Who the heck is Ralf Baer?

One of the numerous misconceptions people have about techology is the power of Internet. Few realise store fronts and downloadable content (DLC) were available via home video consoles in the late 70s well before Tim Berner’s Lee tuned it into a static book by coming up with a few data-transfer protocols. Even by 2005, there was more access to the Internet via games consoles than computers or mobile phone. In fact many researchers at the time, described consoles as a place rather than a device. In terms of game-engineering, turning on static text and images in a window was a simple task in comparison to global networking of game play and user subscriptions.

Today, Internet users take store-fronts and e-commerce for granted. Everyone just assumes you can buy anything online and where it’s made from data, delivery is instant. One problem with educations quaint depictions of media literacy (sorry, I mean DIGITAL literacy) is that they are parochial and significantly under-estimates the sophistication and complexity of games when it comes to micro-transactions, DLC and motivation to spend real money on virtual goods.

In children, especially younger children the line between a ‘real toy’ and a ‘virtual toy’ is at best a dinner conversation for adults. In addition, I’m going to start using the term Home Entertainment Video Gaming Console (HEVGC) more, partly to honour the brilliance of Ralf H. Baer’s ‘Odessey’ and to remind myself of the deep legacy in the world of online entertainment that can be attributed – not to Tim Berners Lee, but to Baer and some madcap rivalry in the mid 70s.

In fact, it was because of Baer we now have Smart-TVs and home computers and access to the Internet on more than computers. Up until then, everyone assumed computers were for Universities and big industry. It was his brilliant idea to make standard TV sets display games (and therefore act as computer monitors). It was also his idea to patent it, and licence it to Magnavox (a one time giant of home electronics). It is thanks to Baer that society saw another use for TV-sets, and decades on have voted with their feet away from consuming television, as TV-set manufacturers and content producers did to film, radio and magazines. Now TV-sets were dialogic –  able to inform media and is continually informed by the previous media work. It is, if you like, the spawn-point of remediation itself – the reason Lord of the Rings influenced more than print-readers. Baer turned play into reading – and I think needs much more cultural credit that he ever gets.

The problem now is that games can become “skinner boxes”, which is the term used to describe games which plead for micropayments. As games engineers came up with better ways to get users to buy and download content, now they are just as adept at offering free or what look almost free games – then slug parents for items. Some games should not be tarred with the brush I’d slap Activision or Zanga with willingly. Some actually make make in-game micro-gets part of the overall culture of the games. Team Fortress for example occupies my 8 year old for hours when it comes to earning, trading and negotiating keys for unlock-able crates. It’s amazing how many cars he’ll wash for the equivalent of Mars Bar in an economic sense. It’s also a great way for me to talk to him about gaming – how they work, what to expect and how to avoid getting ripped off.

I’ve also come to realise that micro-payment management is a parenting skill that generally becomes critical after your kids has gone ape with the credit card that has attached itself to their parents mobile phone. The debate rages over the ethics, legality and morality of opt-out micropayment games … but be assured, because it works, because it’s worth billions (not millions) there will be newer and more frustrating traps for the unaware. Micro-transactions are not however unique to games – plenty of short-cuts (life hacks) appear to be on offer online; from getting tickets to a show earlier; getting the answers to a term paper or discounts of luxury goods. I don’t think Ralf Baer saw much of this when he called up every TV-set maker in America with his revolutionary idea about box that could play tennis (sort of) – and that really is my point – the dangerous experts out there, whom tell parents especially what the future will be – actually can’t see much past a year or so. Most of them live in the near past, hoping you’re behind them as they amaze audiences with their knowledge. Nope, parents needs bottom-line help in mediating, regulating and managing games. Games are part of electronic media (and pre-date most other forms) – yet most parents know relatively little about how they work.

Blip – thanks for your payment.

Advice from PC Gamer: Item stores that sell objects that affect your in-game performance are risky. If a game sells guns/cars that can’t be earned any other way then treat that as a big alarm bell. Even if those items can be earned through progress, it helps to favour games with good matchmaking services and large player bases, which can smooth out balance issues.