An interview with the late Ralph Baer, the father of modern videogames

This article originally appeared in Issue #6 of Kill Screen.

Without Ralph Baer, this magazine wouldn’t be in your hands. He is the creator of the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home console released in 1972, along with countless toys and electronics. He has received the National Medal of Technology from former President George W. Bush, and has been admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But things have changed drastically since Baer first started showing off Tennis on the Odyssey. He’s recently spoken against violent videogames in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, calling them a disgrace. I called Baer at his New Hampshire home to discuss the seed that birthed an industry.

The seed that birthed an industry. 

Why did you end up creating the first Magnavox Odyssey?

Very simple: I’m a television engineer by degree. I looked at 40 million television sets that wouldn’t do anything except play local telecasts. If you were lucky you’d get two stations, three stations. Seemed pretty obvious to me that you can do more than that with a television set. So I came up with attaching something simple. That’s how it started. Within a year we’re playing ping-pong, handball, volleyball, shooting at the screen with light guns.

It seems intuitive now, because of your work, but did people get the idea at the time?

Of course they did. The Magnavox sold close to 100,000 units the first year, which means 100,000 families and visitors played games. That started the industry with a bang.

Did you end up playing a lot of these consoles at home?

No. The kids played with them because I was working with things in my own lab. They were the first to play videogames.

I don’t remember the kids playing much of anything. They played outdoors. Not like today: in front of a goddamn screen all day. Videogames, as I conceived them at the time, were thought of as a family entertainment sort of thing, not for some kid to sit down at and gawk at by the hour.

Do you have grandkids?

I have a set of grandkids in Boulder, Colo., another in Salt Lake City. I’m in Manchester, N.H. We don’t often get together, but I talk to one of my grandkids almost everyday. One of them is an avid videogame player. The others, not so much.

Recently you were quoted as saying, “Nobody realized, even at the time, that we were on this geometric curve … that would go straight up to heaven.”

Nobody had a crystal ball, but nowadays, having a little of that curve for 40, 50 years, everybody’s willing to predict that we’ll be on Mars in three years. Attitudes change. How could you predict anything as fantastic as what you take for granted? Your iPhone, your iPod, iPad: How could you predict that 10 years ago? 

No way. Well—maybe 10 years ago, but not before that.

Even as far back as 10 years ago, I don’t think I could have imagined half the stuff available to me right now.

Going out with an engineer is hard. At the time, we engineers, we used to put our arms around everything. I built communication equipment, test equipment, medical equipment, industrial equipment. You name it, we built it. By comparison to today it was really simple stuff.

Think about it: Radio had four or five tubes; that was like four and five transistors. You look at your watch, if you wear one; there are tens of thousands of transistors. You look at your iPod or your iPhone, there are many, many millions of transistors. How could you compare that? How could you look forward to something like this? Nobody can read a crystal ball.

Whenever technology is ready to do something, it’s gonna happen. 

You’ve also been quoted as decrying violent videogames. You called them a disgrace. How does it feel to know that your invention, meant for family entertainment, is being used for that?

Your question presumes that I came of the idea, I built something, and that was the end of it; but in fact it was the beginning. I spent most of the ’70s demonstrating interactive video in one form or another.

You’ve been creating electronics for a while. Did you think the shift in technology from the ’60s to the ’80s was inevitable?

Of course. Whenever technology is ready to do something, it’s gonna happen. There are thousands of people out there who have the education, interest, and drive to create something. I did it first, so, hooray.

Do you still create?

Yes. Very much so. I do electronic handhelds. As you know, I did Simon back in ‘78. I’m still doing it. The annual toy fair starts tomorrow in New York. I keep cranking. What else would you want me to do? I’m only pushing 90.

What do you see the future being like, from where you’re standing right now?

Who knows what the future will hold? All we know is, everything’s fantastic now. From the iPod to the iPad is complete and total magic, and we’re just going to have more and more total magic out there. Especially in areas like voice recognition. All of which is a little scary, because once the machines really do a good job, like the Siri thing on the iPhone, once the phones can interpret and guide, how long before they talk to each other? How long before one phone says to another phone, “I think my guy is a complete and total nut, and next time he wants me to show him a restaurant that I know is no good for him, I’m gonna tell him to knock it off and send him to the health food store.” How soon before they start dictating to us what to do? There’s the astute possibility we might have to cope with: The smarter we make the machines, the closer we make them rivals.

If you had the chance to talk to a younger version of yourself, how would you prepare them for this?

The problem with this industry is, as any other art form, you can’t generalize. Undoubtedly, as videogames grow as an art form, everybody will find something to suit his or her taste. I’m sure you can do that already. It’s just another art form; you can’t generalize it. It’s extremely broad in what it can do—what it can portray. 

For more information about the birth of the home console industry you can read Baer’s book

Videogames: In the Beginning

Photo credits: 1, 2