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In 1972, Nolan Bushnell co-founded Atari with Ted Dabney. The company went on to launch seminal video games such as Pong and Breakout that defined a generation of gamers. Almost 43 years later, he’s still the spokesman and showman of video games.
Bushnell still has a lot of fun as the public voice of gaming. He has an educational games startup, BrainRush, and he’s an advisor to many game startups. He wrote the book, “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” where he talked about how he could have owned a third of Apple for $50,000. He’s also writing a new book, “The Unemployment Myth,” about how tech can both destroy and create jobs.
I interviewed Bushnell on stage at the opening of our GamesBeat Summit, our executive event last week at the Cavallo Point resort in Sausalito, Calif. Bushnell was the opening talk. Just before it, he asked me how irreverent he should be. “Just be yourself,” I told him. And he was. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and had us laughing from the start.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. You’ll see why he was the most popular speaker at our event.
GamesBeat: You’re working on something called BrainRush. Can you tell us about that? Why is this a bold idea?
Nolan Bushnell: I’ve always felt that education and games were linked in some very interesting ways. As you get older you start thinking — I have eight kids. I saw them learning through games and learning through school. Games were better. I thought it would be fun to work on some software and push it forward. We’re having modest success. It’s a tough market. Selling to government institutions — one should never do it. But it’s going to be fun.
GamesBeat: You say that games make us smarter.
GamesBeat: Here’s the second part of the question. How does that explain Gamergate, then?
GamesBeat: That’s a gotcha question.
Bushnell: The reality is that our brains are constantly creating new dendrites, new axons. Unfortunately, about half the population are dead from the neck up. I’ve found that one of the things that makes a successful company is only hiring alive people. If you continue with that, you can have a pretty good company.
It’s the whole idea that you want to surround yourself with people with enthusiasm and passion and curiosity. So much of what our educational constructs do is fight that. They actually train out creativity and enthusiasm. They pound in boring 45-minute lectures. You have to deal with growing up without having all the spark snuffed out of your life. Unfortunately that’s the reality of today’s school system.
GamesBeat: You wrote a book about finding the next Steve Jobs. You confessed very self-effacingly there that you had a chance to get a third of Apple for $50,000.
Bushnell: That’s true, and I regret not doing it.
GamesBeat: What was the point of writing that book?
Bushnell: If you look at Back to the Future, there’s a lot of different threads. The fact that I introduced Steve to Don Valentine, who introduced Mike Markkula to Jobs — I think Markkula was as important to the formation and early days of Apple as anyone. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that if I had made the investment, I would have been the CEO or president that Markkula was. The whole outcome may have been different.
At 21, Jobs was a very unfinished product. He didn’t smell well. There were a lot of things — my litmus test for a good CEO, it’s not Steve Jobs. But he grew into it. So who knew?
GamesBeat: You have a new book in the works as well. Tell us more about that one.
Bushnell: It’s called The Unemployment Myth. Technology in the next 20 years will destroy, in the United States alone, about 50 million jobs. It’s going to be the major war and political issue of the next 20 years.
Ned Ludd, 1779, was a weaver. He was a good weaver. He had a wife and three children. He went to work one day and he got fired. He realized he got fired, amongst a bunch of his buddies, because an automatic loom was installed. He decided, this cannot stand, so he got a bunch of pickaxes and hatchets and went in and destroyed the looms that night. That became the start of Luddism as an anti-technology movement.
Think about what the self-driving car is going to mean to the Teamsters. You can see, all of a sudden, that’s going to be a massive war. Those jobs are going to go away.
GamesBeat: Did you know that you just described the theme for the next Call of Duty game?
Bushnell: I did not. But it should be. Anyway, what the book is going to do is talk about all the jobs that are created because of technology and the life that we can live. It’s hopefully going to be aspirational and enthusiastic. I want you to all buy several copies, because they’re actually good for breakfast.
GamesBeat: A lot of people approach you with ideas. How do you filter them? That’s the kind of job that a lot of people in this room probably have to do as well.
Bushnell: I’m always looking for disruptive innovation, not evolutionary innovation. Most of the stuff I see is evolutionary — pedestrian, sophomoric. I tend to not like that. I like to get involved with things that are truly revolutionary, that look like they’re going to be important.
Games, more than almost any other thing — games have a slightly longer life, in most cases, than movies. The half-life of a typical game, a really good game, is six months to a year. Exceptions are World of Warcraft and a few things like that. So what you want to do is find threads that have sustainability.
The mobile space right now, to me, is very noisy. I’m always looking for the mass reset. There’s a reset coming around every four to five years. The next reset is clearly AR or VR. I have a little wager on each one. My gut actually says that AR is going to be more important. VR has some wonderful spaces in the public space world. AR is going to take over the game world.
GamesBeat: I believe your family helps you with scouting this out.
Bushnell: As I say, I have eight children. They have six companies. They’re so good at what they do. They’re very dismissive of me. Which is good. Then I come up with some new stuff, and the minute I show them something that’s cool, they immediately think it was their idea. It’s just not fair.
GamesBeat: You get out a lot, though. You go to a lot of meetups.
Bushnell: Yeah. Right now, a college degree is very imprecise. I find that hiring strictly for passion and enthusiasm almost trumps formal education. I’m looking for people who are self-taught. I’m a massively passionate person about Unity. It’s such a great tool for us in so many ways. Today you can find some of the best talent in the meetups, among the people who are spending nights and weekends on their passion for games while they’re flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s.