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A Brief History of Gaming
The Baer Necessities
By Wes Grogan     |   Posted on June 08, 2007   |   Episode 1 (Show Archive)  

   
devil may cry 4 art
Ralph Baer: Creator of the video game and fan of extremely heavy blue suits!
There's no such thing as cut and dried history. Concepts like eras, generations, and even trends all blend together, and any dividers exist so that historians can feel like they at least tried. With video game history, it becomes even more confusing. Where did it start? Where does it end? Does a new console make a new generation, or does it have to be successful? For the most part, I won't be addressing any of those questions, but I do have to ask myself: "When did home video games begin?" I say home video games because computer-aided gaming in general would take about twelve different episodes to really pin down.

Most people think video games and they think Nolan Bushnell and Atari. Most of us "old gamers" grew up with an Atari 2600 in the house, so it only makes sense that it all started
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Adventure may be primative by today's standards, but it is not the beginning of this story!
with him, right? This is a wonderful example of how popular history is not necessarily correct history. In truth, the very first example of an interactive game was back in 1947, although calling it rudimentary would be generous. For this article, the game would need to be accessible to the public, which takes us to 1966.

To understand the origins of home video games, there are two names you definitely need to know: Ralph Baer and Sanders Associates. Baer, a German immigrant, received a degree in Television Engineering and took a job with a small defense contractor: Sanders Associates. Even in the very beginning, there was a link between gaming and the military, but it was a deceptive link. All of Baer's work for Sanders Associates for his gaming was "skunk work," completely unrelated to the military contracts that the company mainly took on. In 1966, as the division manager with a massive labor payroll, he could get away with this and
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Here Ralph plays his Brown Box on the smallest television he could find!
happily did so. After barely convincing Sanders' executive board this it was worth pursuing, they created Ping Pong and proved that home video games could be fun.

Wait a second! Didn't Atari do Pong and launch home gaming? Yes and no.

See, Sanders Associates sold the manufacturing rights of their video game machine (company downsizing made Baer desperate) to Magnavox. Magnavox, in their infinite wisdom, paid a fair bit of money for the rights, named it the Odyssey, and then did everything in their power to keep anyone from buying one. According to Baer, they "upped the price phenomenally so that the damn thing sold for $100!" He wanted it to be $19.95. They also only showed the system being played on Magnavox television, which made people think those televisions
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While he's most certainly an important figure in the video game arena, Nolan Bushnell is NOT the grandfather of video games!
were required for the system to work. It sounds silly now, but at the time there was no such thing as a video game industry. There were zero consumers that understood how it worked. Crazy, scary times, I know. These were the same consumers that paid $15 in order to get a red sheet of clear plastic for their TV to allow them to watch "in color."

So with Magnavox dropping the ball left and right, the games industry might have started, and ended, in 1971 with the release of the Odyssey. It would take a tall man from Utah, who in reality honed his trade as a midway hawker, to take the industry to the next step. That man was Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. He created a few arcade machines early on, all of which were universal failures (his Computer Space for Nutting Associates used a manual with so
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Sure it's ugly by today's standards, but what other arcade game forced you to find a second person to play with? If you ask me this is the perfect way to pick up girls at the bar!
many pages it has been compared to an encyclopedia more than once). It was when he decided to invade the living room that he made his fortunes though. How did he get the idea? Actually, he got the idea from Magnavox and their Odyssey in 1972. There's plenty of debate over whether or not Bushnell experienced the Odyssey at the Burlingame trade show, but litigation has proven that he did play the tennis game on the Odyssey. Magnavox sued, Atari settled for a ridiculously low amount, and Pong was born. Anyone wanting to compete with Atari from that point out would have to pay royalties to Magnavox, keeping most out of the industry altogether until it was too late. Magnavox essentially became Atari's enforcers, and they did a good job of it due to Baer's desires to protect his patents.

Bushnell didn't stop there in taking the designs of others and making them his own. He also claimed to be the creator of Pong on numerous occasions, despite the fact that it was actually designed by Al Alcorn. Bushnell gave Alcorn the assignment of
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Penny is having a much better Chuck E Cheese experience than I had the other day!
making a table tennis game, supposedly as a way of "testing out" Alcorn for a job. Alcorn ended up creating several aspects that made the game unique and guaranteed that it would be remembered today, such as the "spin" the paddle placed on the ball, the increasing speed, and the unique sound. At one point, Alcorn's son came home confused, asking why Bushnell's son stated that his father created Pong. Alcorn told his son, "If that's true, ask him why his father has to call your father to fix the machine."

Actually, his Computer Space machine was a direct rip-off of Spacewar!, which was created in 1961 at MIT by Steve Russell along with other members of the Tech Model Railroad Club, to run on the
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I bet you didn't expect to see George W. Bush in a video game history lesson!
campus PDP-1. Spacewar!, in the history of computers, is considered to be the first "hack." In a demonstration of how small the video game world was at the time, Russell ended up working for Bushnell during his post-Atari years.

Bushnell liked to call himself the "father of video games," which made for good press. Don't get me wrong, though. In some ways, he is accurate in calling himself that. Video games, as we know them today, wouldn't be around without Bushnell's marketing savvy. Even years later, when he formed Chuck E Cheese Pizza, he made sure to put video games in every restaurant. He helped make video games popular and "cool" for both home and arcade use. He might never have gotten the idea to take the living room by storm, however, without the years of effort and experiments that Baer put into developing the Odyssey. Don't feel too bad for Baer, though, since you've probably enjoyed his handheld called the Simon, the technology behind light guns, cable television transmitted gaming, talking picture frames, Talking Tools for Hasbro, and interactive VHS technology. With over seventy patents, Mr. Baer continues to do interviews and look for new creation opportunities. He was finally recognized officially in 2006 when he received the National Medal of Technology from President Bush for inventing the game console and launching the industry that we know and love today. His early prototypes are even displayed in the Smithsonian. So yeah, he's done alright for himself.

Bibliography:
The Ultimate History of Video Games, Stephen L. Kent
Video Games: In the Beginning, Ralph Baer
The Internet in general. Thanks, Internet!
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