Q&A with the Father of Video Games – Ralph Baer

by Danny Kim

Ralph Baer

We take game consoles for granted these days. Everyone and their granny owns an Xbox, PS3, or Wii these days, with install base numbers exceeding 140 million in the US alone. However, for consoles to even exist, someone had to invent them; someone had to think, “Hmm, wouldn’t it be awesome if you could play games at home?” and run with it.

The man most often credited with this achievement is Ralph Baer. Now an independent engineering consultant, Baer is best known for being the creator of the Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s very first home video game console. The release of the Odyssey was just the beginning for video games, a medium that has grown from hobby and scene to culture and industry in the last 40 years. Without Baer’s work on the Odyssey, game consoles and video games might never have become as popular and widespread as they are today. Often referred to as the “father of video games,” Baer graciously took some time from his busy day to sit down and answer some of our questions.

Danny Kim: What are some of your favorite games from the past 40-50 years?

Ralph Baer: I stopped playing games when the Nintendo NES was all the rage; I’ve been too busy creating games. Inventing, designing, and licensing toys and games, sure, but I don’t play games. I’m 90 years old!

Do you see games as an art form? How so and why/why not?

Yes, video games are an art form – they’re no different than any other form of creative expression.

Magnavox Odyssey

What were your expectations for the future of video games when you first created the Magnavox Odyssey? How has reality differed from your expectations?  

Reality has vastly exceeded anything that could have been imagined back in the early 70s. The almost magical advances in semiconductor technology that have occurred were totally unforeseeable back then.

What do you see in the future for consoles? Do you ever see consoles and PC merging together into one giant media consumption/creation device?

Of course they’ll merge.

Why do you think console gaming and PC gaming have diverged so much in terms of consumer appeal and sales potential? When did you first see this chasm form?  

It’s because, like any other art form, there are no boundaries, which translates into a lot of different markets. I first saw the split happening in the 80s.

What do you think of cloud-based gaming services, such as OnLive, that eliminate the need for a home console with significant processing power? Do you think such services have any longterm potential? Why or why not?

A move toward cloud-based gaming services are inevitable… so, better get with it!

For more of Baer, check out his book, Videogames: In the Beginning.

Touch and motion based gaming have surged in popularity in recent years and brought games to new audiences, even as critics point out their limitations and oft-gimmicky implementation. What are your thoughts on motion and touch based gaming?

I demonstrated to Konami and others much of the touch and motion technologies that were technically feasible in 1989 – they didn’t off the dime at the time, it was ten years too soon. There will be good and bad applications, with such labels being decided squarely in the eyes of the players.

How has your view on video games and their potential changed over the years as video games themselves have evolved?

I have admired the creativity and apt use of technology and do so every day. It’s all bloody magic and will get more magical all along.

Based on your experiences and observations, do you believe intensive software drives the advancement of hardware to enhance performance or that better hardware drives the advancement of software to take advantage of it?

They drive each other equally, and that’s the reason we’ve managed to get where we are today. We would not have the level of interactive display technology we do today if it hadn’t been for video games. 

Hearing about players dying while playing video games, game-induced violence and domestic issues, and other issues caused (to varying degrees) by video games, do you ever regret your involvement in creating the Odyssey and being one of the first to kickstart the games industry?

A book author is not responsible for what a deranged reader does after reading his book. I might regret what some of the consequences of violent games are, but I take no responsibility for them.

What do you think the “next big thing,” the next revolutionary advancement in games, will be? Where do you see video games as a whole heading in the future? 

Apart from more naturally-viewed 3D and further novel interfaces, videogames will develop like any other art form into uncharted waters. I can’t read the crystal ball any better than you or your professors can… well, maybe. J

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