Ralph Baer, the father of video games, died this week in his home in New Hampshire at the age of 92. Few of his heirs—the millions who spend hours each day playing video games—mourned. Most likely, they did not know Baer’s name, which has become the answer to an extra-credit question, trivia for nerds alone to entertain. It’s understandable: Even though Baer produced the first version of a home video game console, he was soon eclipsed by more audacious marketers, by better businessmen, by swamis who knew the right chants to sweep the masses. But Baer understood more than the hardware of video games; he divined their spirit, too. For that, no tribute can ever suffice.
Born in Germany in 1922, he was expelled from school by the time he turned 11, forced by the country’s newly passed racial laws to attend an all-Jewish institution. Two months before Kristallnacht, his parents fled to New York, where the young boy, lacking much formal education, found work in a factory for $12 a week. Electronics, however, were his passion, and he quit his job as soon as he could afford to and enrolled at the National Radio Institute, where he studied to become a technician. This specific skill set led him, once World War II erupted, to the military intelligence division of the U.S. Army’s London headquarters, where Baer had the opportunity to tinker with the best and latest gadgets. When he returned home, Baer used his G.I. Bill allotment to become one of the nation’s first recipients of a bachelor’s degree in television engineering, even though TVs were still scarce in America’s living rooms.
He first realized that our relationship with the TV needn’t be one-sided—that we can control the occurrences on screen, that we may interact—in 1965. Then working for a defense contractor called Sanders Associates, Baer was approached by the Army with a proposition: Develop a computerized simulation to help sharpen soldiers’ reflexes and strategic skills. The military asked that the machine be “luggable”—no more than 80 pounds in weight—and relatively inexpensive.
Several months later, Baer had his prototype: two white dots, manipulated by rotating nobs, chasing each other on a black screen. The military poured more funding into the project, and Baer, now the head of a small battalion of engineers, dubbed the highly secretive project “The TV Game” and his own office “The Game Room.”
By the end of 1966, Baer had a working prototype ready, the first-ever video game console. The members of the Pentagon review board, however, were not impressed; all they could see were several dots of light slowly coming into focus on a large, humming TV screen. Still, they decided to continue to fund the research. Baer, disheartened by the board’s tepid reaction, suggested that the new invention might have commercial value. It could be, he said, a good form of home entertainment. The military, however, forbade Baer from marketing his creation, insisting that the prototype remain classified as top secret.
By mid-1967, the Pentagon abandoned the project altogether, and Baer, now free to pursue commercial partners, pitched his product to Teleprompter, Zenith, General Electric, and RCA, the big makers of TV sets. All refused. Finally, Magnavox decided to take the risk, and, in August of 1972, unveiled its creation, the Magnavox Odyssey.
In many important ways, the machine was decades ahead of its time. It was, for example, the first to show that the future lay not in arcade machines but in home consoles, and it pioneered the use of interchangeable game cartridges. But having no precedent for what such a game system could be or do, Baer and his fellow engineers made some questionable decisions, such as releasing their console with dice, playing cards, and play money, thinking that consumers would not feel at ease with a wholly electronic toy and would need the key components of board games incorporated into the play process to make them feel more at ease. Also, in lieu of graphics, the Odyssey provided plastic overlays, charming tableaus that are now collectors’ items.
The machine was a big success, but not for long. Nolan Bushnell, Ralph Baer’s fiercest competitor, soon launched his own company, Atari, and practiced the kind of cult-like hype that is still very much at the heart of the gaming industry. Baer remained active throughout his life and in 1978 enjoyed another visit to the toymaker’s pantheon with his new creation, a small, round device with four colorful buttons known as Simon. Still, the one insight for which we are forever in his debt is the one he had early on in his career, the sort of insight only the immigrant boy who’d seen the jackboots’ march could have. The idea was that maybe the cure for the ravages of human subjectivity—that sonar that seeks out nothing but differences—is a transcendent state of being with machines. His creation required much more than the turning of knobs; it called for a trance-like state of absorption. Once we hold the game controller, we close a metaphorical circuit with the machine. We are one with it. My own research as a video game scholar confirms this intuition and shows that when we play video games, we suspend much our sense of self and immerse ourselves in a state of pure being where all that matters is our ability to be in harmony with the pixels on the screen. It’s a sweet utopia, and it’s what makes playing video games—an activity too often unfairly judged as mindless and corrupting—into nothing short of a religious experience. And we owe it all to Ralph Baer.
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