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Interview: 'The Father of Home Video Games': Ralph Baer

April 24, 2006
 

Despite 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".

But 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.

Before 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.

Baer's 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 pioneered.

In 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.


The Magnavox 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.

Numerous 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.

Baer 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.

Though 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?

Ralph Baer: 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.

GS: 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?

Ralph Baer: 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?

Ralph Baer: 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.

GS: 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...

Ralph Bear: 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 sometimes. [laughs]


Baer 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 video games.

GS: Have you followed been following the evolution of games?

Ralph Baer: 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.


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