It’s not often you get to speak to the person responsible for creating an art form, but that’s exactly what Midlife Gamer did when we caught up with Ralph H. Baer. An award winning engineer, the inventor of the home video game console and a technological pioneer, gamers worldwide have the man pictured here to thank for our medium of choice. This is what we talked about…
Xero: First question is a bit of a tradition here at Midlife Gamer and something we ask everyone we interview, what is your favourite beverage and biscuit?
Ralph Baer: I drink quantities of cranberry Juice but don’t do cookies… sugar being off the list of things I consume.
X: Do you still play or indeed create new video games? If so, which ones, if not, why not?
RB: It might have occurred to you to ask me whether I do anything at all at my age (88). As it happens, I still do novel electronic toy and game development work including some plug-n-play videogame accessory work.
X: Interactive entertainment is often championed as having the potential to be art, do you think this is the case or are games closer to (incredibly sophisticated) toys?
RB: Anyone who asserts that videogames are not an art-form must be from Mars or somewhere else in the universe.
X: It could be argued that the success of memory game Simon was down to its sheer simplicity. What was Simon’s inspiration, and do you feel that, with the ever evolving technology and complexity when it comes to creating a video game, that some developers might be in danger of losing the ‘fun’ factor?
RB: Simon’s fundamental game play is so simple but compelling that it becomes addictive. The idea actually started by observing the similar game play of the Atari Touch-Me arcade machine.
X: You are the inventor of, among other things, the first gaming peripheral – the light gun. In the current gaming climate, there is little emphasis on additional equipment required to play, did you see peripherals being bigger than they became or were you more concerned with creating technology to suit individual titles? Has the Wii Remote simply become an ‘all purpose peripheral’?
RB: We came up with accessories right from the start: There was the light-gun, as you mentioned, very simple analog joysticks instead of rotary knob controls, a golf ball at the end of a joystick to play a golf-putting game, spinning wheels for wheel of fortune type of games and others. This was the natural outgrowth of our desire to make the product more attractive. Little did we know that had we stopped offering just the ping-pong game, we would have been equally successful. I welcome the appearance of physically interactive games (and their associated accessories) like those of the Wii because that provides the engagement of family and friends in easily-understood activities which I have long since been advocating… the name of the game is fun.
X: Your hardware prototypes now reside at the Smithsonian, do you feel it is important for the industry (and game players as a whole) to understand and have access to its history?
RB: A large number of video game players are interested in the history of their hobby; historians are also interested and I have been actively supporting some of them in their endeavors.
There is still time to collect videogame artifacts because most of the early inventors and developers are still around, including me. However, that situation will not last forever and I have been urging many others to hand their artifacts over to respectable museums with archiving capabilities and an interest in videogame history, to do so before it is too late and the material is lost.
X: What are technological milestones that stand out for you in video gaming since the launch of the Magnavox Odyssey in ’72?
RB: The development of videogames has closely paralleled the increase in speed and complexity of microprocessors and other semiconductor devices which is nothing short of incredible. My 1968 Brown Box’ circuitry consisted of forty transistors and about forty diodes in diode-logic circuitry… we could not even afford to use early ICs… and microprocessors were fifteen years down the pike.
X: Are there any key industry figures or companies that you have particular respect for?
RB: There are any number of great, creative people in these industries, starting with guys like Ted Dabney and Alan Alcorn, the unsung heroes of Atari.
X: In what way do you see gaming evolve over the next decade?
RB: Technically, there will probably be another factor of two in the realism of the on-screen characters and 3-D / stereo will become important. Like in any other artform, new genres will come long and add novel game play to the current scene.
X: How do you feel the industry and culture of games has moved forwards up to this point? Positively? Negatively? And are the associations gaming has with players committing violent crimes valid at all?
RB: The videogame industry is gigantic… just like the movie industry or any other artform it offers the whole spectrum of goods from great to bad and really unsavory and destructive.
X: You have experienced, if I might say so, more than your fair share of suppression with your early years in the climate of government controlled media in 1930′s Germany. Do you feel that the censorship of violent and overtly sexual titles currently happening in that and other areas, notably Australia and South America, is overly zealous?
RB: In theory, Goverment should not censor the arts or anything else; once that starts, there is no telling where it will end; unfortunately, human nature is so self-destructive that some regulation has to beenforced. Depending on one’s personal view, there is either too much or too little control… but that goes for all of human activities.
X: One thing that we think ludicrous in hindsight is the early criticism of creating video games as a viable industry; even your old employers Sanders Associates were wary of the success Magnavox Odyssey had. What advice do you have to any potential inventors and game designers?
RB: Do the best that’s in you… there is no such thing as an easy road to success in any field.
X: You are often referred to as the ‘Father Of Video Games’. Do you like the term and do you feel it comes with any particular responsibilities?
RB: Certainly I like it because it just happens to be correct, keeping in mind that videogames at the time I invented the genre were what we later termed console games. Arcade games, on the other hand, sprang forth from the attempt to put a coin-box on Space War computer games.
X: Finally, you’ve had a long and incredible career, but how would you like to be best remembered a hundred years from now?
RB: As a nice person who just happened to come up with a paradigm among hundreds of other creations.