Proposed Bushnell Award Creates #MeToo Firestorm


Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell speaks at a 2011 GDC conference. (Photo uploaded to Flicker by user Jean-Frédéric.)

Citing a desire to “reflect the values of today’s game industry,” the Game Developers Conference (GDC) has rescinded an award meant for Atari’s co-founder Nolan Bushnell. Yesterday, GDC had announced that it would honor Bushnell with its Pioneer Award, prompting an online outcry over his alleged behavior towards women and Atari’s female employees. Nolan Bushnell issued a statement via Twitter this morning on the matter:

“I applaud the GDC for ensuring that their institution reflects what is right, specifically with regards to how people should be treated in the workplace. And if that means an award is the price I have to pay personally so the whole industry may be more aware and sensitive to these issues, I applaud that, too. If my personal actions or the actions of anyone who ever worked with me offended or caused pain to anyone at our companies, then I apologize without reservation.”

After the GDC’s plans to honor Bushnell were made public, the organization was inundated with #notnolan messages recirculating previously publicized examples of his interactions with women, including multiple Atari board meetings that were held in hot tubs. Allegedly, Bushnell and other Atari reps would invite female employees to join them, oftentimes only inviting those they deemed attractive.

Others online cited a 2012 Playboy article by journalist David Kushner that detailed the early days of Pong’s development: The game’s code name was “Darlene” after a female Atari employee with Bushnell quoted as saying she was, “stacked and had a tiny waist.”

The majority of the outcry focuses on Bushnell’s behavior during the height of Atari in the ’70s and ’80s, certainly a different time with different expectations and norms.

Elaine Shirley, an Atarian of that era, told RePlay: ”Those were the times. He [Nolan Bushnell] hit on women and they hit on him. If the #MeToo movement was active when Atari was alive, I think half our company would be charged. To my knowledge, no one ever did anything they did not want to do.

“In truth,” Shirley continued, “I think there were at least the same or more aggressive women at the company. I am not condoning any inappropriate violations related to the #MeToo movement, but I think the movement needs to relate to the era in which the ‘violation’ occurred. However, there are some lines that can never be crossed (especially with children or sexual assaults) no matter what era it was.”

She continued that there was a time when two salesmen in the industry complemented her at a trade show, saying she had the “best legs in the industry.”

“That would not be acceptable now, but it did not bother me,” she said. “They should give Nolan the award,” she concluded.

For now, that’s not going to happen. The GDC has stated that it was not aware of Bushnell’s behavior when it delivered the award nomination, and will give its annual Pioneer award to no one this year.

Many of the vocal critics online, although disapproving of Bushnell’s allegedly sexist actions, were also quick to recognize his contributions to the arcade and game industry. Brianna Wu, a game developer currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives, was one of the first calling for GDC to rescind the award. But she also stated in an interview with Glixel that he was clearly a deeply important part of the industry and deserved acknowledgement, but with the #MeToo movement recognizing the many struggles women face in the workplace, awarding Bushnell was “tone deaf,” and not the right move for today.

We’ll all have to wait to see how the movement, this discussion and time affect honoring Nolan Bushnell’s legacy, which as each and every coin machine operator knows or ought to know, was considerable. As author Steve Kent has famously written: “Nolan didn’t invent Pong. . .he invented the video game industry.”