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Phone Conference with Ralph Baer
On Tuesday of this week, I hosted a phone conference between my student group, the Orlando Game Developers, and the Father of Video Games, Ralph Baer.  While the name may not be familiar to most, his work certainly is.  If you've ever owned or played a Nintendo Wii, an Xbox 360, or a Playstation 3, you owe at least a smidgen of gratitude to Ralph, who in 1968, put the finishing touches on his Brown Box, a system which would later be marketed as the Magnavox Odyssey - the first video game console.  That predates PONG by about seven years.  Ralph also invented the first video game light gun and the Simon hand held game.  If that's not impressive enough, consider that he holds about fifty patents, according to the United States Patent & Trademark Office's website.

This was a very powerful event for me, for several reasons.  First, we are fortunate enough to live in an age where the men who founded this industry are still around and willing to share their knowledge, and any opportunity to speak with these pioneers is not to be missed.  Second, until recently, I never believed I could be successful in the gaming industry, and while I still have a long way to go, hosting a phone conference with Ralph Baer is certainly a clear sign that I'm on the right track.

The phone call was wonderful.  Ralph narrated his part of the history of video games, explaining how his background as a radio service technician and his involvement in World War II planted the seeds of his greatest ideas.  The story itself is amazing, and can be found in his recently published book, "Videogames: In the Beginning" (ISBN-10: 0964384817).  Finally, after explaining his involvement in the industry, Ralph fielded questions from my students.

One question about the merits of designing games alone or in teams drew a response from Ralph that first struck me as odd.  The student asking the question had mentioned how Ralph created the first video games - code, graphics, and all - by himself.  Ralph began his response with a rhetorical question - "What code?"  This struck me as curious, but Ralph explained how in 1968, his Brown Box didn't run on code.  It wasn't a computer, after all.  There simply was no programming language behind the game.

Just take a moment to imagine that.  In Ralph's lifetime, the video game industry has gone from circuit boards and switches to cell processors.  From the Brown Box to the PS3.  What will we consider cutting edge in forty years?

Perhaps the most poignant moment for me came as I watched my students react to Ralph's responses.  At the beginning of the phone conference, the students were each at a workstation, positioned evenly throughout the room.  But by the end of the conversation, everyone had repositioned themselves shoulder-to-shoulder around the phone like it was a campfire - a kind of reverse entropy.  That image of connectedness - of my students listening to Ralph with rapt attention - will stick with me for quite some time.
© 2011 David J. Sushil.  All Rights Reserved.  For more information, e-mail davidjsushil@gmail.com.