We say goodbye to 'the Nikola Tesla' of video games

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Marco Werman: Now, there’s a sound that brings me back. Remember Simon, the electronic game with four colors? You know, you follow the light patterns as they grow more and more complex until you fail. The designer of Simon, Ralph Baer, died over the weekend, he was 92. Simon was just one of a slew of inventions Baer created. He’s also largely credited with invented the home video game. Who better to talk about his legacy in the gaming world than video game designer, Ian Bogost. So, give us a quick snapshot of Ralph. Who was he, what was his background?


Ian Bogost: He was a German-Jewish immigrant, came to the States --


Werman: He escaped the Nazis.


Bogost: Yeah, so he’s from that generation and he became an engineer. He was working at a company called Sanders Associates, which was a defense contractor, and came up with this idea of playing games on televisions.


Werman: His game Simon used light and sound. Was there a direct connection from Simon to video games?


Bogost: The idea of using electronics to play games was really at the heart of all of Baer’s inventions. While we may think of video games as these very complicated realistic-looking things, in the early days of games and when Baer was first working in the 1960s, they didn’t look like that at all, it was dots on a screen. So, doing electronics invention was what he was really best at and that’s the similarity between what he called the “Brown Box,” which was his early prototype for a home video game system, and a game like Simon -- they were both electronically-controlled games on a card.


Werman: Describe this first home video game console that Ralph Baer came up with, it’s called the “Odyssey.” This was even before Atari and Nintendo, right?


Bogost: It was before Atari and Nintendo. Baer first came up with the idea in the late 1960s. The idea that the television was the new hearth of the home, it was replacing the radio, it was something that everyone had and that different kinds of entertainment would be possible -- Baer was very much ahead of his time in realizing that. One of the funny stories about these early video game systems was that no one had any idea what you would do with such a thing. Like, you connected this to your TV? This wasn’t something that people did at all at the time. The games were very simple, they looked a lot like Pong.


Werman: For our younger listeners, Pong was an early ping pong game for your TV.


Bogost: A ping pong game made by Atari. The Odyssey played a number of different games just like that, the very first commercial video game system that you could play at home and Magnavox sold a few hundred thousand of them.


Werman: I’m hearing the name Ralph Baer, I’m hearing Odyssey and Magnavox -- I’m not hearing a lot of Nintendo and Atari and Japan here. So, did Americans basically come up with video games first?


Bogost: The home video game system is very much an American invention. First you had Ralph Baer and then Atari, which sounds like a Japanese company, it’s a Japanese word, was founded by Americans; Nolan Bushnell started Atari. So, up until the mid-1980s, when Nintendo gets back into the home console game in America, it was really Americans who were in charge of running this industry, at least as far as home game systems go.


Werman: I gather Ralph Baer patented the home video game and ended up suing a lot of companies, including Atari and Nintendo?


Bogost: There was something about invention that was kind of at the heart of Baer’s persona. I sometimes think of him as like the Nikola Tesla of video games, someone no one has heard of but is behind the actual operation and innovations in a lot of our industry. When Pong came out, Baer looks at the system for Atari and thinks “This is exactly like my system,” and there is a long heated legal battle between them. The irony of Baer’s obsession with patents and with litigating patents is that Simon, the handheld game that everyone knows, was actually based on an Atari coin-operated game called “Touch Me,” that had the same general idea of four buttons. Here we see the difference between patents and copyrights and the way that games are protected, as far as intellectual property goes. You just can’t protect the gameplay of a game, so it’s actually perfectly legitimate to take someone’s gameplay and make a copy of it. But there is some irony in Baer “stealing” the game “Touch Me” and revising it into the much more popular and successful “Simon.” No one has ever heard of “Touch Me.”


Werman: Did you have a Simon and were you any good at it?


Bogost: I was as good at it as any kid was, which is to say I could get 10 or so in and then everything went to hell.


Werman: Ian Bogost, video game designer and editor at The Atlantic. Thank you for telling us about Ralph Baer and his various inventions.


Bogost: Thanks so much.