Game Developers Conference Rescinds Atari Founder's Award Nom Amid Outcry (Update)

Nolan Bushnell applauds decision, apologizes for past behavior

Nolan Bushnell Credit: Adolph/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Nolan Bushnell will no longer receive a Pioneer Award during this year's Game Developers Conference, organizers announced on Wednesday citing "feedback from the community". Instead, this year's award will be used "to honor all of the pioneering and unheard voices of the past."

"The Game Developers Choice Advisory Committee, who vote on the Special Award winners for each show, have made a decision not to give out a Pioneer Award for this year's event, following additional feedback from the community. They believe their picks should reflect the values of today's games industry and will dedicate this year's award to honor all of the pioneering and unheard voices of the past," according to a statement sent out on the Game Developers Conference official Twitter account

In a statement posted to Twitter, Bushnell applauded the GDC for "ensuring that their institution reflects what is right, specifically with regard to how people should be treated in the workplace." He also apologized "without reservation" to anyone he offended or caused pain to. The full statement is below.

On Tuesday, the GDC announced Bushnell as the recipient of one of the Game Developer Choice Awards three major honors this year. But shortly after news of the award hit, a growing list of game developers and academics took to Twitter to protest Bushnell's nomination using the Twitter hashtag #notnolan. Among their concerns was the question of why GDC organizers UBM were "rewarding" a person with a history of past inappropriate behavior toward women. Some called the timing of the award "tone deaf" in the wake of the massive #MeToo movement.

Reached for comment Tuesday night, GDC officials told Glixel they were unaware of Bushnell's history and were re-examining his nomination. 

Bushnell often spoke to media and in public about his early days at Atari and the hot tub Atari board meetings, saying that they "seemed more like fraternity parties than business meetings." He also said that the team would codename projects after female employees they found sexy. In one interview, he told The Chronicle that "Some ladies feel comfortable around me, and some don't. I find the aura of power and money is very intimidating to an awful number of girls."

Brianna Wu, a game developer currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Massachusetts' 8th congressional district, told Glixel Tuesday night that she thinks Bushnell does deserve recognition – just not right now.

"Nolan Bushnell is clearly a deeply important person in video game history," she said. "He deserves to be honored for a lifetime achievement award without question. But in the year that the #MeToo movement is going on and we're having a reckoning about what women face in the workplace? It just seems really tone deaf by GDC."

According to the nomination, the Pioneer Award honors breakthrough business, tech and game design milestones. Bushnell, the founder of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese, and over 20 tech and entertainment enterprises across the span of his four decades in the gaming and tech industries, was being recognized as one of the fathers of video games. "Through the breakthrough success of industry-defining titles like Pong, Breakout and the subsequent 1977 release of the Atari 2600 home console, Nolan Bushnell helped guide Atari to becoming a dominating force in the video game world," according to the GDC's statement initially naming him as a nominee.

“I’m glad to see this decision," Wu told Glixel when reached Wednesday for comment following the news. "Mr. Bushnell is an important historical figure, but this is the wrong time to be honoring a man that helped create the hostile environment women in the tech industry face. GDC said they were unaware of his behavior, even though these stories are on his first page of Google results. Their lack of research has put all women in the game industry in an awkward position. It also takes away from Mr. Ismail and Mr. Schafer’s accomplishments. Women in the game industry have put together a list of women that have historically overlooked in our field. Personally, I’d like to see Megan Gaiser honored instead, who oversaw the creation of the Nancy Drew games - essentially creating the genre of blockbuster games for girls."