Nolan Bushnell versus the #metoo movement

Nolan Bushnell 2013.jpg

I grew up during the genesis of the video game industry. I had an Atari 2600, an Atari 1200XL computer, an Atari 7800, and an Atari Lynx growing up (I also had a Nintendo received as a holiday gift one year, which I requested once it became obvious the 7800 was lacking in decent titles). So I identify quite clearly as a member of the “Atari Generation” (not to be confused with the “Pepsi Generation”, as I mainly drank Coca-Cola and iced tea).

Fast forward to a few moments ago, when I found out from this article published in The Verge about how Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari (and also Chuck E. Cheese, another 80s video gaming-related institution), was due to receive an award from the Game Developers Conference. Unfortunately, as you can see by the title of the article once you read it, this decision is not without controversy.

From the article:

In a 2011 interview, former Atari exec Ray Kassar recalls arriving on his first day in a suit, only to find Bushnell wearing a t-shirt that said ”I love to fuck.” In a Playboy profile from 2012, Bushnell wistfully recalls the “wild environment” of the ‘70s Atari era. “It was post–flower revolution, women’s liberation, no AIDS yet, and lots of company romances.” It also describes how the engineers at Atari code-named their projects after attractive female employees; “Darlene,” the code-name for the home version of Pong, was inspired by a woman who Bushnell described to Playboy as “stacked.”

And further down:

[Steven L. Kent’s book The Ultimate History of Video Games] also quotes Pong designer Al Alcon, who describes one such meeting. “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. Nolan’s attorney was miffed [because] we got his papers wet. He was not in the hot tub and he was not amused by any any of this. That was the sort of fun we had.”

My stance on this is not cut-and-dried one way or the other. I support the #metoo movement in principle. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse is unacceptable conduct in decent society. We as a society have made great strides in this over the past quarter century or so. The portions of Nolan’s conduct which qualify as inappropriate in retrospect should be condemned. I consider such conduct indefensible, at least by today’s standards, and I’m not going to try to defend it.

However, I feel that denying Nolan the award by judging his 1970s and early 1980s conduct by 2018 norms is completely unfair. That’s how some guys acted back then. Obviously, that conduct would never fly in a corporate environment in the present day. The 1970s were a different time with a different set of cultural norms. It would be like discrediting Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to science and the founding of the United States just because he once wrote an essay entitled “Fart Proudly” which some might find distasteful. (Yes, I’ll admit my inner 10-year old giggles a bit when imaging the guy pictured on our $100 bill letting one rip. But I digress…)

Further down in the article, game developer and US House of Representatives candidate Brianna Wu is quoted as saying “Bushnell is an important figure. But this isn’t the year to honor him.” While I feel Brianna has a point, I have to look at it from the other side. Will we be ready next year to honor Nolan’s pioneering work in video games? Is it the intent of the #metoo movement to disqualify Nolan from getting such an award one year at a time until he dies, and possibly even after? That’s certainly what I see happening; this is the top of a potentially steep and very slippery slope.

I also have a feeling Atari wasn’t the only company in the industry where such things happened. If we’re going to say Nolan doesn’t deserve the award because of this, that too is the top of a potentially steep and very slippery slope. And the end result of it would be that a lot of people who made the video game industry what it is today will miss out on a lot of awards they otherwise would have received. I’d like to think that’s not really what the #metoo movement is after.

So in conclusion, despite the opposition, I think GDC is doing the right thing by giving Nolan the award they have announced. However, I would not be opposed to the GDC condemning the instances of Nolan’s inappropriate conduct from four decades ago. I also do not feel Nolan’s rather belated apology for that conduct would devalue the award itself, nor the presentation of the award to him today in 2018. Times change, and we should not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater just because of that.