GDC Pulls Award After Outcry Over Atari Co-founder Nolan Bushnell

GDC Pulls Award After Outcry Over Atari Co-founder Nolan Bushnell

Nolan Bushnell in 2014 (Craig Barritt / Getty Images)

A day after saying it would give Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell its 2018 Pioneer Award, the organisers of the Game Developers Conference have pulled the award, saying they will now award it to no one. The quick change followed 18 hours of outcry about Bushnell’s alleged unsavoury behaviour toward female Atari employees. Those stories have circulated for decades and, as those they resurfaced yesterday, the gaming community began questioning whether Nolan’s legacy ought to be celebrated in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Bushnell co-founded Atari in 1972. By the ’80s, the company stood squarely at the center of American games development, having exploded into the consumer electronics market with Pong and the Atari 2600. Announcing Bushnell’s award, which he would have received in March, GDC explained, “Nolan Bushnell helped guide Atari to becoming a dominating force in the video game world.”

After GDC announced its awardees, Twitter users began re-circulating public information about Bushnell’s behaviour toward female employees at Atari. Bushnell conducted board meetings in hot tubs, which contemporary Atari designer Al Alcorn described in 2001 book The Ultimate History of Video Games: “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.” (In The Ultimate History of Video Games, Bushnell says that “It’s actually, I think, a very interesting documentable piece of society that most of us played around. I mean this is the late 1960s, early 1970s.”)

Bushnell’s also gave Pong the codename Darlene after a woman at the company whom he said in Playboy “was stacked and had the tiniest waist.” “Some ladies feel comfortable around me, and some don’t,” Bushnell told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.

“I find the aura of power and money is very intimidating to an awful number of girls.” In response to these widely-circulated stories, some Twitter users created the hashtag #notnolan.

Yesterday, a GDC rep told a reporter at Glixel that the people who vote on the Pioneer award were unaware of Bushnell’s history and were looking at his selection”more closely.” In their statement today, the GDC organisers said the award was being pulled to better reflect the “values of today’s game industry”:

The Game Developers Choice Awards Advisory Committee, who vote on the Special Award winners for each show, have made the 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 game industry and will dedicate this year’s award to honour the pioneering and unheard of voices of the past.

Carly Kocurek, a games professor at Illinois Tech who has written about early American game design, wrote on Twitter that “These aren’t obscure stories *at all.* In fact, many are in books frequently used as textbooks in college courses.” She added, “Bushnell is definitely an important figure in the history of video games, that isn’t debatable. What is debatable is if this is the right time to recognise this particular person.”

In a series of Tweets on Tuesday, game developer Brianna Wu described the selection of Bushnell as “wildly inappropriate,” citing the hot tub and codename details. “Bushnell is an important figure,” she added. “But this isn’t the year to honour him.”

“While other industries are distancing themselves from the abusive and sexist behaviours of powerful men, GDC is giving a pioneer award to one of them,” Tweeted Gillian Smith, a game design professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She called on GDC’s organisers to reverse their decision to give Bushnell the award.

Nolan Bushnell later a statement apologised “if my personal actions or the actions of anyone who ever worked with me offended or caused pain,” and said that he “applaud[s] the GDC for ensuring that their institution reflects what is right, specially with regards to how people should be treated in the workplace.”


      • It’s so weird that we live in a world where categorically bad stuff is deemed political differences/right wing.

      • Well it is a generalisation really. I’m just sick of social justice etc getting in the way of gaming. I don’t care about the protagonists skin colour or gender etc which seems to be a big thing these days I just want to play a good game and the focus seems to have shifted from that.

        Give me my muscle men and big boobed babarians, I’ll never look like Conan but I’m not gonna be upset about that because it’s hollywood

  • I really don’t know how to feel about this. On the one hand, I like the idea of anyone who has acted like a prick to be called out for it; on the other hand from what I’ve read he made some unprofessional comments and tried to convince an attractive female in his employ to join him in the hot tub.

    Inappropriate? Absolutely but it’s not a crime and it doesn’t take away from what he has achieved. The award isn’t recognising him for being a good bloke it’s for his accomplishments in gaming which as a professor said above is not debatable.

    • Just because something is not a crime in the eyes of the law doesn’t make it ok.
      For far too long, men have been enabled to do whatever they like towards women. It’s repugnant.
      It’s so ingrained in society that many men don’t even realise that what they are doing is wrong.
      Something that will take a very long time to be corrected. No one has all the answers.

      • Hi Arnna, not sure if you missed the bit where I said they should be called out. Not sure if you missed the bit where I said it was unprofessional and inappropriate AKA “not ok”.

        I think you’ve missed my point entirely.

      • so in a nutshell, any man that attempted to woo a woman is doing something wrong?
        You know, i’ve had a girl approach me while out and about and basically got a hand straight down my pants. no complaints.

        But to say its only men is crap.

        and flirting is not black and white. Thats the whole point of courtship.
        You have to push boundaries to see where you stand, same as life itself.
        It doesn’t come to you, it doesnt fall in your lap, you work at it.

        Now asking someone to join you in a hot tub is a far cry from grabbing breasts and getting your wang out or sending dick picks, but in this day and age, it seems it the same.

        • One time when I wasn’t a fat lard and had muscles I was felt up by these less than attractive girls that made me feel uncomfortable. I walked away and am having a laugh about it because I am an adult who doesn’t get affected by these things.

        • I could say the same thing but i feel i’m not aloud to as i’m a man, That’s the problem with the metoo witchhunts, It’s going beyond reason & that’s ALL i’m going to say.

          • I’ve also had my drink spiked as well, but it was with good drugs and a sober night turned into a fun night.. woo

            But yeah was pretty disconcerting considering I had to drivr and didnt realise

          • It’s interesting how much the public st large has jumped on this campaigne. There are so many companies in history and recently that have huge spots on their records with out the masses jumping on it. That being said though it is a lot easier to target an individual than a faceless company.

            I think it was Ida butrose that said a lot of what happened was considered normal at the time. That’s not to say it isn’t wrong now, but I wonder how people would feel if they did something considered normal now only to be vilified about it in 30 years time

            I’m not trying to excuse anyone and the recent happenings have no real ground to stand on with what I have mentioned, but some of the historical instances were accepted practise at the time so I feel it’s wrong to judge the past with modern standards.

        • @AngoraFish – care to explain what it was i said that was so displeasing to you?

          That woman can be as bad as men?
          Or that flirting must receive an ‘enthusiastic YES’ before one can ask a girl out?
          Or is asking someone to hot in a hot tub so sexually charged is should be considered mind rape?

          Seriously, try be a little constructive instead of running and hiding behind all the dislikes you’ve been giving me

          • Sure.

            You and your toxic fellow alt-right keyboard warriors jump straight into every single similar article with self-righteous false equivalence/false balance crap like this, the implication of which is that articles dealing with the sexual harassment of women are some kind of liberal media beat-up, victimise poor men (because ‘woman can be as bad’ although this isn’t getting coverage apparently), and represents some kind of social justice ‘virtue signalling’ (actually, what you are doing is classic virtue signalling, what the article is doing is reporting facts).

            You and your fellow alt-right keyboard warriors are self-consciously fighting an expressly ideological war in which every single similar article is a personal attack in need of instant, detailed and aggressive rebuttal.

            Actually, sexual harassment of women is a real issue, it is directed overwhelming by men against women, and your continual attempts to minimise and trivialise concerns about sexual harassment simply reinforce the severity of the problem that you are so very, very emotionally invested in denying.

            Women are overwhelmingly more likely to report being subject to sexual harassment, and indeed, to be raped and to be murdered by their male partners. These are all symptoms of the same cultural problem of male entitlement, one that you reinforce every single time you make a special effort to criticise and deny the problem in another article.

            And the reason I only thumb now instead of making a reasoned argument is I simply get a pile-on of down thumbs from the Kotaku alt-right keyboard warrior brigade and end up getting my account auto-moderated as a result.

            So there you have it.

          • hahaha righto, because even a minor disagreement with the left makes everyone a alt-right nazi.

            Instead of seeing it for what is worth, that is all you have going.
            Its hard to be constructive and have a conversation when the majority share the same opinion i put forth, yet you and only you are the one calling everyone else alt right woman hating racist bigots.

            To be honest, your opening line made the rest of your text moot.

            Im not even going to bother to read it.

          • That’s the sentiment i felt at your recreational outrage.

            You realise if you all put the amount of effort you all do into feeling like such victims, you might actually have a positive impact on the world?

            Being so bitter about things that happened so many years ago isn’t healthy.
            Especially when you have taken those things on yourself to feel angry about.
            You should have a look into the effects of depression – because it really sounds like you are sad and suffering.

            Maybe seeing a doctor will help?

            Try and smile throughout the day – you’ll feel the positive effects.

          • @mucktard my apologies, I thought you weren’t going to read my reply. Hell, I only left a thumb.

            Nonetheless, as I noted above, it’s pretty clear from your outrage that victims of harassment aren’t the only ones feeling bitter and angry. In fact, please continue channeling that anger into making your own positive impact by criticising each and every response to victims of sexual harassment in the Kotaku forums.

          • lol That’s quite the assumption you’ve managed to spew there. I’m an alt-right keyboard warrior because I simply question how I feel about a person acting inappropriately (not carrying out a crime but certainly inappropriate) having an award that has no bearing on his personality, stripped away from him.

            For starters, you know nothing about me. I’m actually considered pretty left by most people I know but I try not to label myself with any political view and I don’t stick with a certain position simply because it’s popular.

            Here’s the problem with the far left these days. They are mimicking everything I hated about the far right many years earlier. They don’t attempt to talk to people or debate them and educate them; they instead to choose to denigrate and humiliate them. They attempt to shut down any opposing views and insult people with those views.

            Growing up as a late teen I had some pretty conservative views which I’ve now changed. You know how I changed them? Intelligent, empathetic, caring people on the left debated me, educated me, spoke to me. It wasn’t their responsibility but they knew then (as I do now) that you don’t change someone’s mind by insulting them. Don’t get me wrong you’re never going to change everyone’s mind. Some people just like to be contrary for the sake of it and some people are just too far gone to change but I can guarantee you, you won’t change a single person’s mind acting the way you are.

            Do you know why fuck heads like Trump and the alt-right movement with dickheads like Milo & Shapiro are seeing a resurgence? It’s because of people like you. It seems to me you want people (men in particular in this instance) to share your point of view but you’re not going to get them onside by insulting them. So long as there are people like you out there this wave of alt-right will continue to hit and hit hard. I don’t want that but you’re the ones creating it. Think on that for a moment.

          • All I’m observing is the mass pile-on of criticism in these and other forums every time an article related to the harassment of women is posted.

            The weight of the posts is overwhelming critical of the article, lots of mutual back slapping occurs, and everyone goes away feeling as if they’ve fought the good fight against political correctness, Antifa, or whatever other evil left-wing bogymen du jour has been the target of Fox News this week.

            This behaviour is completely inseparable from the broader movement variously self-described as gamergate, or the alt-right, or whatever you want to call yourselves today. If you’re at a Collingwood game in Collingwood colours cheering only Collingwood goals, sure you may be going to a fancy dress party, but odds are a lot better that you’re a Collingwood supporter.

            It’s true that some posts are more diplomatically worded than others, but in the end the take-away from every single one is ‘nothing to see here, not news, not worth making a fuss about, move along, move along…’

            If you can’t see a problem with that then you are as much a part of the problem as any other denialist. Seriously, that’s not a throw away insult – if you don’t see the mass-pile on of forum posts criticising coverage of harassment every single time the issue comes up as problematic then you are the problem too.

            But sure, you keep up your protesting against the unfair criticism of people denying that sexual harassment is an issue, the poor defenceless dears self-evidently unable to defend themselves.

            As I noted above, all I left here was a thumb, it’s others who requested some kind of a debate.

          • No you called me a toxic alt-right keyboard warrior simply because I questioned how I felt about a certain topic. I didn’t dismiss it outright, although I am now.

            Seems to me you’re projecting your anger from unrelated posts (or responses to posts) onto unrelated people and it’s not warranted.

            Stop acting like a victim. For every comment that dismisses a post on sexual harassment I see one that stands up for it. Barely anyone here has dismissed the sexual harassment, they’ve simply question how a gaming pioneer award has anything to do with it.

          • Funny. Here is mucktard and I having a polite disagreement between ourselves when literally six days after we’ve finished, out of the blue, appears a wild @tonez. The next thing I notice is that my entire conversation with mucktard has suddenly become all about tonez. Go figure.

          • lol You were responding to my original comment, you realise that yeah?

            Also if you think referring to someone or anyone as “toxic fellow alt-right keyboard warriors” is a polite disagreement then you’re more deluded than you’ve already proven.

          • @tonez You appear to have a fairly fundamental misunderstanding about how comment nesting works. As above, not every sub-comment in a nest relates directly to the original post, nor to you specifically.

            Another challenge that you seem to have is identifying irony, however as this is the internet I think we can let that pass.

            For what it’s worth, your original comment was so wishy-washy and non-committal that it really wasn’t possible for me to have an opinion about it one way or another, hence why it generated neither a thumbs up nor down from me. Nonetheless, let me take this opportunity to thank you for sharing your lack of a position on this issue with the rest of us.

          • I know exactly how it works and you did in fact downvote me although I note you’ve removed it now.

            I don’t have a lack of position. My position was really quite simple so it’s sad that you somehow missed it in your furore, although this is the internet so I think we can let that pass.

            My position is I have no issue with people calling out dickheads for being dickheads but it shouldn’t affect past achievements that have nothing to do with that behaviour. The only time stripping someone of an award would be correct was if he did something illegal or the award he was winning was for not being a dickhead.

    • It makes more sense if you think of this strictly as an award for being a pioneer. He blazed a lot of trails but he also helped create an atmosphere that pushed women out of the industry. Women were actually in a pretty good position early on. They were encouraged to learn to type quickly, accurately and in code. A lot of his unprofessional behaviour is debateable but it’s hard to deny that his attitudes, along with the attitudes of so many others, made it impossible for women to be taken seriously in the industry back in it’s formative years.

      He’s definitely a pioneer but I don’t think it’s right to celebrate pioneers who have spot like this on their record.

  • I think it’s important to seperate the acts of an individual from their body of work.
    Do I love films by Woody Allen and Roman Polanski? Absolutely. They are geniuses in their field.
    Do I support their unsavoury/criminal behaviour in their personal lives? Certainly not.
    The #metoo movement is a great thing and sheds light on institutionalised abuse lead by the patriarchy. I support it. But it’s not black and white.

    • I guess for me, the key thing is to be able to view the work as something distinct from the person. Shitty people can make great art, and great people can make shitty art.

      What I found really objectionable was a thing I read recently that said that Woody Allen’s latest movie might not get released at all because of the allegations against him. Even if every single one of those allegations is true, the fact is that it takes a hell of a lot of people to make a movie. It may be “a Woody Allen film”, but there are dozens / hundreds of other people involved – actors, composers, musicians, hair, make-up, costumes, camera, sound etc etc etc. By burying that movie, they’re burying everybody’s work, not just Allen’s. That movie might turn out to be the big break that makes the career of some of those people. Not releasing the movie could have the effect of ruining somebody else’s career – somebody completely innocent – just to be seen to be making a stand against a guy who already has a huge body of work, millions of dollars, and is in the twilight of his career anyway.

      • This is such a level-headed approach to some of the reactionary oversteps of this important cultural shift. #MeToo is without a doubt a movement with good intentions. I think it risks damaging the positive progress of sexual freedoms developed since the ’60s and could prove a step back in some respects (take for example the Aziz Ansari hit piece from a girl who gets the privilege of remaining anonymous whilst she assassinate the character of a bad root), but that’s another conversation.

        Ultimately, the claims against a man or woman (substantiated, or unsubstantiated) should never lead to the destruction of a piece of work as necessarily collaborative as a film.

        Really appreciate your comment.

  • I don’t understand how an accusation became a sentence.
    What happened to justice, investigation and conviction?

    The unfortunate aspect that i can see to this sort of reaction on an accusation is that anyone who now has a gripe can pretty destroy you with a few words.

    Cue the down votes – but understand, no one is infallible – there are as many women as men that make false reports to destroy someone. To say that this is not the case means your bias is in full swing.

    • Not really an accusation. More just a report of how business went down at Atari. I did a little looking to see what he actually did. I can’t see anything by any actual victims, just mostly reports about Bushnell being a bit sexual in the 70s and maybe a bit dudebroish?

      Here’s what I found:

      * Nolan was having a business meeting in a hot tub. Asked the secretary, a lady, to bring him some papers. Then tried to convince her to get in the hot tub as well. This is the direct quote from the book in which it appears:

      “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.”

      Brianna Wu’s spin on this:
      “Atari held board meetings in a hottub. There, the board would invite the women employees they wanted to have sexual with up to the suite, and pressure them to strip naked with the men.”
      That’s pretty obviously a distortion of the quote above.

      Some context; other quotes describe how business culture at Atari was more like a frat party. Drinking, smoking weed, kinda informal.

      * “Atari engineers” codenamed projects after hot secretaries. From a Playboy article: ” “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.”

      * 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.

      * A quote from Nolan Bushell,
      “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.”

      None of this seems all that bad? It’s a far cry from the POTUS said about grabbing women.

      Nolan himself has commented and said, “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.”

  • Fuck him. Any man who has shit like this in their past or present deserve to be stripped of their dignity and priveledge. Those of us who grew up respecting others and pursued the opposite sex without harassment or manipulation did so seeing dick bags like this guy treat and talk of women like they are semen receptacles go about their days with no consequences.
    Now we’re seeing our convictions normalised and the world will be better for it.

      • You know what, friendo?
        Someone did touch me in my no-no spot(s) and it has followed me my entire life.
        I’m glad you were kept safe enough to find the humour in this shit and not have to be swimming in a climate where the implications have risen again.

        • Hey now (hey now now, sing this corrosion to me … ahem). Unless it was Nolan who touched your no-no spot(s), you’re exhibiting what’s called ‘transference’. For the record I’ve also had my no-no spot(s) touched by uninvited people (guys and girls) over the years. Back when I wasn’t a middle-aged puddle of lard, I’ve also had drinks spiked, been ‘coerced’ into sex I didn’t particularly want, and been ‘cat called’ and groped in public. All of this by girls.

          I won’t debate the whole current ‘movement’ here because I don’t wanna be moderated out of existence … but suffice to say Nolan Bushnell is a video game pioneer whatever way you look at it, and stuff that went on in the 60’s / 70’s should have no bearing on recognising that. It’s like refusing to recognise the massive historical influence Henry VIII had on English (and by extension all Western) culture and society, because he cut off the heads of a few of his wives.

          • But mate, you are part of the white male patriarchy, you don’t have rights like the rest of them.


          • I hate talking up about this, but fuck you guys. I was referring to being molested as a child. I understand where you went with that, and I’ve also had those experiences through younger adult years. It wasn’t the same. One made me damaged goods, the other was me navigating forms of attention as a younger man.
            There’s nothing I can say or do here that will drive my point home to make anyone understand the importance of these movements. And it’s horrible.
            Everything written on a forum like this looks like you’re trying to be a victim for funsies and attention, or purposefully being aggressive about a social issue.
            I can’t win. And yes, last week I got “triggered” by some of the articles. More so the comments and dismissive nature of the posts than the articles. And as I’m sure people saw, I was agitated about it. I was hurting, man.
            And I still even now feel like shit for even wanting to respond to it instead of just being all STFU about it.
            I don’t want people to know I got molested. And I don’t want to feel so strong about these things and know that is what the catalyst is. And I certainly dont want to be outwardly representing myself about it. Ever. Especially not here.
            I honestly don’t wanna post here with this username knowing people know that now. I just wish there was a way to get this shit out to people without feeling dirty about it.
            But there’s not.
            So I guess I’ll just grab that fedora mucktard wants to put me under and avoid this stuff for a while.
            I should not have engaged in this topic with Kotaku readers. I’m sorry, but that’s all I’ve got to say about this.

    • Are you a nice guy?
      Do you wear a fedora?

      Sounds like the pedestal you have provided is a little to high for you to reach

  • “values of today’s game industry”.

    An industry doesn’t have feelings, emotions, it doesn’t represent me, you or anyone, it’s simply a machine to facilitate us giving corporations money. Any action like this is namely just to save face and prevent future sale issues, they’d stab us in the face and demand we pay for it if we let them, don’t think otherwise for even a moment.

  • Good. You shouldn’t get away with shitty behavior, no matter how long ago. It’s sad all the right wing nutters are down voting people that agree. But hey, that’s what white people are like these days. If he was a Muslim and did the same, you’d all be cheering. But hey, /r/kotakuinaction is full of angry white virgins demanding women give them “the sex” because they are/r/niceguys lol.

    • Thats what white people are like?

      Wow, you go from sexual misconduct to racist bigotry in half a breath.
      This is why all you SJW’s will ultimately fail, your whole gripe with the world is based on outrage that you cant even agree on.

      Yep. white people are the devil, we rape, we kill, we eradicate, we enslave and we laugh.
      I know when i go to bed at night, i pray to my swastika and having my children abuse black dolls and spit at pictures of women.

      All in a days work

  • The only thing worse than being invited into the hot tub….. is not being invited into the hot tub. Give a thought to all the ugly ppl out there.

  • This is way too deep of a convo for a video game website, I play games to escape all the brew ha ha of life issues

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