Inside the Collection

This week, in Game Masters, Part II…

Photograph of Game Masters exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum
Magnavox Odyssey installed in the Game Masters exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum

As promised, the newly acquired Magnavox Odyssey gaming console went on exhibit in the Game Masters exhibition mid-February. If you’re looking for it, it’s just before ‘Arcade Heroes’ in the alcove of Game Masters; just across from the double click showcase housing similarly exciting game consoles from the Powerhouse Museum Collection. The Magnavox Odyssey, however, is a little bit special, and here’s why: it is the first every gaming console designed specifically for use with televisions.

Along with the console itself, there is accompanying paraphernalia that comprises the original commercial offer that came with the Magnavox Odyssey. Two analogue controllers serve as input devices between user, console and television; plastic sheets with lively scenes are placed over the television screen to augment the user interface and stand in for graphics; a user’s manual instructs the owner how to navigate the 6 games included; and pieces reminiscent of board games (dice, cards, poker chips and a cardboard scorekeeper) reveal a sort of bridge between board games and digital TV games.

All the parts that make up the Magnavox Odyssey
All the parts that make up the Magnavox Odyssey. Image: Deborah Turnbull.

Accompanying this showcase are digital copies of the design notes pen[cil]ed by the man credited with inventing early video games: Ralph H. Baer. Baer was an electrical engineer at Sanders & Associates, also credited with the popular electronic memory game Simon, and claims the home TV gaming industry as his idea. These notes trace his design idea as he sat in a bus shelter, and detailing things like intention, classes of games, ideas for sound and display, and some preliminary electronic set up proposals. They are pretty convincing.

Digital copies of the design notes by : Ralph H. Baer.
Digital copies of the design notes by Ralph H. Baer.  Courtesy Ralph H. Baer Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute.

Along with being the original notes for early video games, these pages have served as evidence in various trials, as the stickers apparent on some of them indicate. The commercial sales of the Magnavox Odyssey weren’t startling, after all it was a new invention, a new product, a new idea he was selling. Where Sanders & Associates made their money on the Magnavox was through various licensing settlements they received from greats like Atari, who commercially marketed the well-known video game Pong, 3 years after Baer invented it.

This idea of Baer’s brought video games out of the arcade and into the home, for reasons of luxury, convenience and affordability.

The Game Masters exhibition has been extended until 25th May 2014

Written by Deborah Turnbull, assistant curator

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