Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell Receives Backlash for GDC Award

Video Games The Movie

Update One:

Nolan Bushnell as responded on Twitter regarding the GDC’s decision to remove the Pioneer Award. You can view his full statement below.

Original Story:

The co-founder of Atari – Nolan Bushnell – has fallen under fire following the announcement that he will be honored during the Game Developer Choice Awards. Bushnell is set to receive the Pioneer Award for playing a “key role in the genesis of the video game industry as we know it today.” Alongside Bushnell, Double Fine founder Tim Schaffer will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail is set to obtain the Ambassador Award. However, as of this morning, the GDC has decided to cancel the Pioneer Award. You can read their brief statement below regarding their decision to remove the award.

For the unfamiliar, Nolan Bushnell is considered one of the fathers of the medium. He is best known for founding Atari alongside Ted Dabney and creating one of the most important video games of all time, Pong. Bushnell also crafted a restaurant/arcade chain previously known as Pizza Time Theater but has since been rebranded as Chuck E. Cheese. Alongside this, the GDC announcement cited that Bushnell worked on “over 20 tech and entertainment enterprises across the span of his four decades in the gaming and tech industries.”

After the announcement, various game developers and figureheads spoke out against Bushnell’s honoring. Much of the controversy stems from Bushnell’s days working for Atari, as he has been cited in various reports regarding inappropriate sexual behavior and comments. In Steven L. Kent’s book “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,” game designer Al Alcorn recalls how Bushnell would have board meetings in his hot tub.

We were in this tub [when she arrived], so he proceeded to try and get her in the tub during the board meeting. Nolan’s attorney was miffed [because] we got his papers wet. He was not in the hot tub and he was amused by any of this. That was the sort of fun we had.

In a profile on Atari by Playboy, Bushnell stated that “It was a wild environment. It was post–flower revolution, women’s liberation, no AIDS yet and lots of company romances.” The piece continued and explained that they would code-name projects after women in the company. Bushnell remarked that a female employee named Darlene “was stacked and had the tiniest waist.”

After the announcement, outcry began to pour out from social media with the #NotNolan hashtag springing up on Twitter. US House of Representatives candidate Brianna Wu was one of the first major voices challenging the GDC award. She took to Twitter and stated “GDC is choosing to honor Atari founder Nolan Bushnell this year, something I find wildly inappropriate with the  movement. Here are some facts about the sexual harassment Mr. Bushnell committed at Atari in the 80s.”

In an interview with Glixel, Wu elaborated on her thoughts regarding Bushnell’s award. “Nolan Bushnell is clearly a deeply important person in video game history. 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.”

Opaque Space’s game design lead Jennifer Scheurle also spoke out against Bushnell. “You’re asking where our MeToo moment is and why it hasn’t happened yet? This right here is why. Awards to widely known sexual predators. I’m disappointed and angry to say the least. And I’m not the only one.” While some notable journalists in the gaming and tech field have been accused of harassment, the gaming industry has been largely absent during the MeToo movement, unlike Hollywood.

Here are what others are saying on Twitter regarding this controversy:

At the time of writing this Nolan Bushnell has not made a statement on the award or the backlash surrounding it.

We will update this piece as more information comes forward.