GDC Re-Examines Award for Atari Founder After Outcry Over Past Conduct

Some industry people aren't happy about Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's upcoming Pioneer Award.

Nolan Bushnell Credit: Adolph/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Plans to honor Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari, with a Pioneer Award at the Game Developers Conference are being reexamined by the nomination committee following concerns raised over Bushnell's alleged history of sexist behavior, a GDC spokesperson told Glixel.

GDC and the nominating committee were unaware of Bushnell's history and are looking at the decision "more closely," the GDC spokesperson said. Glixel reached out to Bushnell for comment and will update this story when he responds.

Some game developers and academics are protesting Bushnell's nomination using the Twitter hashtag #notnolan. They want to know why GDC organizers UBM are "rewarding" a person with a history of past inappropriate behavior and are calling the timing of the award "tone deaf" in the wake of the massive #MeToo movement.

"While other industries are distancing themselves from the abusive and sexist behaviors of powerful men, GDC is giving a pioneer award to one of them," Worcester Polytechnic Institute assistant professor Gillian Smith wrote on twitter. "I only hope @ubm reverses their decision to honor Nolan Bushnell, whose sexually harassing behavior is well documented."

Bushnell co-founded historic video game company Atari in the 1970s. He also created Pizza Time Theater, a restaurant/entertainment center that combined food with video games. You might know it under its current name – Chuck E. Cheese. His work with both companies "and over 20 tech and entertainment enterprises across the span of his four decades in the gaming and tech industries" is why GDC chose to nominate him for the Pioneer Award.

All three awards announced today - the Lifetime Achievement, Ambassador and Pioneer awards - are chosen through a combination of the ICAN (International Choice Awards Network) voters and the Game Developers Choice Awards Advisory Committee, which includes notable game industry leaders such as Doug Lombardi (Valve), Angie Smets (Guerrilla Games), Julien Merceron (Bandai Namco Games) and Kiki Wolfkill (343 Industries), according to the GDC.

Brianna Wu, a game developer currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Massachusetts' 8th congressional district, also weighed in on Bushnell's past on social media today. She spoke to Glixel over the phone and said she thinks he 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."

"There are so many women in our video game industry whose achievements have just gone unheralded," she added. "So, I think what they should do is take a closer look at some of the women that have really contributed to our industry and honor them instead this year."

"The Pioneer award at #gdc2018 should represent all the women who did not have the opportunity to have a seat at a table because they wouldn't take a seat at the hottub," tweets Kerchunk Games CEO Molly Proffitt.

Nolan Bushnell's hot tub Atari board meetings are well-documented. In The Ultimate History of Video Games: from Pong to Pokemon and beyond...the story behind the craze that touched our lives and changed the world, Bushnell himself says they "seemed more like fraternity parties than business meetings."

"I remember this board meeting … Nolan lived in Los Gatos in a very nice house on the hilltop with a hot tub out back," Atari game designer Al Alcorn shares in the book. "We had a board meeting in his tub. Nolan was saying how much money we were going to be worth, all these millions, and I thought to myself, 'I'll believe this when I see it.' Nolan needed some papers and documents so he called his office and said, 'Have Miss so and so bring them up.' We were in this tub [when she arrived], so he proceeded to try to get her in the tub during the board meeting."

An old profile in The San Francisco Chronicle mentions the hot tub as well. It describes how a 33-year-old Bushnell posed for photos with a "statuesque female friend" before giving the press a tour of his home, which apparently included a king-size waterbed and a library that included The Joy of Sex.

"Some ladies feel comfortable around me, and some don't," Bushnell told The Chronicle at the time. "I find the aura of power and money is very intimidating to an awful number of girls."

Bushnell's alleged sexist behavior wasn't confined to the hot tub. In Playboy article "Sex, Drugs & Video Games," David Kushner writes Atari engineers would often codename their projects after female employees. "Darlene," for example, was the codename for Pong, one of the earliest video games ever created. Darlene was also the name of a beloved employee who, according to Bushnell, "was stacked and had the tiniest waist."

Then there's Gotcha, an Atari arcade game released in 1973. According to a GamesBeat interview with Microsoft Games pioneer Ed Fries, Bushnell asked head designer George Faraco to cover the game's two joysticks with pink silicon domes so they resembled breasts.

"You put all the pieces together by reading his quotes about women and it really paints a very toxic picture," Wu said.

"Bushnell has without doubt done a lot of interesting work in the field with his work on Pong, but we can't forget that his methods at Atari, and how he treated female staff, have been part of the difficult culture for women in the games industry we face today," Jennifer Scheurle, game design lead at Melbourne-based Opaque Space, told Glixel via email.

"We need to understand that supporting this award for him potentially causes real pain among the women who had to endure him and it sends a difficult message to everybody who is currently enduring similar behavior in our industry," she added. "It tells women who have been exposed to similar situations that their perpetrators can not only get away with that, but [they] will also be recognized for their work, even if their behavior along the way was unacceptable."