Ralph Baer and the Beginnings of Video Game Technology

Since the beginning of time, humans have sought ways to entertain themselves. Interactive games have been around for a long time; however, the main problem with them is that another player was usually needed. As technology improved, we have found new ways to make interactive games a solo activity.

What is a Video Game
The video game history started in a strange and complicated way and it is important to avoid confusions with what happened in the 1950s and 1960s. The real video game history started with Ralph Baer as early as 1951. One very important thing to remember is how the video game has been defined in the 1960s before modern technologies allowed video games to be played on computers.

A video game is defined as an apparatus that displays games using RASTER VIDEO equipment: a television set, a monitor, etc. In the 1950s and 1960s, computers were not only exceedingly expensive, but used a technology that could not allow integrating them into a video game system. Only mainframes could allow playing a few games. These games qualified as COMPUTER games, not VIDEO games. To understand video games, one must understand a brief history.
Probably, the first interactive game that one could play by oneself is the slot machine. Slot machines were quite common, and quite popular, although the technology was barbaric, at best. Furthermore, the game could be quite boring to play, (especially if one had a short attention span or were losing all their money). To complicate matters further, slot machines were considered games of chance, and frowned upon by opponents of gambling and subject to legislation by federal, state, and local governments.

After World War I, the Pinball machine was quite popular. Some astute individual probably figured that if the game were made to last longer, and were made more interesting, people would just dump their coins in – simply for the pleasure of playing the game, and thus would eliminate the need for a payout if the customer won, and also curb restrictive legislation.
As early as 1951, a young 29-year old TV engineer named Ralph Baer worked at Loral, a TV company. His Chief Engineer, Sam Lackoff, asked him to build the best television set in the world. Designing a TV set was an easy task for Ralph, and he wanted to add a new concept that his boss did not understand: playing games on the television set. The video game concept was born, but could not be implemented since the boss refused the idea. In September 1966, Ralph came back to his 1951 idea of playing games on TV sets and started building the first video game prototypes. Therefore, Ralph Baer is accordingly credited as the inventor of the video game.

In 1961, MIT student Steve Russell creates Spacewar, the first interactive computer game, on a Digital PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor-1) minicomputer. Limited by the computer technology of the time, Spacewar used new teletype terminals with CRT screens to display the graphics.

In 1962, Nolan Bushnell enrolls in engineering school at the University of Utah, where he is first exposed to Russell’s Spacewar. These two events are significant, as this would spark Bushnell’s interest in computer games, and turn into one of the biggest US businesses of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The story of PONG (not to be confused with Tennis, invented by Ralph Baer) started much earlier than 1972. At the end of the 1960’s, Steve Russell’s “Space War” game had been circulating throughout many campus’ and companies’ huge and expensive PDP computers. Nolan Bushnell envisioned this game being played by the masses. He set to work to build a simpler and less expensive platform to play his version of Space War… the result was Computer Space. The game was sold by Nutting Associates, Inc. and would bear the marking “Syzygy Engineered” to represent Nolan and fellow partner Ted Dabney’s new company: Syzygy, which would later become officially Incorporated on June 27, 1972 as Atari, Inc. (Nolan enjoyed playing Japanese chess game “Go”, where “Check” translated as “Atari” in Japanese, hence the new company name). Only 1,500 Computer Spaces were sold and did not meet with favorable response from the game players.

In an interview, Nolan explained the main problem he had with Computer Space:
“You had to read the instructions before you could play, people didn’t want to read instructions. To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play.”

Nolan and Ted would go it alone and hire Allan Alcorn to design the first game under the Atari name: PONG. “PONG” was chosen for its meaning: a hollow, ringing sound, which was exactly what Nolan wanted in the game. However, PONG was not really designed by Allan. As a matter of fact, Magnavox was putting their new Odyssey home video game console in demonstration. On May 24, Nolan went to one of these demos at Burlingame, California where he signed the guest book and played the Tennis game, a simpler version of PONG.

Arcade (coin operated) video games would become extremely popular in the late 1970’s to the mid 1980’s. Home video game consoles also sold extremely well, although the technology could not quite keep up with the arcade versions. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that home console technology surpassed that of arcade game technology and video arcade businesses were closing rapidly due to lost profits.

Although Baer is credited with creating the first home video game console, it was not a “true” video game, as it did not render graphics nor keep score. All this equipment did was manipulate light patterns on a CRT screen. Bushnell’s offerings, although crude, were more advanced than Baer’s Odyssey.

These two pioneers of the video game industry are credited with laying the foundation for the industry as we now know it. Today’s game consoles are similar in computing power to advanced home PC’s, and offer exceptional performance. Today’s games are generally made by a video game developer (a software developer – business or an individual – that creates video or computer games, which employ a “development team” consisting of one or more game designer(s), graphic designer(s), and other Artists, Programmers, Sound Designers, Musicians, and other types of technicians such as Motion Capture Technicians.

The Industry is a huge money making enterprise. Video games are very popular today, and the market has grown almost continuously since the end of 1983. The market research company NPD estimated that video game hardware, software, and accessories sold about US$10.3 billion in 2002. This was a 10% increase over the 2001 figure.

There are some potential benefits to playing video games. Players can increase/improve hand – eye coordination, have a stress relieving effect, the games may spark an interest in science and/or technology, and gaming improves decision making skills and cognitive reasoning. The potential drawbacks can be; the games may be habit-forming, may limit social interaction, may cause repetitive motion injuries, may induce seizures among epileptic people, and can become expensive. Finally, gamers and game developers can be subject to harassment and unconstitutional legislation. Sen. Joseph Liebermann (D) was the first to attempt to pass such legislation, and forced the game developers to start up the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) to police themselves in order to keep the government watchdogs off their backs. These ratings can (and have been) used as a selection tool by retailers who decide that games that have a certain “rating” will not be sold in their stores, which limits the developer’s sales and hurts everyone in the long run.

We cannot and should not turn our backs on this industry. To do this would be a grave mistake, and a stunning blow to our economy.

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