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Ralph Baer is the father of video games. Want to contest that crown? Then produce a document that can prove it – one that's earlier than his.
An engineer at heart, Baer has kept meticulous records of his work, from the first dot he displayed on a screen. In this interview, Baer discusses his roots, his work ethic, the problems with patents, and what drove him to create the first video games.
[A condensed version of this interview originally appeared in the March, 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine. Here we present the full, uncensored interview for the first time!]
Gamasutra: I've read that you were born in Germany in 1922. When did you first come to the United States?
Ralph Baer: 1938, in August, which was three months before Kristallnacht, when things got really nasty. I was damn lucky to get out just in time.
GS: How did you feel about the United States when you first came here?
RB: Well, I spoke English because I had English in school. I took English lessons, so it wasn't like I couldn't communicate or didn't know what was going on around me. Within a week after we arrived in New York, I was working from eight in the morning 'till six at night in a factory for the next two years.
Six months later, I see somebody in the subway with a magazine. On the back of the magazine [it said] "make big money in radio and television servicing," and somehow, that was me, so I spent a buck and a quarter every week out of my twelve dollars of wages on the correspondence course. I finished that in a few months, took the advanced course, finished that. Left the factory and started servicing radios.
[I] did it all: I picked up all deliveries, fixed radios, fixed early television sets, put up antennas all over the place on rooftops in mid-Manhattan, and then Uncle Sam came along and, yeah, I went back to where I came from. First England, then to France, you know, as a GI in '43.
GS: Did you enjoy playing sports as a kid, or other games like checkers, chess, or anything like that?
RB: Yeah, well sports I wouldn't put in the same category as board games. We played a lot of board games. We thought that all the board games we played were invented in Germany, because after all, if you were a German, everything that is and has ever been invented was invented in Germany. And we played things like Monopoly and stuff like that.
Yeah, we thought of them as German games, but they were all American games. [Laughs] We played board games. I played chess in Germany, and after I came over here for a while. But I wasn't very good at it. Sports? Yeah, in school, we all played soccer, but I was never any good at it
GS: What was the very first video game you created? Was it the "pumping" game?
RB: No, the very first thing was first to put one spot up. Once we had one spot up and we knew how to move that around, we said, "Oh, let's put two up and chase each other, and wipe one out when you catch up with him." The "chase game" was the first.
The unit is down in the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. It's already been played by probably ten thousand school kids in the last year. And it's just a lot of fun. And it's played with joysticks. We had joysticks wired up to stuff. I made very, very inexpensive analog joysticks. You chase around, and if you're clever enough, [you] keep dodging the guy who's chasing you, and it's exciting! It's two frigging spots on screen and it makes one exciting game.
GS: Speaking of joysticks, don't they come from the aeronautical industry?
RB: Sure, they did. 'Cause the word comes from the joystick in an airplane, right? And early on, vector displays -- computer-driven vector displays in the '50s -- had joysticks to move a spot around the screen, so they were not an original idea. But the idea of using joysticks to play games with was original. We did that.
We came up with playing games on a television set. We came up with pointing a light gun and shooting at the screen. It was all original, all within the first twelve months. If you read my book carefully, you'll notice we only worked on stuff for a month or so, and then a technician has to go off on some other military program [that was] more important, right? And nobody's working on stuff for several months, and then we go back to it [and] work on it part time. When you string all the months together that we worked on the stuff, it was probably no more than a year and a half. Maybe two years.
GS: It was spread out over a long period of time.
RB: So spread out -- that's why it took so long.
GS: Could you describe the atmosphere of your lab at Sanders when you were developing the first video games?
RB: I had a little bitty room that once was the company's library when they first started on the fifth floor of the Canal Street building in Nashua. And you entered that directly opposite the elevator. You entered it, made a left turn, you were in that little bitty room. And I gave my technician -- the engineer who worked with us for a little while -- keys to the door and I had a key and nobody else had a key -- nobody knew what was going on in that room. It was a floor above where my division was, and it was nobody's business, and in fact, it would have been ridiculed by a whole lot of people if they knew.
GS: That brings me to another question I have. How did it feel to be creating games, of all things... to be developing games amidst this military contractor that's probably usually pretty serious?
RB: Well, you know, to tell the truth, it was a piece of Jewish chutzpah. I'm running a division, heh, and it's certainly hard enough to think about commercial products, never mind coming up with things like video games. But, you know, I'm a creative guy, so I do what I do with it. Well, I mean, I run a big division -- I got certain prerogatives, right? [I get] a couple of guys, I put them on the bench and make them do something I want done, and nobody needs to know about it. It doesn't even ripple my overhead. And two guys out of three or four hundred, five hundred, doesn't even show up.
So I just did it. And when we had something that looked like it was neat, I called Herb Campman, our corporate director, and he saw it immediately. Then he gave me two-thousand bucks and made me honest. But within a month, I had to demonstrate to the president of the company, and all I saw was long faces. "What the hell are you screwing around with?" The board of directors was meeting that day, and they were all there. They were all watching my demo. But there were two people who were very supportive right off the bat. Guys with insight, guys who had foresight. And they sorta tolerated it.
"Quit screwing around with that." That was the question that was asked by my boss, who was the executive VP for quite a few years. I was asked that question many times: "Are you still screwing around with that stuff, Baer?" And I'd smile and say nothing, right?