Remembering Ralph Baer, Part 2

I lived in Australia in the early 1980s, and became an honorary member of a wonderful family whose friendship I still cherish. They had a contraption that I had never seen before hooked to their television set—it turned the TV into a video game. Their youngest son, who was about 6, would goad me into playing the ping-pong game with him, because, honestly, I was hopelessly bad at it. I can still hear his squeals of laughter at my incompetence.

About a decade later, my nephew got his first game console and asked me to play. Even though I was a lot more computer-savvy by that point, I was still a pathetic opponent. I could never get the hang of the controls or understand the goals of these games. I really didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Ralph Baer in his home workshop, 2003

Ralph Baer in his home workshop, 2003. ©2003 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jeff Tinsley.

Then in 2003, I met Ralph Baer, the “father of the home video game,” as he is often known. I was at his home on a collecting trip with colleagues from the National Museum of American History. Ralph was a warm, funny, charming, and marvelously creative individual who told us the now-familiar story of why he invented a way to play games on a television set. All you could do with a TV, he said, was turn it on and off or change the channel. Ralph thought that was a frustrating waste of good technology.

During the course of talking about papers and artifacts that Ralph would donate to the national collections, he showed us the “Brown Box,” the prototype for the first multiplayer, multiprogram video game system. Of course, he challenged me to a game of ping-pong. But losing to the inventor of the game somehow didn’t sting as much as losing to a 6-year-old Australian.

Losing to the inventor of the home video game.

Losing to the inventor of the home video game. © 2003 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jeff Tinsley.

On the day I learned of Ralph’s passing, I came across an article about two German graduate school inventors who are working on a way to make pedestrian crossings safer—by giving people who are waiting for the “walk” signal the chance to play videogames against their counterparts on the other side of the street.

I think Ralph would have been tickled by this testament to his legacy . . . but I dread the day when I will have to win a video game before I can cross the street.

Rest in peace, Ralph.

A Career in Video Games

A visitor plays Pong with inventors Bill Harrison and Ralph Baer in 2009.

Students all over the country have just headed back to school. But what to go to school for?  Video Game Design is one of the fastest growing degree fields, even though as recently as 1996 Bachelor of Arts degree programs didn’t even exist. Two year diplomas in video game programs weren’t even established until the mid-1990’s. Now, however, according to the Entertainment Software Association, “American colleges and universities will offer 343 programs in game design, development and programming, including 301 undergraduate and 42 graduate programs, during the 2011-12 academic year.” The majority of schools with degree programs are located with California, but programs can be found in 45 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia.

As the popularity of video games seemed to become permanent, the demand for qualified personnel to produce them rose. It is a familiar story to the Lemelson Center. Invention leads to an industry built around that invention, and that industry leads to the establishment of programs to train and educate people to work in that industry. Industry pioneers look for people with the certain set of skills they need to reach their goals or produce their inventions. Over time a set of “standard” skills for an industry’s workers establishes itself. Around that set of skills degree programs are built. According to Rich Taylor, senior vice president for communications and industry affairs at the ESA, “with an increasing number of schools now offering graduate programs in game design and development, students have even greater access to the training they need to meet this growing demand.”

In 1967, Ralph Baer and his colleagues at Sanders Associates, Inc. developed a prototype for the first multiplayer, multiprogram video game system. The "Brown Box" is part of the collections at the National Museum of American History.

There are multiple historical comparisons, but the most apparent is the computer industry. The PC was invented during the 1970’s, resulting in an industry to create computers and a need for skilled workers to create them. Within a few years colleges and universities were offering degrees in computer science.  As the industry expands, so do the areas of specialization. When studying video games, people can focus on art, programming, sound and audio, production, and writing, to name a few.

The very fact that video gaming degrees are offered helps legitimizes the industry. But tension over respect still exists. Tell someone you’re getting a degree in engineering and they tend to be impressed. Tell someone you’re getting a degree in video gaming and they tend to think you’re going to be playing video games all day long.

The degree—and the people who earn them—still have a long way to go to earn the same respect that Philosophy, English, Math, and History majors enjoy.  But it wasn’t that long ago that degrees in the computer industry held a similar status. Now little thought is given to people majoring in computer technology. In fact it’s looked on as being rather lucrative. Perhaps video game degrees will find themselves on a similar trajectory to respect as more and more people continue to choose video game design as a career path and its applications expand. This process—of building a new industry around a new invention—has happened throughout history and will continue.  According to Taylor, “while computer and video games have been a source of entertainment for decades, our society is increasingly recognizing the broader uses of games and their positive impact. Whether it is in healthcare, education, business, or government, schools across the country see the value of games and are training their students to meet the demand.” So video game students headed off to school this fall are riding the wave of a cresting industry.