The man who invented home video games may have known more about real guns than any other game creator in history. But, he tells Kotaku, that's not why the first game console had a gun.
Ralph Baer is 88 and still keeps busy in his lab in New Hampshire, decades after inventing the first home video game console and other popular electronics such as the Simon.
He's known by many as the father of home video games, because in 1966 he conceived of the first home gaming set-up, prototyped it throughout the late 60s as it evolved into the "Brown Box" and then, in he early 70s, as the Odyssey video game console from Magnavox..
The Brown Box and the Odyssey included one of Baer's key video game inventions: a light gun.
Gamers may not realize, though, is that Baer, who made it possible for them to shoot light guns and virtual guns in their video games, was an authority on guns. One of the world's first video game creators was an expert in real life weapons.
Baer's knowledge of guns preceded his invention of home video games by a couple of decades.
Military Days - "I could have taken any one of several hundred hand guns, machine guns, submachine guns or rifles apart behind my back in the dark"
Baer was in the U.S. Army during World War II. A German immigrant who arrived in America in 1938, he served in U.S. military intelligence in the mid-1940s. Baer was part of a group of German and Italian-speaking Army officials who taught a quarter of a million U.S. soldiers how to handle Axis weapons.
In the course of teaching soldiers about weapons, Baer said, his group began acquiring them. He found himself in charge of a weapons museum in Tidworth, south England that was full of enemy armament. The museum had a German 88 —a massive piece of artillery — a half-track, anti-aircraft guns, and machine guns. The 88 came from the Spanish civil war. Other weapons came from the North African campaign. Some came from the British, from what they had acquired.
"I got more and more familiar with weapons," Baer said. "Since I could read German — I could read some French and I could read a smattering of technical Italian and Spanish — I became a self-taught expert in foreign weapons. When the war was over, I'm living in a suburb in a Paris and I'm getting ready to ship 18 tons of small arms back to the U.S."
Caption via Baer: The rifle racks have bolt-operated and semi-automatic rifles from all over Europe including Britain, France Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc. and a few Japanese weapons. No duplicates.
Guns had become a passion of Baer's. He knew so much about them.
"By the time we left Europe I could have taken any one of several hundred hand guns, machine guns, submachine guns or rifles apart behind my back in the dark and told you what they were. I could draw extensive diagrams showing the relationship between, say a Russian submachine gun and a Czech submachine gun."
Says Baer: "When I do things, I do things thoroughly."
Caption via Baer: "The "stripped" weapons are (from left to right top row) are an Austrian sub-machinegun; then a German MG 34 M.G which was already obsolete and replaced by the MG-42 (both very high rate of fire m.g.s) ; next is a semi-automatic handgun (don't remember from which country). The bottom row show the same weapons but stripped into their major components. For example, the center photo shows the barrel housing of the air-cooled barrel, which can be seen just below it, and the rest are various internal parts plus the pistol-grip assembly with the trigger mechanism.
Baer returned to America in January of 1946 and set up a museum of weapons in Fort Riley, Kansas. He wrote a book about the history of machine guns.
Despite his Army experience, Baer says that any connection someone might draw between his expertise with guns and his creation of the first gun controller for the first video game console would be "pretty tenuous."
Inventing Home Video Games - "What the hell else can I do with that freaking spot? One idea is: Shoot at the goddamn thing and wipe it off the screen!"
By 1949, Baer had left the Army and became an engineer. He would spend the next two decades working on everything from surgical equipment to radar, according to a Smithsonian biography of the inventor.
It wasn't the gun-expert part of Baer that ensured a gun would be a part of the world's first video game console. It was Baer's nature as an engineer.
In late '66 and '67 the early game consoles Baer and his technicians were making involved simple experiences that lent themselves to simple types of games.
"Think about it in these terms," he said. "We've got a spot on the screen. We can move it around. That's kind of fun. We put an overlay on the screen and now I can play some sort of single-sprite elementary game that isn't very satisfying. So I say, 'What the hell else can I do with that freaking spot?' One idea is: Shoot at the goddamn thing and wipe it off the screen!"
Thus, video games would get their first gun: "I sent the technician to a toy store. He comes back with a plastic gun. We open it up. We put some electronics in it to pick up the light, put a switch on the trigger and build the circuitry and, if there is coincidence between imaging the light from the spot on the screen which is otherwise dark we wipe off the spot on the screen."
This was purely an engineering feat, Baer said, though it is obviously a mixture of engineering technology and engineering fun. To promote and sell his concept, Baer needed something that could be delightful. The shooting helped, though he said that the depth of shooting possible in that early tech limited the joy of those first light gun experiments. "We didn't have the scenario you have today where you have interactive targets running around all over the place, which is very different." No, the spot on Baer's screen originally stayed still, and, because of that, other non-shooter experiences proved to be better earlier games.
"By the time we were playing ping-pong and handball and volleyball [video games], I thought it was a lot more fun than shooting the targets."
Of course, guns and video games, entwined at the birth of the latter, would never be separated. Video games started with a gun, from an engineer who knew all about them and who knew that, when your video game is simple and you need to make it enjoyable, the shortest path to fun is to let the player get ready, aim and fire.
(Images of this post are courtesy of Ralph Baer, who describes more about his work and the history of video games on his website.)