting with his
notion of creating a device that would allow people to play games which
would be provided by cable television operators and "downloaded" onto
the machine. Later, when it was realized that many of the components
that were in Baer's proposed device, the TV Game Unit #2, which
included a joystick, pump, and a lightgun, something which Baer
addition, there was an audio cassette featuring Baer's voice to explain
each game, with the explanation given that once he discovered countless
executives would be checking the unit out, he wanted to make sure that
there would be no mistakes. Next, Baer decided to court television
manufacturers, back at a time when most manufacturing was still going
on within America. Another device was created, the Brown Box, which was
a vast improvement over the previous unit; instead of just having two
player-controlled rectangular spots on screen, this new machine allows
for two player-controlled spots and a third machine-controlled one as
well. Eventually Magnavox signed up to produce the very first home
console, the Odyssey.
Not surprisingly, Pong
was touched upon as well, and Baer related how Nolan Bushnell played
the Odyssey's ping-pong game back in 1972 at a dealership demo and
later went on to create the Pong arcade game, and subsequently
the creation of Atari and the VCS, which led to Bushnell becoming a
figurehead in video game history.
lawsuits resulted, not only against Bushnell, but numerous other video
ping-pong copycats, which Baer and company were able to all win, mostly
due to his patents and extensive note taking (his advice to all would
be inventors in the room was a loud and clear "Keep notes!"). As for
Bushnell, Baer only met him once to shake hands, at the steps of a
Chicago court, each surrounded by lawyers, and despite any personal
feelings, did mention that his contributions to the arena of arcade
gaming were without question. However, Baer was also quick to mention
that Pong was basically a $100 arcade unit based upon a $15 home device.
also voiced various frustrations he had with Magnavox at the time,
including their lateness when it came to pursuing legal action, as well
as their reluctance to look at the "next generation" of video games.
His ideas for creating a system that used unique game cartridges
instead of just ones that simply affected pre-built variations in the
hardware was looked down upon, mostly due to reasons of cost (Baer
mentioned that new features could have been incorporated for just an
additional $5-$10 at the production level). In addition, his ideas of
different control interfaces, which again proved that he was a man
ahead of his time, were not completely acted upon.
challenges have never stopped or discouraged him, and simply lead Baer
to different avenues, which led to him becoming a freelance engineer,
which is still unheard of. Aside from working on Coleco's Telstar
system, Baer moved away from video games and towards toys and other
electronic devices, with his most successful one being the memory-based
electronic game Simon. But he still flirts with gaming, as evidenced by
his mentioning of a new form of dancepad that he's helping to develop
for the PS2 and Xbox, one that is wireless and which will actually not
utilize pads at all (though he was hesitant to elaborate further).
Shortly before the event, I had the opportunity to sit down and ask Baer a few questions:
GS: Steven L. Kent (author of The Ultimate History of Video Games)
has been quoted as saying "Baer is brilliant, knowledgeable, and,
perhaps, a little angry. Can you blame him?" So, are you angry?
I was an angry person at the time of the quote. But thankfully, Steve
at the time was doing research at the time for his own book, and the
record is being set straight with books such as his and my own [Videogames: In The Beginning].
I've met [Nolan Bushnell] only once. We were supposed to meet on several occasions, once to have a face-to-face play-off in Pong, but he never showed up.
40 years, ago you came up with the idea for using TV sets for playing
games. Did you ever imagine things would get as far as they have?
Could Thomas Edison have predicted that everyone would be walking
around the street with portable telephones? No, I had no idea.
GS: How do you feel about games today?
I don't play them, they're too complicated. My grandkids recently got a
racing game for their Xbox, and I tried playing it for 10 minutes, but
couldn't. The controls were too much. I understand that the Xbox is
supposed to have analogue controls, but it sure didn't feel that way.
So you would say controls are too complicated? After all, today's
controllers feature more bottoms, even more than one joystick, with
varying levels of sensitivity...
They're too complicated for me. But not for today's kids. They just
don't create things out of the blue - there's teams of many engineers
who spend much time and energy to develop such things. If billions of
kids can play it, I must be doing something wrong. I can be wrong
recently (Monday, Feb. 13, 2006) received a National Medal of
Technology from President George W. Bush for his groundbreaking and
pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive
GS: Have you followed been following the evolution of games?
Yes. The other day I was at the Smithsonian, where they're scanning in
all the documents I had created when developing the Odyssey, and the
woman who was doing all the scanning was impressed by all my crude
drawings of all these stick figures doing different things. I drew them
to illustrate my idea of a combat game, or of a sports games, and she
noted how all these ideas I had 30, 40 some odd years ago all came to
pass. I don't claim to invent the term "interactive video" but I'd like
to think I was that I helped to make it all happen.
GS: What do you think about the Odyssey? Did it live up to your expectations?
Ralph Baer: Yes, since it was designed to make me money! [laughs] I am a businessman, after all.
GS: What do you think of the recent “video games as art” movement?
Ralph Baer: I think its great. There's a craftsmanship and art form to creating games.
GS: Do you consider yourself an artist?
Ralph Baer: No. I'm first and foremost and inventor. But what we created was indeed art.