How I Met the Inventor of the Videogame

Ralph Baer, inventor of the videogame console, recently came to Berlin to celebrate the online launch of the "History of Video Games Timeline" by the Berlin Computer Game Museum. Quite an exciting moment for me, and probably the last chance to have a chat with the man behind the craze that touched our lives and changed the world.

After he gave a speech on his time at Sanders, where he started working on the Brown Box—the grandfather of all consoles—as early as 1966 and invented the light gun, I had the chance to have a brief chat with him.

He really is a likable chap. However, you can tell that he had to fight hard for recognition. If you asked a random person on the street who invented the videogame, the answer would very likely be: "Atari!"

As a matter of fact, though, Nolan Bushnell's inspiration for Pong came from a game included in the first video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, the 1972 commercial iteration of the Brown Box.

While Bushnell can be considered the inventor of the videogame industry, Baer was the inventor of its basis.

He has the documents to prove it, and he held the patents. Consequently, Magnavox not only succeeded in suing Atari for patent infringement but also Coleco, Mattel, Activision, and Nintendo.

Unfortunately he could not sue the public's imagination. As a result, he likes to remind everyone that it was in fact he who made the first step.

When I asked him to sign my copy of Steve Kent's Ultimate History of Videogames, he pointed out that he really liked the book because it presented his version of events. But even someone as invested in game history as Steve needed some persuasion to believe his story.

This is probably the reason why Baer never holds back when it comes to pointing out his numerous inventions and how much ahead of their time they were.

Asked if he considered the Wii the spiritual successor to the Brown Box and the Odyssey, given their family-friendly focus and use of peripherals, the first thing he told me was how he thought up a similar concept in the late 1980s.

But credit where credit is due: the patents he holds are indeed evidence of his visionary nature. He thought of delivering games via cable, entertained the idea of online games and invented other electronic games, such as Simon.

This was finally recognized by the American government in 2007, when was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor the US can confer for achievements related to technological progress.

He was still wearing the pin when he was in Berlin. It was an honour to meet him.


The Cultural Background of (German) Digital Games

Over the course of the last two weeks I conducted a couple of interviews for my Ph.D. dealing with the was the perception of digital games differs in Germany and Australia. By talking to just a couple of people you can tell how the cultural history of a country also influences the way modern media is dealt with. The first person I spoke to was Malte Behrmann, attorney, secretary general of the European Games Developer Federation as well chairperson of the German developers association, GAME. Malte is also responsible for digital games getting officially accepted as Kulturby the German Kulturrat, the umbrella organization of the German cultural associations. This push always reminded me of the strategy of the early German Autorenfilm.

In an attempt to conform to bourgeois cultural norms and thus demonstrate cinemas' cultural and social relevance, the Autorenfilm (films based on the works of famous contemporary authors or written by them directly for the screen) mobilized national literary and cultural traditions against the Schundfilm ('trash film') by serving as an incentive to 'respectable' artists from the 'legitimate' stage and literature to lend their prestige to the new medium. It was basically an elevation of the medium to adhere to bourgeois tastes and therefore broaden its social basis.

Asked if he saw any parallels between these two instances, Malte Behrman answered that he wouldn't sit in his office like a spin doctor and think about how a game could be made more socially acceptable by means of "nobilitation". A statement I thought was quite remarkable as it shows how on a subconscious level Germany's long high-culture traditions and its specific socio-cultural influences still assert themselves – in a way that is decidedly different to Australia where, due to the country's different history, I never encountered a similar attitude. Here digital games – and non-hierarchical entertainment in general – never needed any form of cultural legitimation.

German ad for Commodore VC20

Moreover, Germany's cultural background allegedly influenced the way games were designed: They were regarded as overly complicated, complex and not very accessible (think complicated simulations, strategy games and management games [Parker's note: only Germans would be into "management games"]). When I was talking about this with Philipp from Yager he made the point that this might have something to do with the fact that for a very long time German developers mainly created games for the PC.

In contrast to consoles the PC was an open platform everyone could develop for without having to obtain licenses and development kids – and Germany has a very strong history of home computing. I suppose this is because the purchase of a home computer was easier to justify as it allowed its user to go beyond the mere pleasures of play. As the classical ad above puts it: "How do you land safely on Jupiter and in the next class?" With the most successful computer of the world of course! The VC20, not only does it allow you to land on Jupiter as part of a game, it also plays chess and connects people in play. Well, that but it also teaches math, physics and biology… So much for the theory, but then again this probably had more appeal to Germany's cultural history of a country defining itself in terms of Kultur and education.

This eventually also might have had an influence on the design of German games: most of them went beyond mere play but offered an 'added value' by, e.g. teaching about complex economic correlations and challenging the player accordingly. I remember people at school telling me how they refused to play Doom because they thought it was too primitive. As Jens from Ascaron put it in the interview I conducted with him: "Germans liked to play with animated Excel charts".

German Atari 400 ad - good for games AND school!

Obviously this was a competitive disadvantage: These games, on account of their design, hardly sold outside of Germany, probably another sign of their cultural specificity. Just like the (mainstream) American market did not appreciate the Autorenfilm with its intellectualized themes of broken identities, alienation and magic, history repeated itself 80 years later when it refused to play overly complex German games.

Of course this changed in the last couple of years, last not least because of a transition to console gaming. The Wii and especially the DS were godsend gifts - cheap and easy to develop for and… well cynics might point out that Nintendo isn't very strict when it comes to shovelware. Also German developers are amongst the leading ones in the field of mobile and browser games. But eventually it is quite difficult to rid oneself off one's cultural background. I suppose that's what Philipp meant when he said that even though you can have lived in the US for three years you're not quite 'there' yet in terms of an American (uncomplicated, commercially orientated) mindset.

My next interviews will be about support mechanisms. I wonder if the influences I just described also have an impact on how local game developers are supported by the state run institutions. What are the rules and regulations? And do they get applied eventually? Which games will be funded which won't? Would something violent yet potentially successful receive support? I already got a taste of what to expect when I informally talked to someone about these things on a party and was told that 'serious games' apparently play an important role when it comes to funding in Berlin. Not only because they demonstrate potential 'transfer-effects' (locally developed engines used for something… well, beyond play) but also because they function as a mental guide for the people giving out the finds: As a cultural/ technology-beyond-play token that helps to set everything in motion, the 'ox that draws the cart' so to speak.


Men are from Planet Xbox Women are from Planet Wii: How the Genders Play Differently

Parker directed my attention towards this short yet insightful post by Jenni Mac about how videogames appeal more and more to a female demographic:

[W]atching the report it was clear that this involvement is actually because of two very different reasons. Men enjoy the activity, the skill, and the challenge. Although some women do enjoy these aspects as well, by listening to the interviews and examining the information it is evident women are interested in video games for the same reason they are interested in many other activities, the social aspect. Women quoted enjoying talking about it, getting together with friends for parties to do it and talking to people through the video games. Therefore although women are getting involved it seems to reinforce the true nature of the differences between the genders instead of providing evidence to how they are becoming more "similar" as the report seemed to detail.

Jenni makes a very good point here – one that's also proven by sales records: The Sims, a game whose development team consists of an equal mix of male and female staffers and whose parent company Maxis has a female general manager, sold more than 100 million copies in all its different instalments with almost 60% of its players being females. What is the game all about? Basically: Being social.

This could also explain why the non-casual genre that has the biggest percentage of female players is the MMO with self reported numbers of between 20-25% female audience. As a study by the Nottingham Trent University states:

MMORPGs were found to be highly socially interactive environments providing the opportunity to create strong friendships and emotional relationships. The study demonstrated that the social interactions in online gaming form a considerable element in the enjoyment of playing. The study showed MMORPGs can be extremely social games, with high percentages of gamers making life-long friends and partners. It was concluded that virtual gaming may allow players to express themselves in ways they may not feel comfortable doing in real life because of their appearance, gender, sexuality, and/or age.


And then of course there's the Wii which more than any other console encouraged social play: There're no entry barriers, enough content to appeal to a female demographic and sheer fun of getting together with a couple of friends in front of the TV (probably also one of the reasons why Nintendo neglects its online business). The result: Even after two years after the Wii's release Nintendo still has trouble meeting demand.

Of course men also like to be connected, but this mostly happens within a very competitive framework; Halo or Call of Duty being a case in point (probably also one of the reasons why Microsoft looks so much after its online business).

Then there's the uncanny hate/ disinterest for Nintendo's "albino waggle box“ on the part of the traditional male hardcore crowd ("I haven't touched my Wii in ages!“) not to mention the shame when buying casual games – apparently all these things offend male sensitivities and the traditional (male) technicity of the industry. But hey, what can we do? It's all in our brains.

Allan Reiss, MD, and his colleagues have a pretty good idea why your husband or boyfriend can't put down the Halo 3. In a first-of-its-kind imaging study, the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in men than women during video-game play. (…) The findings indicate, the researchers said, that successfully acquiring territory in a computer game format is more rewarding for men than for women. And Reiss, for one, isn't surprised. "I think it's fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial," he said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species-they're the males."

What about you? If you're a female gamer, what games do you play and why?


What if the Primary Candidates were Consoles?

Gigaom posted witty a piece comparing the Primary Candidates of the Democrats to game consoles:

Barack Obama is the Nintendo Wii: The multi-racial candidate who was first dismissed by Washington insiders for not having enough power or third-party backers — but has gone on to draw immense popularity, not just from hardcore party faithful, but from the young and old, independents and Republicans alike. Instantly appealing like the Wii, Obama is popular not because of his library of policies, but because he is changing the way the game is played.

Hillary Clinton is the Microsoft Xbox 360: Backed by the most money, seen as a reliable and established brand, Hillary appeals most to the Democratic base, much the same way the 360 is most popular with hardcore gamers. Transitioning from her husband’s Xbox era, she offers not revolutionary change but steady, reliable content.

John Edwards is the Playstation 3: Formerly the Democratic frontrunner of the previous generation, Edwards now offers a greatly enhanced library of positions with far more ideological power — which few except Edwards’ die-hard fanboys seem to be buying. Unsurprisingly, the candidates are now polling about the same as their next-gen analogs are currently selling, with the Wii capturing 44 percent of the vote, the 360 pulling in 36 percent, and the PS3 trailing far behind with 20 percent.

Of course one might want to add some qualifications here and there, e.g. the public eventually realising that only changing the way the game is played might not be enough – just like Wii might face a difficult 2008 once everybody has one and the content comes to the foreground. Nevertheless: Both cases, Wii and Obama, show the public's tremendous desire for change from the status quo. Also Hillary 360 Clinton is actually more revolutionary than her Wii counterpart on a couple of issues, especially socialised medicine. Still funny and though provoking stuff though.

One commentator of the piece linked Ron Paul to old school Nintendo games. I'd rather like to think of him as early 80s Atari: old school and half visionary, half crazy.


Content Is King, But Interactivity Is Emperor

If you've been reading this blog lately, you know that we've had quite a few posts about video games lately, and I'm guessing that you think we are either a.) nerds b.) totally missing the point or c.) geniuses for knowing where it's at. Well, if you thought either a.) or c.), you'd be completely right. According to this article, the video game industry is worth at least $3 billion $34.5 billion (I forgot a zero according to Jens and Price Waterhouse Cooper, see comment below) these days, and that should improve to $44 billion in the next four years.

In Japan (always ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to games), people can't get enough of the Playstation 3. Sony and Microsoft might not be able to decide who is better (the latter claiming 310,000 units sold per week), but the Wii is flying off of store shelves at a rate of 350,000 units a week.

Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at, and if you can't recognize how important video games are going to be in the next few years, it's already game over for you. Every single media industry (and beyond) will have to realize that if they don't incorporate video games into their strategy, they're doomed. Content might be king now, but interactivity is on its way to becoming Emperor.


Wii really can’t argue with reasons like this

Fanboys, that scourge of mankind, number 8 on the list of the worst consumer tech trends and blind adherents to corporations that (optimistically) feel about one tenth of the passion for them that they do for their gadgets.  No one wants to argue with them unless they have a fetish for insults.If you can't resist though, here're five reasons why the Wii is saving the videogame industry. Nothing one hasn't heard or read a hundred times before, but nicely and concisely summarized. I'd say: Nothing to disagree with in there. While I still doubt that casual gaming will help videogames realize their full potential (in terms of conveying emotions and storytelling and all that jazz), it is certainly refreshing to see one of the major players in the business break through the dominant mindset of the industry, encouraging simple fun and wholesome play for everyone. The widening of the demographic for games is definitely something to be encouraged; after all most game-haters and moral panic-mongers have their roots in misinformed circles who have never even touched a controller. And hey, the Wii has the potential to transform even hardline anti-gaming moms into game devotees!


It's Not About Manhunt it's About Video Games

Manhunt 2, the latest brainchild of scandal-ridden developer Rockstar, got a hard time all over the world: the English BBFC rejected the title, Ireland and Australia followed suit, while the American ESRB issued a preliminary rating of AO (Adults only) which basically amounts to a ban since most US retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, refuse to carry software rated AO. Accordingly Rockstar decided to temporarily shelve the title.I played the first Manhunt and found its snuff aesthetic sickening. Games like this definitely deserve a high rating and shouldn't get into the hands of minors. Also the whole principle of the title, "its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing" (to quote the BBFC), seems indeed questionable in a more and more "economised" environment with its out of control individualism. But: do these elitist worries justify a ban? Shouldn't every (grown up) individual be able to decide for himself what he wants to consume? Despite having to play the game the censors apparently are still alive and well… What worries me most though is the fact that the distribution of AO games, thanks to the conservative attitudes of corporate America respectively the elitist protection instincts of classification boards is pretty much impossible. Add to this the fact that the console manufacturers (in this case Sony and Nintendo) won't allow AO rated games on their machines. The thing is: through this form of censorship the full development of the medium of digital games in hindered since they are denied the rights of expression traditional media have. Art must contend boundaries, it must resist its industrialisation, and games as a form of art must do so in order to cover the whole range of human emotions – not only when it comes to violence but also to sexuality, one of the most neglected subjects of digital games. The works of the Marquis de Sade are considered classics these days, games on the other hand don't even get the chance to explore similar territories under current circumstances. Sex in movies isn't an issue, also this medium has its erotic classics – a game equivalent of something like The Last Tango in Paris however is unthinkable (though the question remains of how to design a game that conveys these intense emotions). The problem of digital games is that they are trying to strive for respect and artistic expression in an industry with a questionable political economy that is surrounded by moral panics due to the game-illiterate public/ media/ politicians. History tells us that with time this resistance wanes. Let's hope that this is also the case in the sensationalist 21st century.


Casual Gaming vs Innovation

If you had a look at the Japanese sales charts lately you could get the impression that hardcore gaming is coming to an end in the land of the rising sun. Nintendo rules with an iron fist and it seems that it can only be a matter of months until the whole country owns a DS and/ or a Wii. Meanwhile, Xbox 360 sales are still a total disaster which when you think of the games for it, combined with some Americanised corporate ignorance, isn't really much of a surprise. Also Europe doesn't seem too impressed with Microsoft's game culture. Actually the only market the 360 really appeals to is the action-obsessed US with its competitive culture. And even though Sony would like you to believe that if Jesus was a console he would be a Playstation 3, the great unwashed masses don't seem to have gotten the message yet – sales just pretty much suck everywhere.So what can be made of this? It's great to see that Nintendo is tapping a new audience with its approach and finally brings videogames to the mainstream. Which was about damn time considering that the industry had about 30 years for that. Male fantasies of bikini girls with machine guns are complimented with content (ed. note: What's wrong with bikini girls and machine guns?). Also your girlfriend can enjoy the system, as the innovative Wii control scheme allows for intuitive and interesting concepts that don't force you too learn the layout of a 16 button joypad by heart; cheaper development costs (potentially) mean more innovative and daring games. Sounds good, doesn't it? There are issues though. Will people stay interested in the casual games Nintendo offers? Is the five, ten minute distraction compelling enough to keep players coming back for more? Also: Can these games really innovate the medium? Maybe in being different when it comes to certain forms of content and in their control scheme. But it takes more to create something completely epic and new. Innovation is also always linked to new, more powerful technologies. More powerful graphics can make for a better narrative architecture, i.e. a powerful narrative with the help of an immersive environment. Superior calculating power can help to create a better A.I., an area that definitely needs improvement, holds huge promises and could potentially compel games to a new level. Casual gaming is a step in the right direction and a necessary completion. It would a shame though if hardcore gaming completely disappeared or just played a minor rule because this would severely diminish chances of future epic masterpieces. So let's hope Sony and Microsoft get their act together – you might not always like them (for very good reasons I might add!) but without them the future would be bleak.