When you hear the phrase “Father of Video Games” who comes to mind? You probably picture the founder of Nintendo, Fusajiro Yamauchi, or maybe Atari’s Allan Alcorn, the creator of Pong. But did you know the title actually goes to Ralph Baer, a Jewish guy in the 1960s who has made video games what they are today. Pretty wild.
It was Baer who made interactive video games and modern consoles possible. But his childhood wasn’t filled with carefree visits to the arcade like you may envision. Baer and his family fled Germany before World War II, entering America with a new name and hoping for a new life. Baer graduated from the National Radio Institute and then served in the US Army for three years before getting his Television Engineering degree from the American Television Institute of Technology — pretty impressive after such a horrifying childhood fleeing the Nazis.
I had the misfortune of being born in a horrendous situation.Ralph Baer
From there, Baer actually had a job that sounds pretty boring compared to “video game creator.” Instead, he oversaw the development of electronic systems for the military. He was doing this for quite some time before he started to wonder about how he could elevate people’s experiences with the television. TVs had just started becoming accessible to everyday families in the 1960s and he was already wondering what was beyond the grainy black and white game shows and news clips that he saw mesmerizing entire living rooms full of people.
Coming up with novel ideas and converting them into real products has always been as natural as breathing for me.Ralph Baer
By 1966, Baer had built a prototype of the first ever video game console, meant to be used on TVs at home.
“The idea of putting all those TV sets to a new use first occurred to me and the TV games concept was born,” Baer was quoted as saying. “Just the thought of tying a new commercial product on to even a small percentage of all those TV sets was pretty exciting.”
This first-ever console was called the “brown box” at first, eventually renamed the Magnavox Odyssey. It was released to the public in 1972. According to American History, the Brown Box could be “programmed to play a variety of games by flipping the switches along the front of the unit, as can be seen in the picture.” It included games like ping pong, checkers, target shooting, and various sports games, including a golf game that had a special attachment.
Baer continued to create console prototypes and other hardware and electronics that made gaming at home possible. This includes Simon Says, the infamous matching game where you press buttons that just lit up in a certain pattern. All of this put Baer in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010 and he received the IEEE Edison Medal in 2014 for pioneering interactive multimedia like video games. By the time he passed away in 2014, Baer had been involved in over 150 patents.
Whenever you turn on your gaming PC or Xbox to start gaming with friends, just know that this is all thanks to some old Jewish guy who escaped Germany to become one of the most innovative minds in early video games.
Paving the Way For Jewish Nerds Everywhere
Baer may be the “Father of Video Games,” but more Jewish nerds have shaped the video game industry as we know it since the Brown Box.
Three cheers for the artistry of the lone designer doing his thing!Ralph Baer
Video game designer Jordan Mechner programmed the Broderbund Apple II games Karateka and Prince of Persia in the 1980s. Jordan Weisman founded five game design companies. Jason Rubin is a comic book writer and game director that gave us classics like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Dexter.
Israeli programmer Neil Druckmann is the Co-President of Naughty Dog, responsible for Uncharted and The Last of Us. These video games have changed the way we view video game narratives, with The Last of Us even becoming a very successful show that has gripped us with its intensity and emotions.
Ken Levine led the creation of the BioShock series and was crowned “Storyteller of the Decade” by Game Informer. David Jaffe helped with God of War, a violent FPS that has continued to be a classic favorite. The list goes on and on — you get the idea.
An entire generation of talented people – engineers, artists, scriptwriters, musicians, programmers – have been busy creating a whole new art form for us. The name of this new game is interactivity.Ralph Baer
And that’s just video games. We’ll cover comics next and that may take a while. Then there’s movies, Dungeons & Dragons, board games… We’ll try to get to everything but we first wanted to just recognize Baer for his incredible innovation and vision.