Review: Videogames: In the Beginning by Ralph Baer

Book: Videogames: In the Beginning
Author: Ralph Baer, the father of video games from the Magnavox Odyssey era
Year: 2005

Summary: A autobiographical recounting of Ralph Baer’s career, focusing on the Magnavox Odyssey and supported with a wealth of primary sources. Focused on engineering and business development rather than design.

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Ralph Baer passed away in December at the age of 92 and I bought his book almost immediately afterwards. I feel like I’ve always known his name, but never what he was known for – turns out, his greatest work was done before I was born. The forward to the book makes it clear that this is a common problem, that many people aren’t aware of Baer’s immense contribution to our field.

Videogames: In the Beginning opens up in a somewhat defensive posture that gives you an idea of why Baer wrote it in the first place. He wants to set the record straight, clear up the myths, and tell the facts as he knows them. Baer is also intent on explaining why he – not Bushnell, nor anyone else – was the inventor and father of videogames, a role and title largely unrecognized for most of his life. (He makes this argument that he invented videogames from an engineering and business standpoint: (1) he created the first games to use television technology to display them, and (2) he invented and launched the first home console, which created an industry.)

The book covers Baer’s time in the game industry, heavily focusing on his role inventing videogames (with working prototypes as early as 1966!) and ending with his own consulting work on electronic toys such as the ubiquitous four-colored “Simon”. He covers his long career at Sanders, a technology company that largely worked on defense contracts who saw his original tv game prototypes as leading, correctly, to military training simulations. He talks in great detail what it was like to invent new technology and pitch it to TV and cable companies in the hopes they would put it into production – starting with his “Brown Box” that became the Magnavox Odyssey but definitely not ending there.

Baer provides a huge collection of primary sources displayed in their original state right in the pages of this book, and that alone is worth checking it out. Many of these design documents, schematics, contracts, focus testing feedback, photos, and original electronics exist thanks to meticulous record keeping and years of enforcing video game technology patents that Baer owned. He even includes all his video game patents in an appendix in the book if you would like to read them yourself. I was born after all these patents expired, so I wasn’t aware that Baer essentially owned the patent on “moving dots on a screen with player input” and similar mechanics that we just take for granted these days. This also explains a bit why Baer was a controversial figure in games, since patents aren’t looked too kindly upon by most game developers. In contrast, Baer encouraged and helped enforce his patents, since this is part of the ecosystem that gave him funding for his video games technology R&D department at Sander’s. (I think his habit of going to arcade conventions and writing down games that infringed on his patents to pass on to Magnavox lawyers would not endear him to many people today).

Videogames: In the Beginning is hard to review because it’s both an amazing, excellent source of early video game history while also being steeped in engineering terminology and a personality that might turn some people off. This book has a casual tone at times, as though Baer sat down with you, started “telling it like it is”, and not didn’t care if he talked poorly but candidly of other people in the industry. I felt this kind of direct, uncensored line to the author was rather refreshing.

On the other hand, Baer was first and foremost a technologist and engineer. His writing is steeped in details about inventing not just concepts but also building the schematics and hardware. If the phrases “integrated circuit” or “vacuum tube” bother you then you might consider passing on this book, or just skim large parts of it. The first half of the book interested me enough to wade through all that engineering terminology since it covered the lead up and launch of Magnavox Odyssey. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hold my fascination through the second half which involved a lot of miscellaneous video game inventions pitched – often unsuccessfully – to companies like Coleco, Atari, Mattel, and so on.

As an introduction to early video game history, this book is narrowly focused on Baer’s own life and experiences and does not purport to give an overview of the subject. I would recommend reading more general history book like The Ultimate History of Video Games first before you do a deep dive into a single thread in that story in this text. I enjoyed Videogames: In the Beginning and I learned a lot from it, but only pick it up if the narrow subject matter is one you are particularly interested in.