A day after saying it would give Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell its 2018 Pioneer Award, the organizers 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 unsavory behavior 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 behavior 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 organizers 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 honor the pioneering and unheard of voices of the past.
Bushnell has not commented publicly on the controversy since it flared up yesterday. He has not yet responded to our request for comment.
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 recognize 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 honor him.”
“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,” Tweeted Gillian Smith, a game design professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She called on GDC’s organizers to reverse their decision to give Bushnell the award.
Update, 1:35 p.m. EST: Nolan Bushnell has issued a statement apologizing “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.”