The Father of Home Video Games

In which I save an interview that's not going especially well

The 38th inventor in my profile series was Ralph Baer, inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console. Five years before Atari’s more famous home system, this was how people could play video games in their living room.

Well, video games is maybe a bit of a stretch. There were twelve games you could play with the Odyssey, but they were mostly variations on the same game. It came with twelve plastic overlays that you would put on your TV screen to play “ping pong” or “tennis” or “hockey” — basically games where two players move their own little blocks around a screen while the computer moves a third block between them. There was no on-screen score, and no sounds. Just blocks.

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You controlled your block by turning knobs that moved it horizontally or vertically. Using just one knob allowed for pong-type games, but using both knobs let you play some simple follow-the-path games. Imagine trying to navigate a maze with an Etch-a-Sketch and you get the idea.

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell saw the ping pong game on the Odyssey and was inspired to create a more advanced version for arcades, which he called Pong.

Even if you never played the Magnovox Odyssey, there’s a good chance you played with one of Ralph Baer’s other inventions. Ralph Baer also invented Simon, the memory music game. (Fun fact: He chose the notes for Simon based on the notes of a bugle!)

At Ralph’s Place

Ralph lived in Manchester, New Hampshire. I was planning to be in New Hampshire soon, so I reached out and asked if he would be willing to participate in my project while I was there. He was kind enough to invite me to his home for a photo shoot and video interview.

I photographed him first in his living room. There was a nice chess set on the coffee table and I liked the idea of photographing the father of the home video game system playing an old analog game.

I put a Simon game on the table to make a visual connection to his toys, but later I wondered if it’s a bit out-of-place. And I have no good answer to the question of who he’s supposed to be playing against.

Then we went downstairs to his lab where he was still dreaming up new inventions and actively working, even at 89 years old.

What I love about this photo is that Ralph worked in his lab at home for so long that similar photos exist from different eras of his career:

Ralph gave me a tour of his lab, showed me some of his favorite toys that he invented, and then we started the interview.

The trouble with interviewing legends

As I interviewed increasingly famous inventors, I realized that the format I had established for my video interview series had a problem. All the videos featured first-person narration by the subject, including some history about themselves and their invention.

For an unknown inventor, that was great. They were happy to tell their story and get a little publicity. But for someone like Ralph Baer, who at this point in his life had been interviewed hundreds of times, I was asking him to retell a story that he’s told over and over again just so I could get the soundbites I needed.

As I filmed Ralph telling the story of the Magnavox Odyssey, he looked bored. He was resting his head on his fist. His answers were still interesting, but there was not a lot of emotion. I was not getting very good video.

Ralph was almost 90 years old. What did I expect?

But also: Ralph was almost 90 years old! Why was he still working so hard? After he told me the story of the Odyssey, I asked him: You’re already successful. You have nothing to prove. Why are you still working? Why don’t you retire?

And that’s when he suddenly became animated.

My measure of success isn’t a proper explanation of why I do what I do. First of all, my wife died in 2006. She died on a Friday. On Monday, we were in the East room at the White House and the President of the United States put the National Medal of Technology around my head. She didn’t make it. So here I am. We built this house 53 years ago, and I rattle around in it alone. So what do you expect me to do?

Secondly, all my friends, they’re all gone. I’ve outlived them all. I’ll be 90 in March of next year. So what am I gonna do? I need a challenge. So I just keep doing what I’ve been doing. And besides, I can’t repress the ideas.

And I still get a big charge out of making something work, especially the interchange between a software program and the hardware. I write the software, I push the button, I download it into the microprocessor here, and it works. If the beep’s too short, the beep’s not high-pitched enough, I write a couple lines, I push the button, it downloads it, it plays again — aah, beautiful.

It’s like I’m basically an artist. No different from a painter who sits there and loves what he does. Would you ask the same question of a guy who’s been painting all his life, why do you keep painting? Why don’t you retire? Retire to what? Stop painting? This is insane!

What a great answer!

After that, he was on a roll. Question after question, he didn’t hold back. Some of these answers have not been shared publicly before, and are lightly edited for clarity:

Q: Are video games art?

I don’t see where that can be debated. I mean it’s so obviously art, only some critic at the New York Times could ask a stupid question like that. [note: I suspected he was thinking of Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, who had recently written that video games are not art.] Obviously it’s art. I mean, it’s as much art as theater, as painting, as anything else. To answer your question, all of the above.

Kids should certainly be exposed to art even if they’re in a technical curriculum. Not everybody is suited to be a technical person. I’ll give you an example -- I bought an erector kit and I had my little 12 year old next door neighbor’s daughter assemble one of the little cars for me, quite complex. She did it in two days. She’s a complete natural.

It’s the right age for kids to get involved. And the problem is that it’s the parents who have to know enough to get kids involved. The kids can’t do it on their own. They don’t know. What do they know about the world at age twelve? Zip, right? Unfortunately, parents, most of them sit passively in front of their TV sets and watch all kinds of stuff and have no concept of anything they’re touching. All this modern gadgetry. What’s in it? Who did it? How did it come to be? Where did it come from? It’s of no interest. So they don’t pass any curiosity about how the hell we got here from there to their kids.

Q: Do kids play too many video games today? Have you unleashed a monster?

Yeah. I did a bit. What I thought I unleashed was a family game. If you’ll stop to consider for a second, what’s the ping pong game? You can’t play ping pong with yourself. It was meant to be played by two people. And we had four-handed ping pong and hockey games early on, also. I always thought of it as a family game. And it just sort of degenerated into a one player type thing which was never in my mind.

I learned a lesson from that interview that I have carried with me in many interviews thereafter. I never want to be rude to a subject, but sometimes if the interview feels dry, or I’m only getting the expected answers, I will ask a question that challenges the person in a way that gets them slightly on the defense. As long as I can do it respectfully, that often shifts the interview into a more lively gear.

Ralph’s answer about why he hasn’t retired ended up being the highlight of my short video:

Packing things up

In 2006, Ralph donated a lot of personal papers and items to the Smithsonian, and the museum asked him if they could preserve his workshop, too. But he was still using it! He didn’t want to give it to the museum as long as he was still inventing!

Then finally, at 92 years old, he agreed. He wasn’t planning to stop working, but his son promised to build him a more modern workshop to replace it.

So the folks at the Smithsonian went to Manchester and dismantled his workshop.

Just a couple months later, Ralph died. (I actually got a call from the New York Times obituary desk when the news broke, as they were trying to get confirmation before they could run the obit and wondered if I was still in touch with him. I couldn’t confirm his death, but I did pass along Ralph’s home phone number in case someone was around to answer it.)

Today, if you make it to Washington, D.C., you can visit Ralph’s workshop reassembled at the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s Innovation Wing.

And that’s it for another newsletter!

This is your semi-regular reminder to share this newsletter with friends, check out the archives, subscribe to my YouTube series (new episode coming soon I swear!), and be excellent to each other.

Thanks as always for reading.

David

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