Sex, Pong, And Pioneers: What Atari Was Really Like, According To Women Who Were There

Sex, Pong, And Pioneers: What Atari Was Really Like, According To Women Who Were There

Back in 1973, Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” was blaring from the PA in a California warehouse as two dozen women in flared jeans assembled Pong circuit boards. The smell of corned beef and marijuana wafted down the manufacturing line. Orders for Atari’s landmark table tennis video game were still pouring in on the crisp October day when Elaine Shirley first giddily entered the warehouse to join the all-woman crew of Pong cabinet-stuffers.

A woman in a muumuu had hired Shirley, 18 years old and fresh out of high school, on the spot after Shirley confirmed she could play the guitar. “She wanted to make sure I was good with my fingers,” Shirley, now 62, told me. The pay was $US2.25 ($3) an hour, sixty cents above minimum wage. By Thanksgiving she was making $US2.75 ($4). Shirley had grown up in poverty in Austin, Texas, and moved out to Silicon Valley when she heard through her cousin that a new company called Atari had lots of job openings.

I’m a joker. I’m a smoker. I’m a midnight toker. The job was good, and work moved quickly when rock n’ roll was pumping through the speakers. Even faster on days when the top brass needed 100 Pong boards ASAP.

“One girl had something called White Cross – I think they were caffeine pills,” Shirley said. (White Cross was the street name for pure ephedrine.) “Everyone on the line took it.” They were done by noon. You’re the cutest thing I ever did see. Really love your peaches, want to shake your tree. In 1973, Shirley met a man with ringlets of hair flowing down his back who worked in Atari’s model shop.

Later, they got married.

Elaine Shirley and Holly Lamontagne assembling circuit boards. Photo courtesy of The Atari Museum

Two years after she started, Shirley moved to the production office; after that, customer service. In 1986, she became that division’s director, sitting in on executive meetings. Shirley left Atari in 1999 with a salary of $US125,000 ($159,540).

“I know people who had psychological issues after Atari. It never prepared us for the real world,” Shirley said. “Nobody could have asked for a better experience.”

Late last month, the Game Developers Conference announced that it would give its annual Pioneer award to Atari’s co-founder Nolan Bushnell, who ran the company until its sale to Warner in 1976. Advisors likely assumed the award, given to those who “developed a breakthrough technology, game concept, or gameplay design at a crucial juncture video game history,” would be wholly uncontroversial – Bushnell founded Atari, Atari created Pong, Pong‘s success spawned the entire gaming industry.

Bushnell himself had never been a controversial award recipient before, like in 2009 when he received the coveted BAFTA Fellowship award. But GDC’s announcement was met with significantly more pushback.

Over Twitter, users began circulating clips from video game history books and articles, with stories about Atari’s wild culture. Holding board meetings in hot tubs, asking a secretary to get in with them.

Doling out “the best-looking secretaries” like prizes to the star employees. Code-naming the home version of Pong after a female employee whom Bushnell said in 2012 “was stacked and had the tiniest waist.”

Making a 1973 game called Gotcha, with joysticks replaced by a pair of pink silicone domes, meant to look and feel like breasts.

A #NotNolan hashtag started up. Women game designers asked GDC to reconsider giving the award to Bushnell in the wake of #MeToo and a heightened awareness of sexism in the workplace. They didn’t say that Atari’s co-founder deserved no recognition – just that holding him up for special honours in 2018 felt like it was sending the wrong message.

Eighteen hours after the award was announced, GDC revoked it, saying that its picks “should reflect the values of today’s game industry.” Bushnell followed up with statement in which he 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, especially with regards to how people should be treated in the workplace.”

Bushnell declined to answer specific questions for our story, only offering a short emailed statement. “I do not think exploring these kinds of issues through a finite, 40-year old prism offers a productive reflection of our company,” he wrote.

“Instead, I would refer you to the thoughts and comments of the scores of former employees.”

Over the last week, Kotaku interviewed 12 of Atari’s earliest female employees, in the hopes of hearing their stories — good or bad — about working at Atari in the ’70s and early ’80s. The culture they told us about was certainly, as Playboy described it, one of “sex, drugs, and video games,” but one in which all 12 employees say they freely participated, if they participated at all.

Many interviewees said it was the best job they ever had, adding that news of Bushnell’s rescinded award struck them as shocking or unfair.

Cynthia Villanueva working on a wirewrap board. Photo courtesy of the Atari Museum

“It’s drive-by assassination,” said Loni Reeder, who worked at Atari for two years and, later, co-founded a company with Bushnell. “I think there’s an element of telephone being played. Every day was not a wet t-shirt contest.” Reeder added, “There’s a collective anger amongst us toward the individuals who made this a big deal.”

Today, stories of hot tub parties, of romantic gestures from a company founder and of lusted-after secretaries would inspire flooded HR email inboxes. After decades of wisdom about systemic inequalities in the tech industry, Atari’s culture sounds like a bubbling-over beaker of fiery, explosive substances, an experiment that laid some groundwork but, also, took risks. Whether it deserves to be honoured today, at the height of the #MeToo movement, looks starkly different depending on where you’re standing.

Former Atari employees who spoke to me say their time there was deeply empowering; today’s women in games might argue that personal boundaries are what make the industry safer for them.

Atari was the fastest-growing company in U.S. history, a premonition of today’s startup giants cropping up in its Silicon Valley shadow.

Atari pioneered arcade games, yes, but it also established the culture of American entrepreneurial tech and games. Its co-founder, an engineer named Nolan Bushnell, was barking at a carnival arcade before he stumbled upon Spacewar!, a ship-dueling game developed by the geeks over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962.

Stanford’s copy ran on a computer half the size of a room, according to Atari Inc: Business Is Fun, a biography of the pioneering gaming company. Bushnell wondered whether he could make it little and put a coin slot on it. Bushnell and engineer Ted Dabney developed hardware customised specifically for a new game they called Computer Space, put it in a cabinet, and spun a company out of the idea.

“The romance of the game was told in the box artwork.”
– Evelyn Seto

Bushnell hired his kids’ 17-year-old babysitter, Cynthia Villanueva, as the company’s first employee in 1972. (In 1973, a company newsletter congratulated the “sexy, red-faced secretary” on her first anniversary.) Pong came along soon after, and Atari blossomed into a hundreds-strong operation. It was a wild, loose, provocative company that, according to former employees I interviewed, flew by the seat of its pants — until Warner purchased it in 1976 for $US28 ($36) million and installed its own corporate culture.

But until then, the parties were legendary. There was indeed an on-site hot tub. The detritus of practical jokes — balled up newspapers, toilet seat covers — littered Atari’s campus. It was the dawn of modern startup culture, except for one thing: Atari employed women, and a lot of them.

In 1973, Carol Kantor was a precocious marketer who, after a gig at Clorox, decided to apply to work at a crazy new company called Atari. The company, she found, had never seriously considered why some games’ cash boxes were overflowing after a debut weekend and why others’ were empty.

“They didn’t know market research from a hole in the ground,” Kantor told me. “Their market research was: If they put a game out and there are coins in the cash box, that’s good. If not, that’s bad. They never asked why.”

A potluck on the assembly line. Photo courtesy of the Atari Museum.

Traditionally trained and in her 20s, Kantor met with Atari’s hiring team and bet them that, if they hired her for six months, she’d be able to tell them why some games made it and some didn’t. Kantor got the job and started the game industry’s first-ever market research division. Kantor would drive out to arcades along the West Coast and intercept gamers, asking them pointed questions: What’d you like? What didn’t you like? Would you play it again? Would you recommend it to friends?

“Market research was not very sophisticated,” Kantor, now 68 and living in Cupertino, California, said with a laugh. She’d hand over bundles of responses over to Atari’s game creators, who would take users’ feedback into consideration. “It was almost surprising how they paid so much attention to so many details,” Kantor said of the arcadegoers she spoke with.

“They were detail-oriented back then, too. They just didn’t have as much detail to pick on.” Kantor soon assembled a team of four other women, who analysed player feedback on games like Missile Command, Centipede, and Dragster.

In 1976, a dark-haired French girl named Mireille Chevalier showed up at Atari’s offices to assume the role of credit manager. Bushnell had picked her up around Paris at an arcade, and at first, nobody at the company had a clue why he’d brought her back to America. “We’d make up stories about Mireille because she didn’t speak English,” said Carol Kantor. Soon, they learned the truth. “She grew up in the gambling business in France!” Kantor said. “Smarter than a whip.”

“I started operating games when I was 19, outside of Paris,” Chevalier said recently, in her thick French accent. “It was my company. I went for it. I got money.” When she met Bushnell in Paris, he was looking for someone to distribute Atari games in Europe. Chevalier told him she wanted to learn English. Bushnell invited her to work for him in America.

“I was supposed to be there six months to a year, but I got promoted rapidly,” Chevalier said. She found Atari to be quite different from the companies she was used to working with in France. “If you knew how to do the job, you were promoted. Coming from clients where you were the assistant of the director because you could never get that position – they were very chauvinistic – I went from assistant to credit manager at Atari.”

After three months, she was the division’s director. For the last 26 years, Chevalier has owned her own company, a warehouse for slot machines outside Las Vegas.

At Atari, the research division and the cabinet-stuffing line were almost exclusively the domain of women for periods of time in the ’70s and early ’80s. In other divisions, predictably the more technical ones, women were more sparsely scattered. Dona Bailey, co-creator of the hit 1981 game Centipede was one of Atari’s only female programmers.

In these divisions, a few women have indicated that they suffered some inappropriate, gender-based behaviour. “It was kind of rough sometimes,” Bailey said in a 2012 interview.

“It was a culture that I don’t think they were thinking, ‘There is one woman, we should modify our behaviour for her sake’ … I grew a thicker skin.” Reached for comment via email by Kotaku, Bailey said she is not currently participating in interviews about Atari since she is currently writing a screenplay about her time at the company.

Atari’s Gotcha. Photo courtesy of The Atari Museum.

Evelyn Seto, a graphic designer who inked Atari’s original logo and helped design the Atari 2600 and 5200 console’s box packaging, said she had “a couple negative experiences, but it was mostly innuendo,” before adding, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Wanda Hill was an electrical-mechanical drafter who, with pencil and paper, sketched out patterns for printed circuit boards for games like Asteroids, which would get handed off to the board manufacturers. When Hill and her engineering kin were preparing to move to the new mustard-yellow engineering building, her cubicle neighbour was tasked with drawing up plans for a volleyball court. Employees, many of whom were in their 20s, changed into short shorts and cropped tops to play.

“There was a certain amount of sexism as far as ogling,” she said. “But that went both ways.” Hill left in the early ‘80s. “If I could have advanced more there, I would have loved to have stayed,” she said.

“But that went both ways.” Hill left in the early ’80s. “If I could have advanced more there, I would have loved to have stayed,” she said.

In the books chronicling video game history, Atari is painted like something of a frat house, a post-Summer of Love den of pot and sex. These stories weren’t secret whispers — they were tales told proudly by Bushnell and other Atari higher-ups to the historians looking for the inside tales of the game business.

Strung together, they conjure a vision of a Mad Men-esque work environment, riddled with toxic power dynamics between men and women.

The truth, as it often is, is harder to nail down. Those who have written history books on Atari point out that many of the stories traded around Twitter in the wake of #NotNolan were distorted. While Bushnell did personally relate the story of “Darlene,” the sexy secretary for whom Home Pong was allegedly named, no one I spoke to was able to pin down a specific source for it or name anybody personally involved.

And while the boob-grabbing game Gotcha certainly existed, Twitter lore had Bushnell himself giving the design orders, which wasn’t true, according to Atari historian Martin Goldberg, who has interviewed hundreds of early Atari employees. Tall tales of a bleeding-edge money-maker staffed with hot secretaries contribute to Atari’s mythos, one that Bushnell has actively cultivated in interviews with journalists and historians.

Image courtesy of The Atari Museum.

Yes, Atari walked a thin tightrope between sexy and sexist, depending on who you ask about it. The 12 women I interviewed described Atari’s culture as a product of the free-love ’70s, but also, as an outgrowth of feminism’s second wave, which helped empower women to seek equal workplace opportunities.

“It was a different time,” nearly all of them said at some point during our conversation. It’s entirely possible that the women who choose to stay in touch, and publicly affiliated with Atari’s brand, are bonded over their positive experiences. It’s entirely possible unsavoury and potentially damaging behaviour occurred between men and women at Atari — but speaking up about 40-year-old incidents remains tricky for a variety of reasons.

Workplace romances were extremely common at Atari, but no one Kotaku was able to reach described any coercive behaviour from male employees. Several employees say that male colleagues, including Bushnell, asked them on dates to dinner, movies or concerts, and sometimes they said yes, and sometimes, no. Relationships that formed could last a day, a few weeks, months or, in Elaine Shirley’s case, several decades. Sometimes, there was no song-and-dance of candlelit dinners.

Shirley was once invited to a clothing-optional party, and declined.

“The infamous hot tub area, I helped to design! I did the colour schemes and everything for the whole building.”
– Loni Reeder

A very ’70s porno called A Cadillac Named Desire was apparently filmed at Atari’s headquarters,. According to Goldberg, who co-wrote the book Atari Inc.: Business Is Fun, there was another potential partner scoping out Bushnell’s Atari venture who decided to fund the adult movie after missing the boat on games. The rumour is that, in a few group scenes, some Atari employees participated.

And yes, Atari was indeed home to a hot tub that, on alternating days, allowed in women or men, and on Friday, was co-ed. The tub was partly designed, with an Atari logo embedded in the orange and blue tiles, by Atari employee Loni Reeder, who was the department coordinator for communications, security and facilities.

She told Kotaku that the hot tub was used to lure potentially great designing talent at the company because, at the time, contemporary tech companies in Silicon Valley didn’t have those kind of perks.

“You’re an engineer with no social life, so come work here,” Reeder said with a laugh. “There was a flirty aspect of Atari between everybody. In some aspects, the women were more aggressive than the men,” she said.

Women at Atari assembling circuit boards. Photo courtesy of The Atari Museum.

Carol Kantor said Bushnell would “make lewd comments, but always with a smile on his face, jokingly,” or tease her employee Colette Weil enough to make her face turn red.

“One time, [Nolan] approached us and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to my house to get in the hot tub, where clothing is optional,’” said Holly Lamontagne, who also worked on the Pong assembly line. “We were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so.’”

“I honestly think it was a joke,” said Elaine Shirley, who was also there. “It was at a company party, we laughed and said ‘no’ and continued on our walk. No big deal. With all my heart, I believe he was joking.”

Mireille Chevalier said she happily attended Atari’s hot tub parties and went on dates with colleagues. “Nolan was never, ever bothering me,” she said. “If a woman wanted to go out with Nolan, it was their business. It was never pressure. I went out with one of the directors for 10 years.”

“Where are you going to meet a man when you’re young?” Chevalier said. “We didn’t have the internet. We used to meet our boyfriends at work.”

Forty years’ time accounts for a behemoth cultural shift in what’s considered appropriate office behaviour. Today, asking out female colleagues is controversial. Inviting female colleagues to no-clothes parties would almost certainly incite a firm letter to HR. The question of whether Atari was a sexist place to work is only answerable by the people who worked there, but the question of whether we should be celebrating the man who created this culture in 2018 is up for debate.

The percentage of women working in computing occupations has declined since the mid-1980s, after a brief spike around 1991, stats from the National Center for Women & Information Technology report. The games industry today has a clear problem hiring and retaining female game developers, with only 15 per cent of game developers in 2016 identifying as women.

Sexual harassment in the tech and games industry have pushed many, many women out, according to anecdotes in books like Lean Out: The Struggle For Gender Equality in Tech and Start-up Culture.

Today, when there is a quantifiable breakdown across gender lines in who holds power at tech companies, it can be uncomfortable and potentially risky for women in games to turn down romantic advances from men they work with.

In other words: For every woman who stayed at Atari because they enjoyed the freewheeling atmosphere and could roll with the punches, how many women bounced off the game industry because they didn’t want to deal with the behaviour?

Elaine Shirley at the opening of Chuck E. Cheese, Bushnell’s next venture. Photo courtesy of The Atari Museum.

Carly Kocurek is a professor at the Illinois institute of Technology who literally wrote the book on the early culture around coin-operated games: Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. She even flew out to the New Mexico desert in 2014 when Microsoft-backed excavators fans dug up buried copies of Atari’s E.T. and other games from a landfill. But when the GDC announced Bushnell’s award, Kocurek baulked. An anecdote came to her mind about an early games company firing a woman for being pregnant, although she couldn’t remember where it happened. It could have happened anywhere, she thought, flipping through her notes, and to her, that was telling.

“The question isn’t whether sexual harassment was rampant at Atari,” Kocurek said, “but, are these incidents – the documented ones – reflective of what the industry wants to be now?” That’s what led Kocurek to join in on the #NotNolan hashtag last month.

Over the phone, Kocurek recalled a story about being a freshman at her college in Texas. Older students were passing down a long-held tradition of vulgar cheers to her class. Cock suck, mother fuck, eat a bag of shit / Cunt hair, douche bag, suck your mother’s tit / We are the best college, all the others suck / Edgar Odell Lovett, rah rah fuck!. At first, she found it exciting, in the spirit of college. Then, suddenly, there was a movement pushing back against it.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” Kocurek said. She thought the cheers were fun. Years later, when she heard the cheers again, something clicked. I get it, she thought. I know how this could be intimidating to someone who’s not me. Kocurek considered how the cheers could make her Southern Baptist friend or her Muslim friend feel unwelcome, like the college wasn’t a comfortable place for them to learn and flourish.

“What do you do when you know everyone wasn’t having a good time?”

“We just liked different games than they liked. That’s why Centipede did so good — it appealed to women while previous games did not.”
Elaine Shirley

Gillian Smith, a professor of game design at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, had a viral #NotNolan tweet that collected several of the aforementioned anecdotes about the company. “When people see award winners, they’re not seeing nuance or multiple perspectives,” she said. “They’re seeing someone who is well-recognised, worthy of recognition, and who we should aspire to be in the future.”

“We know sexism is not dead in our industry,” Smith said. “Independent of the experiences individual women had — whether they found it empowering and joyful, or whether they found it less so — we can’t deny that there’s sexist behaviour happening in the games industry today.” Smith believes that the real question Nolan Bushnell’s lost award asks is: “What do we value and want to celebrate today?”.

The free-spirited, no-rules, tanks-and-shorts, pot-and-pills era of Atari came to an abrupt end when Bushnell ceded control of Atari to what former employees call “the suits.” In 1976, to raise funds for the release of its first home gaming console, Bushnell sold the company to Warner Communications for $US28 ($36) million, a behemoth sum. Within two years, Bushnell was out. Warner installed as president Ray Kassar, an executive from the textiles industry. With its bullish spirit wrestled to the ground, Atari got corporate.

As historian Martin Goldberg tells it, Kassar called a meeting early on to discuss a new business Atari would soon move into: personal computers. Could they design these things to be colour-coordinated, he asked — you know, for women in the kitchen? How about adding in programs so women could file all their recipes? For a lot of women, that didn’t sit well. The vibes were harsh. Many started to leave for other tech companies, where their gender turned out to be more of an issue.

Kathleen Jardine began at Atari as a customer service clerk and left as a production planning supervisor in 1983. She eventually landed at a tech company called Zitel, where, she said, she encountered “vast amounts of bias.”

“I was told by my boss’s secretary that I would never advance because I was a woman,” Jardine said over email.

A Cadillac Named Desire

And 26 years after she first walked onto that Pong assembly line, Elaine Shirley took another job, one where her new boss often lost his temper and yelled. She tried to quit in her first meeting with him. “I told him, I came from a company where everyone was nice, not mean,” she said. About a quarter of the women I interviewed said that they can claim #MeToo, but that their time at Atari had nothing to do with it.

If it isn’t the women of Atari who paint a bad picture of Nolan Bushnell, it’s the culture he created there that, decades later, has mushroomed into something else. It’s a culture where bragging about “stacked” secretaries as late as 2012 garnishes Atari’s mythos instead of muddying it.

It’s a culture where Carol Kantor’s groundbreaking research isn’t evoked as often as a hot tub purchased to lure in new talent. It’s a culture that, today, celebrates the sexiness of Atari’s early women employees more loudly than their contributions. If it isn’t the women of Atari who paint a bad picture of Nolan Bushnell, it is his braggadocio attitude, his carnival-barker hype with a chauvinist tinge, that does.

Atari’s women carved out their own legacy, which, at regular reunions, they continue to celebrate today – and, when it comes to the question of celebrating Nolan Bushnell, giving these women the opportunity to be great is nowhere near as noteworthy as their accomplishments.

This story originally appeared in February 2018.

The Cheapest NBN 1000 Plans

Looking to bump up your internet connection and save a few bucks? Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Kotaku, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


6 responses to “Sex, Pong, And Pioneers: What Atari Was Really Like, According To Women Who Were There”