When the Game Developers Conference decided to drop its Pioneer Award for Nolan Bushnell, who some call the father of video games and the former CEO of Atari, I had some mixed emotions. The same goes for many in the game industry who offered reactions to the decision. I think that the interesting thing about the reactions isn’t necessarily where you stand, but the thought process and conversations that lead you to your conclusion on whether it was right to take away the honor.
It is the game industry’s reckoning with its own history, just as we come to grips with the removal of statues of Confederates such as General Robert E. Lee and the status of explorer Christopher Columbus and his role in how white peoples dominated Native Americans.
In explaining its reversal, the GDC said in a statement, “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 Awards 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 voices of the past.”
In other words, the GDC decided it is OK to choose pioneers based not on the behavior of the time, which in this case was the 1970s, but by today’s standards. One commenter on my Facebook page ridiculed this notion, saying, “If we are judging behavior in the ’70s by 2018 standards, we should probably just go ahead and erase the entire decade. Seriously. Obsolete!”
The GDC reversed itself after prominent industry women such as Brianna Wu, Elizabeth Sampat, and others voiced their opposition in in a Twitter campaign dubbed #NotNolan, as it was a slap in the face in a year with so many #MeToo efforts to expose sexual harassment. While Bushnell hasn’t been accused of abuse or harassment, he has publicly acknowledged the open sexuality of Atari’s culture back in the 1970s.
Bushnell himself gave an interview to Playboy in 2012 that partially explained the wild behavior in Atari’s history, where meetings were held in hot tubs with women in bikinis.
“It was post–flower revolution, women’s liberation, no AIDS yet, and lots of company romances,” Bushnell said. Atari also reportedly gave code names to its projects that were named after attractive female employees. “Darlene” was the codename for the home version of Pong, inspired by a woman Bushnell described as “stacked.”
Another game industry leader, who asked not to be identified, disagreed with the decision to take away the award. But he was critical of the GDC committee for being “tone-deaf” in the first place.
Kate Edwards, the former head of the International Game Developers Association and head of game culture consulting firm Geogrify, said in a message, “In short, the choice makes sense from a purely historical perspective and Nolan is unquestionably a pioneer in video games. But to make that selection right now — in the midst of #MeToo, Time’s Up, and a general awareness explosion around workplace harassment — was incredibly tone-deaf. Despite having to make a reverse decision, GDC has now made the right decision.”
Wu also said in an email, “I’m really pleased to see GDC doing the right thing here — albeit far too late. Nolan Bushnell deserves to be honored, but this is not the right time for it. It’s easy to draw a line between the culture he created at Atari and the structural sexism women in tech face today. I am very concerned that it got to this point. GDC says they were unaware of these stories, yet they are on the first page of his Google results. They are literally in freshman year textbooks about the game industry. Either they knew and didn’t care, or they didn’t do their homework. Neither reflects well on the conference. What I would like to see is for GDC to honor some of the women that have shaped the game industry, but have not been recognized. My personal vote is for Megan Gaiser, who helped oversee the creation of the Nancy Drew series — creating the genre of blockbuster games for girls. That would be very appropriate in the year of #metoo.”
Is Wu right? Did the problems we see in the industry today — the internet harassment of prominent women, or the fact that only 20 percent of the game industry workers are women — start with a sexist culture at Atari? It’s probably fair to say that Bushnell wouldn’t do such things today. But does he deserve fault for discouraging women from entering the game business from the very beginning.
Atari did have female game designers, such as Carol Shaw, whose was honored at this year’s Game Awards and worked on titles such as Polo and Video Checkers. But Atari also did some sexist things, like creating Gotcha!, a game where players chased each other around by holding two joysticks that were covered with silicone domes that looked like breasts.
On Twitter, many of the pro-Gamergate advocates responded with dismay about Bushnell losing the award.
I unironically love Brianna Wu for the amount of power she manages to exert on the game industry despite having no qualifications or worthwhile contributions to games whatsoever.
She just toppled Nolan Bushnell, the father of video games, using no more than a hashtag: #notnolan
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) January 31, 2018
But Bushnell himself responded without anger in a tweet.
A statement from me pic.twitter.com/OfsrgaCmgW
— Nolan K Bushnell (@NolanBushnell) January 31, 2018
That is an unselfish view of where the industry is and how it needs to progress. But it also seems to cover Bushnell for things that have not surfaced yet. Some people called him out for using the word “if” in the apology.
Some game industry people responded positive to Bushnell’s tweet.
— Tim Lapetino (@lapetino) January 31, 2018
When this all blows over and they come back and want to give you that award, please tell those cowards where to stick it. Respectfully, of course.
— Michael Glaser (@ShinyKeysStudio) January 31, 2018
One woman game industry veteran, who asked not to be identified, reacted with sadness to the decision to strip Bushnell of the award, saying the #MeToo movement had become a “witch hunt.” But of course, the use of that phrase has become controversial in itself, so that it no longer carries the same meaning or impact that it once did.
Jen MacLean, interim director at the International Game Developers Association, said in an email, “We can’t excuse behavior that repeatedly objectifies women, creates a hostile work environment, or discriminates against people by saying that it was typical of an era. We know better now, and we must do better, as individuals, as companies and organizations, and as an industry. I applaud the GDC team’s decision to rethink the Pioneer award this year, and hope that it furthers a conversation about how we create an inclusive game development community that values the input of every creator.”
As women enter the work force, including my own daughters, it is good to know that the behavior that Bushnell exhibited is no longer tolerated. At the same time, it is a painful moment in gaming because so many people recognize that Bushnell, with his flaws, is responsible for the industry that now employs so many people and generates $116 billion in revenues a year.